Drink-driving deaths stay steady despite lower alcohol limit

Police hoped the lower drink-driving limit would mean they attended fewer alcohol-related fatal crashes, but so far ...
MURRAY WILSON/ FAIRFAX NZ

Police hoped the lower drink-driving limit would mean they attended fewer alcohol-related fatal crashes, but so far there has been little change in the figures.

Alcohol-related road deaths have remained steady over the past six months, despite the cut in the drink-driving limit.

Critics in the hospitality industry say the early figures back up fears that the new limit would have an effect only on those drivers who were already behaving responsibly, and would make little difference to repeat offenders.

The Automobile Association said there remained a hard-core group of recidivist drink-drivers whom the new rules may not have influenced. "We are seeing an increase in the percentage of those people that we've caught before ... over 50 per cent," spokesman Mike Noon said.

The law changed on December 1, cutting the limit from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 50mg, and from 400 micrograms of alcohol per litreof breath to 250mcg.

In 2010, the Ministry of Transport estimated a lower limit might save up to 30 lives a year, though it later re-evaluated the figures and reduced the estimate to three a year.

In the first half-year since the law change, there were 33 alcohol-related deaths, and eight in which alcohol was suspected but not confirmed as a factor, making a total of 41.

In the same period a year earlier, the total was 35, figures released under the Official Information Act show.

Since January, 166 people have died on the roads, up by 12 from the same time last year.

Superintendent Steve Greally, national road policing manager, said he would be disappointed if ultimately the new drink-drive limit had no effect on road deaths.

However, one positive was that the number of people detected over the old alcohol limit had dropped by 17 per cent in the first four months. "We haven't seen the same ... in terms of fatal crashes at this point, but it is early in the piece ... It does take time for some people to learn what the lower levels mean for them.

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"One person that dies on our roads is still one person too many. It's horrific, going to the scene of a crash involving serious injury or death."

Noon agreed there had been positive effects from the new limit: "Overall, the driving population is less impaired, which is a good thing."

But repeat drink-drivers remained a problem, and the AA believed the only thing that would stop many of them reoffending was a breathalyser lock fitted to their vehicles.

Hospitality New Zealand chief executive Bruce Robertson said the early numbers appeared to support what he had expected all along. "It was unlikely to make any difference to reducing alcohol-related harm on the road, but it would just make responsible people even more responsible.

"That's what we believe has happened."

An industry report released this week showed the law change had resulted in reduced spending at bars and restaurants. Robertson hoped that, against that background, the Government would evaluate whether the policy was effective.

New Zealand Initiative economist Eric Crampton said the number of fatal crashes involving alcohol had declined by about six a year over the past three decades. But factors including traffic levels, weather and chance resulted in a lot of variability, or "noise", in year-on-year data, and even more so in a period of only six months.

"If the reduction in the drink-driving limit had a really, really big real effect, we would be able to tell that quickly. If it only had a small real effect, it would take longer to pull that effect out of noisy data."

Ministry of Transport land transport safety manager Leo Mortimer said it would wait until it had three years of data before making a call on the success or failure of the law change. "Looking at the overall impact the changes have had will be a longer-term evaluation."

Results already had shown some drivers had changed their drink-driving behaviours before and after the change in December. "We do want to see that being translated into lower deaths."

The ministry was also reviewing drink-driving sanctions, including breathalyser locks for repeat offenders, this year as another measure to reduce accidents.

In the month immediately after the law change, 806 people were caught between the new and old limits. That figure fell to 692 in March, according to police.

 - Stuff

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