Sunday Insight: Taking it to the limit

When Felipe Gacitua made the fatal decision to overtake at speed, he had drunk only a couple of beers and was under the drink-drive limit. Susan Edmunds reveals an overwhelming weight of evidence that it is time to lower the drink-drive limit.

Fay Roberts was killed last year when her boyfriend overtook another car at speed. Photo / Supplied
Fay Roberts was killed last year when her boyfriend overtook another car at speed. Photo / Supplied

When Linda Brown slides behind the steering wheel of her car these days, she's on edge. "I look at all the oncoming cars and think 'are they going to do something stupid'?"

She can't shake the memory of a red Toyota Corolla appearing out of nowhere, on the wrong side of the road in front of her. The horrible crash - almost head-on - left one young woman dead.

It all happened on a winter night last year. Linda Brown and her husband were heading back to their East Tamaki Heights home when their car collided with one driven by 24-year-old Felipe Gacitua.

The couple didn't know at the time, but other motorists had been scared by the Toyota and a light grey Hyundai, racing each other through the back streets of East Auckland. The drivers of the two cars were egging each other on, they say.

Brown says she had a lucky escape - her husband was unscathed and Brown suffered serious bruising. "We were so incredibly fortunate."

Chilean-New Zealander Felipe and his girlfriend Fay Roberts, a vivacious 25-year-old hairstylist, were in the Corolla. Felipe's younger sister Chely was in the other Hyundai. That car was driven by her boyfriend, Rowan Matthews.

Chely said Felipe and Rowan had been "teasing each other ... revving at the lights".

First, her brother had passed a truck or 4WD, and then Rowan has followed suit, at speed. She told her boyfriend he hadn't needed to do that. "I just felt it was [unnecessary] and because Felipe had passed it and then we passed it, I mean, so we could stay close to Felipe obviously."

As they approached a corner, Chely told her boyfriend to slow down. He did so, and Felipe pulled away ahead of them. Seconds later, Roberts was dead.

This week, Gacitua was sentenced to three years in prison and disqualified from driving for four years for the death of his girlfriend. Matthews had already been convicted of reckless driving, fined $750 and disqualified from driving for six months.

Although Gacitua was below the legal breath alcohol limit for motorists, the judge ruled that alcohol was an aggravating factor in the crash.

"When it happened we were told alcohol was not a factor," Brown says. "I took that to mean there was none in his system."

It turns out he'd had a couple of beers while watching a David Tua boxing match on TV at his sister's home in Botany Downs. But he was below the legal limit to drive - 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

Research shows an average-sized adult male can consume about six alcoholic drinks in 90 minutes before hitting the 80mg limit. A woman can consume four. Some drivers will hit the limit after fewer drinks, some can drink more - but all of them are physically impaired when they get behind the wheel.

The death of Fay Roberts has added momentum to calls for the Government to lower the drink-drive limit to 50mg - a step the Government has been loath to take despite the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign.

Retiring police Superintendent John Kelly told the paper last month that he thinks between 16 and 30 lives a year would have been saved by lowering the limit. In fact, newer Ministry of Transport figures obtained under the Official Information Act project that up to 33 lives would be saved each year.

Brown says she can't help but think alcohol played some part in the crash. "People said he was treating the road like it was his own personal racetrack."

The Herald on Sunday has been campaigning for two years to get the legal alcohol limit for driving lowered. Official data doesn't exist on how many more lives have been lost in those two years, how many more motorists and pedestrians maimed by drivers who were under the 80mg drink-drive limit but nonetheless impaired by alcohol.

However, new documents, published for the first time today, reveal there were 31 deaths in which a driver was known to have a blood alcohol level between 50 and 80mg in the two years from 2006 to 2008. There were another 105 deaths in crashes in which the reporting officer suspected alcohol was a factor but where the driver's alcohol level was not recorded.

That's up to 135 lives that might have been saved if a driver had stopped after one or two drinks. Countries such as Australia have limits of 50mg. Others have dropped it to 20mg.

A Ministry of Transport aide memoire dated July 26, 2010 lays out the facts. Lowering the limit, it says, is likely to be effective because it forces people to make responsible decisions while they are still able to. "Once blood alcohol content approaches 0.08 [80mg], people are less able to do this."

Lowering the limit would have a benefit-cost ratio of 173:1.

That means it will save between 15 and 33 lives every year, prevent between 320 and 686 injuries, and will save New Zealand between $111 million and $238m a year.

In private, former transport minister Steven Joyce warned Cabinet in 2010 that the 80mg drink-drive limit "allows people to become significantly impaired and still legally drive".

Lowering that limit would save up to 33 lives a year, he advised.

In public, ministers John Key, Steven Joyce and Simon Bridges have insisted they need more information. Some of that research is due back from Waikato University later this year, but no decision is expected until next year at the earliest.

Fay Roberts' father Harvey still struggles to talk about the crash that killed his daughter. His wife, Karen, can't bear to look at Facebook photos of Gacitua's sister with her new baby. Fay's 16-year-old sister is falling behind at school, and her brother Sam, 24, is withdrawn.

Harvey Roberts says the details of the crash still horrify him. Driving past the crash scene the next day and seeing sawdust soaking up his daughter's blood. Being asked to pick up a plastic bag of her belongings from police and finding his hands coated with more of it.

His wife can't forget the last time she saw Fay, cold and dead.

Gacitua's family has expressed remorse but they can't know the hell the Roberts family is going through. Roberts still cries on his way to work and there's that horrible moment every morning when he remembers Fay won't walk through the door again.

