'Alarming' surge in drink-driving

By Juliet Rowan

The number of people caught drink-driving has shown an "alarming" rise, prompting more calls from police for breath and blood alcohol limits to be lowered.

Figures show prosecutions for drink-driving rose more than 4000 to 31,266 between 2003 and last year.

Between 2005 and 2006, the number of drink-drivers caught increased in every district except Central and Tasman, where small drops were recorded. Bay of Plenty showed the sharpest increase, followed by Waitemata and Auckland.

Already this year, 12,244 people nationwide have been charged with drink-driving offences. National road policing manager Dave Cliff said the figures were alarming.

"These people are endangering us all and it is a situation that neither the police nor the public should tolerate."

He said the increase in prosecutions corresponded with a rise in the number of drink-drivers being caught in police campaigns conducted from 10pm to 2am on weekends.

"A number of drivers appear to be immune to the drink-drive message and do not believe that they will be apprehended."

The increase also corresponded with an increase in alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes.

Of the 156 people killed on the roads so far this year, 43 deaths - or 27.6 per cent - have been alcohol-related.

Last year, there were 1611 alcohol-related fatal or injury crashes, or about 30 such crashes a week.

Mr Cliff is calling on the Government to lower the breath and blood alcohol limits to the same levels as Australia, saying this could prevent 14 deaths and 260 injuries annually.

Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven and representatives of other political parties have said they support further discussion on the issue.

Mr Cliff said New Zealand's blood alcohol limit of 80mg per 100ml of blood was "extraordinarily high" compared with the 50mg limit in Australia and many European countries.

"At our present blood alcohol level, people are so drunk that they don't make a rational decision not to go on and drive." He said Australian research showed that the worst drink drivers recorded lower readings - that is, drank less - when the limits were lower, thereby reducing alcohol-related crashes.

Advertising against drink-driving had been effective in the past, but with some drivers now appearing immune, Mr Cliff said lowering the limits was "probably the single largest gain we're capable of making".

He said the social cost of drink driving was enormous, with alcohol-related crashes costing the country $748 million last year.

"Every time someone ends up in a hospital requiring acute care, someone else is being bumped off a waiting list.

"These people that are causing this level of carnage, it's having a direct effect on the health system, on ACC, and the rehabilitation costs that all of us are paying for."

In Bay of Plenty, where drink-driving prosecutions rose to 3350 last year, police have seen increasing numbers of young people drinking and driving.

The district's road policing manager, Inspector Kevin Taylor, said the figures were ludicrous and totally unacceptable. "Until there is a societal attitude shift that this is not acceptable and where people start taking responsibility for their friends and relatives and say, 'I'm not going to get in a car and drive with you while you're pissed' - not only that, 'I'm not going to let you drive while you're pissed' - then we're just going to keep catching them."

He said lowering the limit was crucial to an attitude change, in the same way that taxing cigarettes and banning smoking in public places had sent a clear message about smoking.

"If you lower the level, you're sending a message to people that drinking and driving is not acceptable."

Mr Taylor said he did not buy the argument that a lower limit would criminalise people who wanted to go out and enjoy a few drinks and drive.

"I'm sorry, I don't accept that driving a car while you've been drinking is doing nothing wrong," he said.

"Would you stand next to someone operating a two-tonne piece of machinery who had been drinking? No, but we're happy to share the roads with them."

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