Editorial: Government faces test of nerve

Last updated 05:00 25/02/2013

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OPINION: It is absurd that someone serving a jail term could serve their driving ban at the same time and then get behind the wheel the moment they are freed. But this happened with repeat offender Jonathan Barclay, who killed a woman while speeding and drunk in 2006.

Coroner Gerry Evans has called for prisoners to serve their driving bans after they are freed - and Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee has backed him. "On the face of it, I support the change," he said this week. He has asked officials for a report.

Mr Brownlee and Mr Evans are obviously right. It is insane that a prisoner can serve out his ban in prison, when he cannot drive. It is insane that he could walk free and get straight into a car. The law is an ass and makes nonsense of the court-ordered driving ban. Nobody could possibly defend it.

Unfortunately, this doesn't mean the Government will make the right move. It will require a law change, and the Government has often failed before to do the sensible thing in this area.

After all, it has still not changed the drink-driving law which allows a man to drive drunk. The maximum blood alcohol level of 0.8 micrograms per millilitre of blood permits an adult male to drink three-quarters of a bottle of wine in 90 minutes without breaching the limit.

As former National transport minister Steven Joyce said in 2009: "That's just ridiculous." However, the Government decided in August the following year not to lower the limit to 0.50 milligrams, the standard used by many Western countries. Instead it said it wanted "more research" to be done first.

That was a gutless cop-out, as alcohol researchers said.

The real reason for the decision, it seems, was that the Government was afraid Kiwi drivers wouldn't accept the lower limit. They needed time to get used to the idea. Mr Joyce said then that he still thought the higher limit and the drinking it allowed was ridiculous - but that was just his "personal" view.

The Government said it wanted to spend at least two years to do the research. Well, more than two years have now passed and the report is apparently near completion. If it is rational and based on evidence, it will recommend a lower limit. And then the Government really will be stuck.

It is obvious that drinking any alcohol at all impairs a driver's ability. That is the reason why so many countries have lower limits than New Zealand's. In Norway and Sweden the limit is a mere 20mg. In the Czech and Slovak republics there is a zero tolerance. In New Zealand, the zero limit applies only to drivers under 20.

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The research was supposed to establish how many drivers who fell between the 50mg and 80mg had died or killed or maimed others. That is a daft irrelevance and was never plausible. The higher limit allows drunken driving.

How many deaths it has caused is a technical question which doesn't alter the basic argument. Besides, the research is about history, not about future risk. No sensible government would leave the drink-driving limit where it is. So will the Government finally decide to do the right thing?

- The Dominion Post

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