Gacitua was a member of the family, Roberts says. One Christmas, he spent the day with the Roberts because his family was out of the country. Roberts says he just doesn't care about "him". It's still too hard to say his name.

Gacitua's letter to the family said all the right things. It was a page and a half of regrets, grief for the love of his life and sadness about the loss of his relationships with the Roberts family. But it came too late.

Since Fay's death, Roberts has found out that she had complained about Gacitua's driving to her workmates.

He's now doing all he can to stop other families having to deal with what he is going through. And he'll support anything that will improve road safety - including lowering the drink-drive limit.

"It's a young man's thing. There's no frontal lobe until they're about 25. They have no grasp on reality. Every time they do it and get away with it, it reinforces the behaviour."

"If they've been at a party, they're probably going to be riskier on the roads. They're in high spirits, joking, laughing, their heart rate is up and then you sit them in a car."

If the limit had been lower, would Fay Roberts have been saved?

The Government still says it needs to do more work on accidents where the driver responsible recorded a level of between 50mg and 80mg before it makes any decisions. It doesn't want police resources tied up chasing people who don't cause crashes.

But the Herald on Sunday used the Official Information Act to request the ministers' advice. The Ministry replied that it would charge nearly $10,000 for the information so the Herald on Sunday handed the request to Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway. Nearly two years later, we have the documents.

Lees-Galloway says they show the Government has more than enough evidence to lower the drink-drive limit. After lowering the limit from 80mg to 50mg, New South Wales achieved an 8 per cent reduction in fatal crashes, Queensland achieved an 18 per cent reduction, and Haute-Savoie in France achieved more than a 30 per cent reduction.

International experience shows that an adult limit of 50mg would reduce the number of drivers on the road with very high levels of intoxication - because it requires people to keep tabs on their drinking much earlier.

Lees-Galloway says: "They've obviously decided it wasn't politically advantageous to go ahead with dropping the rate."

At the end of 2010, Waikato road policing manager Leo Tooman said drivers did not need to be over the legal limit to kill someone. "If you're going to drink, don't drive. If you're going to drive, don't drink."

But Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges says the evidence so far is not enough.

"Before making changes to the drink-drive limit, the Government wants to ensure that the specific impact on the road toll of drivers with blood alcohol limit of between 0.05 and 0.08 grams is known."

Research shows by lowering the limit to 50mg, you force people to make decisions at a time when they still have sufficient judgment to make that decision. Heading up to 80mg, the research shows, decision-making abilities go out the window.

It's not so much about catching people driving over 50mg but stopping them drinking to the point where they get to clock 100mg and above.

Rebecca Williams, of Alcohol Healthwatch, says many studies show that impairment starts much earlier in the drinking process than anyone used to think. "[80mg] is not a safe state to be in to be driving."

So why has the Government been so slow to act? One of Parliament's most ubiquitous lobbyists is Bruce Robertson, chief executive of Hospitality NZ, representing 2400 bars, hotels, restaurants, cafes and liquor stores. He told Steven Joyce that a drop in the drink-drive limit would put an end to "responsible social drinking".

This week, he was sticking to his guns. Most New Zealanders work on the premise they can have two drinks in the first hour and one every hour thereafter, he argues, which is generally within the legal limit.

Asked whether his stance is commercially-driven, he acknowledges it is. "These are our legitimate customers behaving responsibly and legally," he says. "They have as much right to enjoy themselves as the industry does to have them as good customers."

It would be a waste of police resources to target them. "There'd be a whole level of enforcement to comply with the shift from 0.08 to 0.05 but the resource should be targeting really high-level drink-drivers."

That may be the conveniently-held view of the nation's bar managers and hoteliers - but there is strong public support for moves to lower the level.

In August, a NZ Transport Agency survey conducted in the wake of the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign showed nine out of 10 Kiwis would not consider drinking after more than two drinks.

What is alarming is that the remaining one in 10 New Zealanders would consider drinking after three, four or even more drinks.

At the World Conference on Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion in Wellington this week, Professor Jennie Connor, Otago University's head of Preventive and Social Medicine, said the 80mg limit was costing lives.

She was backed up by fellow speakers Bronwen Connor and Gillian Archer, who run a programme for recidivist drink-drivers in Northland, and have a 94 per cent success rate. Archer knows of three deaths in 18 months where the driver responsible had a reading between 50 and 80mg.

The programme looks at decision-making and impairment. She strongly backs a reduction. "People become recidivist because they're thinking about what is a safe limit. But when they're at that limit, they can't tell."

The fallout from Gacitua's crash hasn't been limited to Fay Roberts' family. Felipe's own family says it's been horrific to watch him struggle through the past year.

Rowan Matthews, convicted of recklessly racing against him that night, took to a Jason Mraz fan site to ask the singer to dedicate the song Lucky to Gacitua's sister, his fiancee Chely.

"This has been an insane year for me," he wrote, ahead of the singer's concert at the Civic Theatre in Auckland. "Both my gf and I were at the scene when Fay Roberts passed. It has been the biggest life changer."

Fay Roberts' father dismisses that sentiment. "I'm sure it's distressing but I'd be thankful that he's still alive."

Harvey Roberts will speak to schools to try to get teenagers to think before they get in a car.

On the phone to his parents in the UK, Harvey Roberts can hear his father, Fay's grandfather, crying. And he says the worst thing is, there's nothing unusual about their story.

"There's people like us every bloody week. You put on a bravado appearance, go to work, come home and fall apart."

- Herald on Sunday

- Herald on Sunday

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