Drink-drivers keep killing while we wait

By Susan Edmunds

Drink-driver Wally Watson went to prison for this crash that killed his friend Gavin Cuthbert. Photo / NZ Herald
Drink-driver Wally Watson went to prison for this crash that killed his friend Gavin Cuthbert. Photo / NZ Herald

New Zealanders are dying and being seriously injured in crashes that could have been avoided with a lower drink-drive limit.

The Government has refused to move on a lower blood alcohol limit until it has proof it would make a difference - but the whole time that evidence has been available from the Ministry of Transport and Cabinet refuses to consider it.

Statistics obtained by the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act show in the last four years 20 people have been killed in road accidents involving drinking drivers just below the legal limit.

Another 281 people have been seriously injured in crashes where a drink-driver was also tested and found to be just under the limit.

Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams said the statistics clearly showed 20 people would still be alive if the Government had responded to calls for a lower alcohol limit.

The Herald on Sunday has been campaigning for the limit to be lowered to 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, the equivalent of about two drinks.

But the Government won't make a call until 2014 after two years of research is complete. No one is saying why it won't consider the 2008-11 statistics - and the situation is likely to be even worse because not every driver involved in crashes has been tested.

Mike James, Ministry of Transport general manager road and rail, said drivers who were killed were usually blood tested for alcohol as part of post-mortem examination.

But injured drivers, and those who had injured someone else, were not always tested. Before 2011, the result was not always recorded if the driver was below the limit.

Research shows an average-sized adult male can consume about six alcoholic drinks in 90 minutes before hitting the current limit. A woman can consume four.

One Christchurch man convicted of injuring a friend while influenced by alcohol, but not charged with drink-driving, is an example of the attitude road campaigners believe needs changing.

Beau Stade had been drinking bourbon and coke before he ran over friend Daniel Brunsden, who was lying in a driveway, then reversed back over him. He was charged with causing injury by carelessly driving while under the influence of drink, but he was not over the drink-drive limit. Stade was handed seven months' home detention and ordered to pay $15,000.

Despite this, he did not think the drink-drive limit should be lowered. He said the seven months' home detention was not too difficult.

"(It) went real fast." He said the group was all still friends. "Yeah, hard, we're good mates."

Barrister Stuart Blake, who specialises in helping those charged with drink-driving, said drivers were often lucky to be on the right side of the law.

"By virtue of either time (since their last drink) or luck, they've avoided a far more serious charge and/or penalty."

He said the law should be changed so all drivers caught driving with a limit up to 40mg were fined. Those with higher readings should face a conviction.

Williams can't understand the Government's reluctance to act. "They asked for scientific evidence, we provided it.

"They asked for evidence of public support, we provided it. Faced with irrefutable evidence, it just doesn't make sense."

Do you know anyone killed or seriously injured in a crash in which the driver was in the 50mg-80mg range? Contact editor@hos.co.nz.


They're asleep at the wheel

Even with the new information, the Government is not interested in taking action or talking about it. The Herald on Sunday tried to question Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee but was told he had handed road safety issues to his associate minister, Simon Bridges, who refused to respond directly.

A spokeswoman said: "The minister has no comment on the raw data you obtained from the ministry."

She said the Government would decide after two years of New Zealand research on the risk from drivers with a blood alcohol limit between 50mg and 80mg. Data would go to the Government in 2014.

We don't think that is good enough. Read our Herald on Sunday editorial.

- Herald on Sunday

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