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Girl TORQUE: Should we lower the drink driving limit?


Where do we draw the line, and will lowering the drink driving limit make a difference?

How difficult is it to drink less alcohol when you’re out? After all, I could knock back a glass* every 20 minutes for the first hour and one per hour after that, and still be under the limit, and my man could drink more.

In two hours, I could have four beers** and he could drink five. Trouble is, at that point limiting our consumption or parking the car keys mightn’t seem as logical.

I recently spent a night with Waitakere’s booze buses. A lot of drivers had been drinking and failed their first breath test. A shockingly high number had drunk enough to fail the second, more stringent one and get invited to the bus for the Full Monty.

Few of those folk seemed fazed, while one woman got quite vocal on hearing she’d failed the breath test after what she said were just two drinks.

They must have been served in barrels, for she was measured at double the legal limit.

Now, I’m a professional driver. I make my living driving other people’s cars, and I’m very aware of how easily driving decisions are compromised by fatigue, by medication and by alcohol.

Perhaps unusually, I have also been hit by a car. I am painfully aware that making a mistake behind the wheel can be a very big deal. It wouldn’t matter if only the idiots got hurt, but often it’s someone else’s mother or son, sister or husband who suffers.

If you drink and drive, you will make mistakes, and many otherwise normal people do still drink and drive. What would it take to make those folk more aware of how much is too much? Would lowering the limit help?

The current maximum level of 800mg per ml of blood was set in 1978. Back then drinking and driving was more common; right now, around 92 per cent of drivers think it’s unacceptable, yet according to the NZ police, in 2005 some 28 per cent of fatal crashes involved alcohol.

Research shows that any alcohol can affect your driving, but risk increases faster than the rate of drinking. At 50mg your risk of crashing is apparently 38 per cent higher than for sober drivers. At 60mg it’s 63 per cent higher and at 70 – lower than our current limit – it’s 109 per cent higher. Throw in other factors, like youth or passengers, and it’s worse.

Okay, so no-one is debating the fact we shouldn’t drink and drive. It’s a matter of where you draw the line, and whether a lower one will make a difference. Will any limit cause the worst offenders to change their behaviour?

Probably not. But it will make a difference. Look at Australia. When Queensland set a 50mg adult limit, serious collisions dropped by 14 per cent and fatal ones by 18. France made its move in 1996, and alcohol-related fatal crashes dropped by 30 per cent.

That’s not as surprising as the fact a lower limit reduced alcohol consumption across the board, and even the greediest guzzlers drank less. It seems a high limit sends a message; it’s alright to drink and drive, only the amount matters. A low one sends another – it isn’t alright – and tolerance is lower, not just among the police, but among your peers.

As it is, you can drink quite a lot and be legal. You can effectively be drunk, and still be allowed to drive. If the limit drops, you can’t. You can have that glass of wine with dinner, but not much more, and that knowledge alone acts as a handbrake.

My handbrake? Forget safety, and forget fines. I drive other people’s cars. It’s my job. Drink and drive, and I lose it. I could lose my life too and worse, I could take yours. *containing a standard drink **at four per cent alcohol

Read previous Girl TORQUE columns here.

Jacqui Madelin is our expert car reviewer and on the board of the AA Driver Education Foundation.

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