Stricter laws won't stop drink-drivers

Last updated 12:52 10/10/2013
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

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OPINION: I am confident that I am the last person in the country to object to random breath testing, writes Joe Bennett

It seems, to me, obvious that the police have no right to halt my regal progress unless they have grounds to suspect that I have committed a crime. If they observe my royal blue car to be swerving, speeding or breaking the road rules, they have that right. If not, not.

Having thus identified myself as being the spawn of Lucifer, I may as well compound the matter. I also object to the bill that Mr Lees Galloway is about to bring before Parliament. It proposes that the legal alcohol limit be reduced from whatever it is now to a little over half of that.

Now, that stirring you hear in the suburban undergrowth is people reaching for pens to write me heartfelt letters about their mothers, sisters, sons and fathers slain by drunken drivers. Those people have my sympathy, but I hope before they lick the envelope that they hear the argument out.

When random breath testing was introduced it was advertised as: "Anyone, anywhere, any when." I am on record as being staunchly pro-police, but that's a motto to delight the Stasi. Has the menacing campaign worked? In one sense, yes. Last year, 36,000 drivers appeared in court charged with driving under the influence. That's 100 a day including Sundays. But in another sense, no, because of those same 36,000 drivers. Despite the ads, despite the threats, despite the swingeing fines, 36,000 chose to break the law. Thirty six thousand is roughly the population of Whanganui.

Nor is Whanganui the whole of it. At any one time, the overwhelming majority of roads are not being actively policed. Even if we are generous and imagine that the police catch one in 10 of the people who are driving with excess alcohol, it would still mean that 360,000 people wilfully break the law every year. They know the law, but they go ahead anyway. Three-hundred and sixty thousand is roughly the population of Wellington. That's a lot of law-breaking.

Now, if a law is being constantly broken by people who are otherwise more or less law- abiding, there are various things that can be done. And the most futile of these is to make the law more stringent still.

Imagine, for example, you are the headmaster of an old- fashioned school for boys. It has a uniform and that uniform includes a cap, which the boys are required to wear at all times when travelling to and from school. The boys find the cap irksome and prefects are constantly reporting them for failing to wear it.

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In response, you announce in assembly that you are going to send out more prefects, and that if any boy fails to wear his cap anywhere, any time, he will be caught, reported and caned. But boys continue to be boys and they continue to find caps irksome. Soon you are caning so many of them that you've developed a forearm like a side of beef.

What next? Well, if Mr Lees Galloway were the headmaster he would make the rules tougher still. He would insist that boys wear the cap, not only to and from school but also at weekends, in bed and while swimming. The consequence is obvious. Thousands of infractions and no material improvement in cap- wearing. And it will be the same with his proposed new law for drinking and driving.

Cars and booze are integral to our society and neither will be going away soon. It could be argued, indeed, that in our stressful and fast-moving world both booze and cars are necessities, though I wouldn't go so far myself. With a bit of willpower it is perfectly possible to live without a car.

As the law now stands, an adult can go to the pub after work or a game of touch, have a couple of drinks with friends, can laugh and ease the spiky troubles of the day and then drive carefully home. And that seems to me reasonable. But if the new bill is enacted there will be two consequences. First, more and more people will be apprehended, taken to court, stripped of their driving licences and in many cases their livelihood. The other is that some will be so daunted by the new law that they will forego company and laughter and will withdraw into the fortress of home. And that would be sad.

Not as sad, I acknowledge, as innocent people being killed. But if the dangerous few who drink too much and then drive with abandon were not deterred by the old law then there is no reason to believe that they'll be deterred by the new one.

They are already committing a crime. You can't make a crime crimier.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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