We welcome a triumph of common sense this week with the Government's u-turn on the drink-driving law. It has taken years to convince the Transport Minister and his officials that public opinion would support a lower blood-alcohol limit. We hope the Herald on Sunday's Two Drinks Max campaign helped make the difference, especially when we put the present limit to the test and found how much alcohol could be drunk without exceeding it.
But now the limit is to be lowered, we need to ask why is the penalty for exceeding the lowered limit to be so soft? Drivers with a blood alcohol level exceeding 80 mg per 100ml of blood will continue to face criminal charges in a court and possible imprisonment. But drivers stopped with a level between 50mg, the new legal limit, and 80mg will pay an instant fine of $200 and log 50 demerit points. Will that be a deterrent?
The poll we publish today found 51 per cent think the penalty is about right. But they may be the 51 per cent who also told the Key Research survey they already limit themselves to one or two drinks before driving. Ten per cent admitted they would have driven after three or more drinks under the current law, only 5 per cent said they would do so if they faced a 50 mg limit and the proposed penalty.
So perhaps a $200 fine and 50 demerit points will make a difference. But we doubt it. When a driver has had a couple of wines or beers in convivial company and the party is going strong, will the risk of $200 be enough to persuade him or her it is time to stop? For too many it will just be the price of fun.
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Others will be at risk of paying a greater price. Today we report the case of a Hamilton woman, Amanda Sharon Blunt. She was drinking wine one afternoon with a friend in Huntly. Driving home, her car spun coming out of a bend, crossed the centre line and hit an approaching car. The 32-year-old beauty therapist died of her injuries. Two men driving to work when her car smashed into them on their side of the road, recovered in Waikato Hospital.
The coroner's report found she had been texting on her cellphone as she drove and her blood alcohol level was 52mg/100ml. That was well under the limit as it stands but enough to impair her judgment about using the cellphone and her ability to control the car.
Scientific tests of drivers' performance with blood alcohol levels between 50mg and 80mg have left no doubt that it slows their steering reaction to hazards. In the years since the Government refused to lower the permitted limit the police report that 53 drivers with blood alcohol in the 51-80mg range have been in crashes causing death or serious injury.
Why has it taken the Government so long to act? Once our tests and others had told the public they could legally drink much more under present law than they thought, Two Drinks Max had to be legally enforced. It seems Cabinet feared a lower limit would clog the courts with drink-drive cases, and this explains its decision to make the lower limit a civil infringement.
If that is the reason, it is trifling. The safety of the roads is what matters, not the workload of courts. The prospect of appearing in court, a criminal conviction and loss of a licence are sobering for most people; a roadside fine and demerit points without risk of conviction are slight by comparison.
Drink driving is a crime that endangers everyone on the road. A lower tolerance level is welcome but we still await a deterrent.