Cost of booze law delay revealed

BY JOHN HARTEVELT
Last updated 05:00 21/09/2010
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DRINK DRIVING: Last year, road crashes involving alcohol killed 137 people and caused 565 serious injuries at a social cost of $875m.
ROB KITCHIN/Dominion Post
DRINK DRIVING: Last year, road crashes involving alcohol killed 137 people and caused 565 serious injuries at a social cost of $875m.

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The Government turned its back on hundreds of pages of official advice urging a lower drink-driving limit, including a claim that up to 33 lives and $238 million would be saved each year.

The papers, released under the Official Information Act, show the Government was told that lowering the limit was the best action it could take to cut the number of people killed by drunk drivers.

"Without introducing change, it is likely that the number of alcohol-related road deaths and serious injuries will continue to rise," the Transport Ministry advice states. "It is clear the current approach to drink-driving will not reduce the level of fatalities."

Last year, road crashes involving alcohol killed 137 people and caused 565 serious injuries at a social cost of $875m.

The Government was told that, based on data in about 300 international studies, a lower limit would save up to 33 lives and prevent up to 686 injuries each year. Aside from social cost savings of between $111m and $238m a year, ACC expected additional savings of up to $94.5m on claims.

There was no support for the option the Government chose – more research on the limit.

"In the ministry's view, delaying lowering the adult limit would unnecessarily forgo the saving of lives and prevention of injury that could otherwise be made."

Late last week, the bill that officials recommended should lower the limit passed its first reading in Parliament.

Instead of dropping the blood alcohol limit (BAC) from 0.08 to 0.05g of alcohol per 100ml of blood, the bill empowers police to collect data on drivers in accidents who test with a BAC of between 0.05 and 0.08.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said he was expecting "a good range of submissions" on the bill when it was opened for public input.

"And I'm sure one of the most contentious will be the 0.08 to 0.05," he said. "This has been an emotional political discussion for many, many years. It's one of those controversial issues that Cabinet receives the advice on and takes its view."

People could have their say on the bill, but the Government's preference was still for two years of research before the limit was revisited.

Mr Joyce said a significant minority of people would not support a lower limit because they feared being convicted after having only one or two drinks.

However, among advice the Cabinet received was a 2009 survey by the Transport Ministry that found 85 per cent of people felt no more than two drinks should be allowed before driving, which was equivalent to a 0.05 BAC limit. Only 2 per cent supported an amount equivalent to the 0.08 limit, the survey found.

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In a letter to Mr Joyce, Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams said there was no longer any argument to procrastinate on a lower limit.

"Research clearly advises us that a lower limit will save lives and reduce injuries on our road."

National decided last month that its MPs would not be allowed a conscience vote on the BAC issue.

Labour MP Darren Hughes, who has a member's bill to lower the limit, described the move as "bitterly disappointing".

"Innocent people will continue to be killed on our roads by drinking drivers while Steven Joyce and his National Cabinet colleagues say they can't make up their minds about lowering the limit before two years' research is done."

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