Ban drink-drivers, poll says

By Susan Edmunds, Russell Blackstock

Three years ago, the Herald on Sunday launched its high-profile campaign to lower the drink-drive blood alcohol limit from 80mg to 50mg. This week, after nearly 10,000 readers pledged their support for the newspaper's campaign, the Government agreed to lower the limited. But our exclusive snap poll reveals many drivers think the Government's proposed penalty of a $200 fine and demerit points is laughable - it will take the loss of their driving licence to change many drinkers' behaviour.

Amanda Brunt was killed when she lost control of her vehicle on a bend in Ngaruawahia. Photo / Greg Bowker
Amanda Brunt was killed when she lost control of her vehicle on a bend in Ngaruawahia. Photo / Greg Bowker

Late on a Sunday spring afternoon, 32-year-old Amanda Brunt had everything to look forward to. After a few rough years, the attractive, energetic young woman had settled into life in Waikato. She'd finished her qualifications and was excited about how well her new business, a beauty therapy and healing clinic, was doing. She was finishing off the afternoon by having a few glasses of wine with a friend in Huntly before going home to Hamilton for dinner with her 15-year-old son, Kurt.

Just after 4pm, she texted Kurt, telling him she'd be with him in an hour. But she didn't arrive. She lost control of her BMW on a bend on Hakarimata Rd, Ngaruawahia, crossed the centre line, and crashed into another car, being driven by workmates Gavin Mason and Bevan Watkins.

For local fireman Matt Alphors, it was another weekend call-out in a long line of far too many.

"All of these fatal accidents are fairly similar," he says. "It's a sombre experience."

Brunt died at the scene. The two men in the other car were admitted to hospital, both seriously injured.

Brunt's father, Trevor, says the family is still struggling to come to terms with her death in May 2011.

But what makes the loss even more painful is that if the drink-drive limit had been changed when it was first suggested to the Government - and indeed when ministers acknowledged the limit was too high - Brunt might have heeded the messages to drink less before driving.

In October 2010 the Herald on Sunday launched its Two Drinks Max campaign. It was backed by police and Ministry of Transport officials. Even some ministers, including then Transport Minister Steven Joyce, argued for the drink-drive limit to be lowered - but they were over-ruled by the Cabinet.

Three years on, according to the Government's own research, 10 people have died in crashes where the driver had a blood alcohol of between 50 and 80mg.

One of those was Amanda Brunt. She had a blood alcohol level of 52mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood - below the legal limit of 80mg.

Brunt's death provides tragic evidence that the limit is too high.

Analysis of accidents on New Zealand roads shows that you are 16 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash if you are over the 80mg mark. Even at 50mg, you are impaired, but not to the same extent.

And in a previously unpublished report into Brunt's death, coroner Peter Ryan advised the Government to lower the drink-drive limit to 50mg to avoid more deaths like hers.

He ruled that her alcohol intake was a factor in the fatal crash, compromising her judgment (she sent or received 22 text messages while driving) and her ability to steer the car.

"It is likely she was affected to some extent by the alcohol she had consumed," Ryan said. "It may well have impaired her judgment with regard to using a cellphone while driving and may have affected her ability to control her motor vehicle."

This week, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee announced he would introduce legislation before Christmas to lower the drink-drive limit to 50mg. That will bring it into line with many other countries.

Respondents to a Herald on Sunday-Key Research snap poll this week endorse the decision to lower the limit, but many say the Government's proposed penalties are too light to persuade them to drink less before driving. Sixty-one per cent of men say they will still drink then drive under the new law - exactly the same proportion that say they drink and drive now.

The law change, it seems, is not enough. The survey shows it needs to be accompanied by a public education campaign and penalties - criminal convictions and, most importantly, disqualification from driving - that will deter people from driving after more than two drinks.

It's not enough to just change the number in a law from 80 to 50 - New Zealanders need to change a culture that tolerates a drinking level that appals overseas visitors.

