Cabinet backs off driving limit cut

17:00, Jul 26 2010

The drink-driving limit – described by Transport Minister Steven Joyce last year as "ridiculous" – will be kept at its present level for at least two years.

The Cabinet decided yesterday that Kiwi drivers were not ready to accept dropping the limit from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 50mg. The 80mg limit is among the highest in the world.

Instead, the Government will pass a law empowering police to compulsorily breath-test anyone in a serious crash. The compulsory tests would, after two years, provide better evidence for either supporting or contesting a lower limit, Mr Joyce said.

"The community does need to support the limits that are in place and they need to understand those limits. Before we make any change, we need more information and more public acceptance than we currently have."

The decision appears to be a defeat for Mr Joyce, who previously said he found it incredible that he could drink three-quarters of a bottle of wine in 90 minutes, yet still be under the limit.

"That's just ridiculous," he told the Local Authority Traffic Institute conference in September last year.

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Yesterday, he said he did not think the limit was ridiculous for everyone. "There are people of all shapes and sizes and some of the concerns that have been expressed to me personally are around people worried that, if they have one or two drinks, they will be over the new lower limit."

Officials had dismissed those concerns, but they persisted in the public's mind. "A clear understanding" of accidents in which drivers registered a reading of between 50mg and 80mg was needed, the Cabinet believed.

Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams described the decision as "gutless" and a "copout". "An extensive body of evidence already exists that shows lowering the [limit] to [50mg] works."

The Motor Trade Association said it was surprised by the announcement. "With so many countries already at a zero level and others in the process of reducing their levels, it's difficult to understand what more information the Government could need to make this decision," spokeswoman Ana Zandi said.

The limit in most countries – including Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and South Africa – is 50mg. Several countries have even lower limits, including Norway and Sweden on 20mg, and some such as the Czech and Slovak republics have a zero tolerance.

Prime Minister John Key said it was possible that New Zealand would eventually move to a reduced limit. "For that to apply, we need New Zealanders to buy in to that process."

The Cabinet also agreed yesterday to a series of other measures meant to address drink-driving. Among them, alcohol interlock devices would become available to stop repeat offenders from starting their cars if alcohol was detected on their breath.

Orders for the devices would be applied at the discretion of a judge and would cost offenders about $150 a month.

Tougher sentences for drivers who cause death were also agreed, including a doubling of the maximum term for dangerous or reckless driving causing death, which will be punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

The Dominion Post