OPINION: Labour MP Andrew Little says alcohol is a mind-altering and addictive drug that is taken too lightly by New Zealanders.
Drinking and driving is killing us.
As we head into the party season, we should take time for sober reflection.
The social and emotional impact of road deaths is incalculable. How do you come to terms with the loss of a loved one or close friend who is killed by a driver out of control under the influence of booze? Not easily.
Then there's the financial cost. About one third of fatal crashes involve alcohol.
According to the Ministry of Transport, each road death costs about $3.4 million in social and economic terms. Serious road injury adds about $300m a year to ACC's lifetime costs.
In Taranaki, poorly lit and difficult roads make the already dangerous practice of driving under the influence even more hazardous.
There are two problems.
The first is our collective attitude to alcohol. We take it too lightly.
Like most of us, I'm partial to a cleansing ale and a good wine occasionally. But the reality is that alcohol is a toxic drug.
We don't talk about it in these terms because it goes hard up against more than 100 years of socialising it as a benign indulgence.
If alcohol were introduced today for the first time, we would regulate it much more strictly.
Like cannabis and other illegal so-called social drugs, alcohol is mind-altering and can be addictive.
And it's big business. You join the dots.
Parliament's present efforts to improve regulation are really making no difference at all.
We increasingly seem to take the view that access to alcohol is some sort of right, and abuse of alcohol has become a rite of passage.
Under these conditions, and in a country dominated by the car culture, it's no wonder we continue to have a group who drink and drive.
Getting serious about access to alcohol and regulating it properly is the answer to this part of the problem. So far, we have failed in this regard.
The second problem is the level of blood alcohol content we tolerate for drivers.
We accept 0.08 per cent blood alcohol content, even though studies show it is possible to consume enough alcohol to cause impairment and not reach this level.
Our bodies react to alcohol in different ways. Our ability to consume without risking intoxication is dependent on a number of factors - body size, state of health, how long since we've eaten before consuming, fluid intake during the day, pace and mix of consumption, and so on.
The law can only ever be a crude tool for regulating the safe level for alcohol consumption and driving.
But the number of deaths we continue to suffer at our current levels tells us we must do something differently.
Around the world, the legal blood alcohol content is being lowered from the present 0.08 per cent to 0.05 per cent.
The case for a change is strong. Australian states which have introduced a lower level have achieved reductions in road fatality rates between 8 per cent and 13 per cent. A region in France that made the change saw a fall in road fatalities of nearly one third in a single year.
Lowering the level increases the chances of being caught, and so fewer people take the risk.
The Ministry of Transport has estimated that reducing the blood alcohol content to 0.05 per cent will save between 15 and 33 lives a year, reduce injuries by up to 690 and save over $230 million. These are things the Government can do. But that will take time.
This Christmas season, there is no substitute to thinking about what each of us can do, planning our social activities, being responsible hosts and just being considerate to friends and fellow citizens on the road.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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