Trevor Brunt says his daughter Amanda was used to having a drink and thought she could handle the effects.

If the limit had been lower, if police had caught her at a checkpoint, his daughter might be alive today.

"You'd have to have had a policeman to test her and say you're over the limit, stop driving," the grieving father says. "Maybe there aren't enough police on the roads."

What will it take to stop us drink-driving? It is not the worry that we might crash and hurt ourselves or others.

The Key Research poll reveals the most effective deterrent is the risk of being disqualified from driving. Fifty-four per cent of those who imbibe say the threat of losing their licence for testing over 50mg would persuade them to reduce the number of drinks they have before driving.

Other deterrents - demerit points, being publicly named and shamed, and the risk of job loss - scare people less. And only 25 per cent of those who drink say the threat of a $200 fine would persuade them to drink less before driving.

The primary purpose of the drink-drive law is to deter all of us from drink-driving. So if the Government's proposed penalties of a $200 fine and 50 demerit points don't persuade people to change their behaviour, they achieve little.

On the strength of this poll and other studies, in New Zealand and internationally, the Herald on Sunday will continue its Two Drinks Max campaign by making a submission to the Parliamentary select committee next year, arguing for consistent drink-drive penalties.

This position has the support of road safety experts and some politicians, who believe the proposed punishments for breaking the new laws are too lenient.

"We would like to see the Government demonstrate further that drink driving will not be tolerated by imposing penalties that are an effective deterrent," says the director of national road safety organisation Brake, Caroline Perry.

"The results of your poll also suggest tougher penalties around licences would be more of a deterrent than some other penalties."

New Zealand has one of the highest vehicle ownership rates in the world.

But with this comes a reckless, even complacent, culture, says racing driver Greg Murphy, an outspoken supporter of the Herald on Sunday's campaign.

The racing driver welcomes the lower limits but believes fines should be much higher and first offenders should have their licences automatically suspended.

"Many Kiwis see it as being a God-given right to have a licence and they should then be able to do what they like on the roads, irrespective of the dangers to others," he says.

Murphy also thinks the old driving test was too easy to pass, meaning a lot of people on the roads are not great drivers, even if they have not been drinking.

"Once people get a licence they think they don't need to learn any more. But our road safety record is terrible and we have to start taking responsibility for what we do when we get behind the wheel a lot more seriously.

"For drink-drivers to get a second chance before they lose their licence is unacceptable."

It is New Zealanders' passion for their cars, and the lack of public transport in some parts of the country, that make the loss of a driving licence an effective deterrent.

Herald on Sunday Spy columnist Andy Pickering was prosecuted for drink-driving in December last year when he was pulled over at police checkpoint 500m from his home in Parnell, Auckland.

"I was marginally over the limit. In the eyes of the law, over is over, so I received the mandatory six months loss of licence."

Pickering thinks disqualification from driving is very effective.

"Losing your licence is a very strong deterrent and it will be more so with the new lower limits," he says. "Spending six months in Auckland without being able to drive a car is challenging to say the least."

The Government's decision to lower the drink-driving limit was influenced by 22 months of data collected by police at road crashes.

It shows 53 drivers involved in fatal and serious injury crashes had blood alcohol readings of between 51 and 80mg per 100ml of blood.

This week, the Herald on Sunday saw previously unpublished research by Waikato University road safety expert Dr Samuel Charlton, part of the work commissioned by the Ministry of Transport to inform this week's Cabinet decision.

The paper, entitled Drunker than you think, shows moderate amounts of alcohol can impair driving ability over an extended period.

An experiment involving 61 people using a driving simulator showed participants with a blood alcohol count of 80mg were more likely than sober drivers to cross the centre line or go off the edge of the road. They reacted slowly to other vehicles at intersections and drove faster.

People who tested over 80mg were also unable to accurately judge how much alcohol they had consumed or their level of intoxication, compared to when they recorded a level of 50mg and under - they didn't realise they were too drunk to drive.

- Herald on Sunday

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