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Herald on Sunday editorial: Our Govt asleep at the wheel

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New figures released by the Ministry of Transport confirm that the Government must act now to lower the blood-alcohol limit. Photo / Jason Dorday
New figures released by the Ministry of Transport confirm that the Government must act now to lower the blood-alcohol limit. Photo / Jason Dorday

When the Government decided not to lower the blood-alcohol level for drivers from 80mg per 100ml of blood to 50mg, it cited the need for New Zealand-specific research.

How this was ever going to differ from copious overseas research was never explained. New Zealanders were expected to accept that they might somehow react differently to alcohol than other people. Duely, this has been confirmed to be a nonsensical proposition. New figures released by the Ministry of Transport are effectively that New Zealand research and confirm beyond doubt that the Government must act now to lower the blood-alcohol limit.

The data, released under the Official Information Act, reveals at least 20 people have been killed over the past four years in road accidents in which the driver had an alcohol reading of between 50mg and 80mg. During that 2008-2011 period, the same reading was recorded in another 281 serious injury crashes. Such unequivocal information renders redundant the Government's research, which involves the ministry collecting two years' worth of crash data to determine the number of accidents where the driver had been drinking but was under the limit.

This will not be completed until next December.

The figures released to the Herald on Sunday will come as absolutely no surprise to health experts, who have given virtually unanimous backing for a 50mg limit. They have paid heed to the overseas research, which shows this is the point at which most people's brains start to go fuzzy. Such information has meant every state of Australia has had a 50mg limit since the 1980s. It has also meant this country is one of the few in the OECD to cling to a higher and palpably more dangerous limit.

The figures will also be no surprise at the Ministry of Transport. At the time the Government was decreeing that it must have New Zealand research, its extrapolation of international studies led it to estimate that a 50mg limit would save between 15 and 33 lives, prevent up to 686 injuries, and save between $111 million and $238 million every year. The crash figures released to this newspaper suggest a somewhat lower toll. But they likely do not include every case where a driver had been drinking but was under the current legal limit. In any event, the death and serious injury toll is alarming enough to underline the very real need for change.

The Government's reluctance to act may have owed something to concern that a lowering of the limit would be very unpopular. It should not worry on that score. A clear majority of people, influenced by the advice of experts and their own concerns about drink-driving, now back a 50mg limit. Their support has been reinforced by an understanding that this does not represent a strict crackdown. Australian guidelines suggest that at this level the limit for men is two standard drinks in the first hour and one per hour thereafter. For women, the limit is one standard drink an hour.

That was the basis of a "two drinks max" pledge made by 10,000 New Zealanders as part of the Herald on Sunday's campaign for a 50mg limit. Now, New Zealand research proving the need for change is in. All that remains is for the Government to act. There are no more excuses or equivocation.

It acted with commendable speed against motorists using cellphones while driving. Local research was not an issue there. Now, further inaction will only heighten the suspicion that it is pandering to the liquor industry. The backdown from decisive action against alcopops in the alcohol reform legislation offered one lamentable indication. A failure to lower the blood-alcohol limit would extract an even higher toll in needless death and injury.

- Herald on Sunday

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