I’m not in the habit of expressing unalloyed admiration for politicians of any colour, but the more I see and hear of Transport Minister Steven Joyce, the more I like him. He's sharp, articulate and politically astute, but affable too.
Joyce was on Morning Report this morning calmly and sensibly batting away the latest salvo from the anti-liquor activists in the transport and health bureaucracies.
The latest phase in the neo-wowsers’ campaign to tighten the liquor laws (a campaign which, I grudgingly admit, has been adroitly planned and orchestrated – largely at the taxpayers’ expense) was the release under the Official Information Act of papers showing that the government disregarded an avalanche of “expert” advice from the Ministry of Transport on the need to reduce the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05mg per 100ml of blood.
It has been a feature of the neo-wowsers’ campaign that their claims are generally accepted uncritically by the media, even when they don’t stand up to close analysis. It seems to be assumed that because they are public officials, and therefore theoretically concerned only with our wellbeing, their integrity is unassailable. Promoting the notion that they are driven by a "public good" mission is a central part of the neo-wowsers’ strategy. This is presumed to give them the moral high ground and therefore trump any counter-arguments.
The neo-wowsers are highly selective in their use of statistics, disregarding any figures that don’t suit their agenda, and they don’t seem too bothered if their statements are inconsistent. My reading of today’s Dom Post report, for example, indicates that on the one hand, transport officials are saying that if the legal blood alcohol level were reduced, up to 33 lives a year could be saved.
That implies that 33 of the 137 people reportedly killed last year in car accidents involving alcohol had blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08. Yet Radio New Zealand’s report quotes a transport official as saying people with a blood alcohol level of between 0.05 and 0.08 caused 30 deaths between 2006 and 2008.
I’m no mathematician, but there seems to be a marked discrepancy here. But what the heck – any old figures will do as long as they help stampede the public into thinking we have an alcohol-induced crisis on the roads, notwithstanding the rather inconvenient fact that the road toll is steadily trending downwards.
Clearly the release of the MOT papers was intended to embarrass the government into backing down and accepting the neo-wowsers’ demand for a lower legal blood alcohol limit. But to his credit, Joyce stood firm on the government’s decision to seek more detailed research specific to New Zealand.
Studies have already been done which call into question the neo-wowsers’ simplistic claims about the benefits of reducing the limit. For example an ESR study for the police looked at 1,046 drivers who died between 2004 and 2009, of whom 48 percent tested positive for drugs or alcohol either alone or in combination.
The ESR report says that 21 of 351 deceased drivers in the study who had used alcohol – just 2 percent of the 1,046 drivers in the study – had blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08. Only 10 of these drivers had used alcohol alone, while the other 11 had also used a potentially impairing drug.
Of the 351 drivers who had used alcohol, either alone or in combination with another drug, 28 percent had levels of 81-160mg, 35 percent had levels of 161-240mg and 15 percent had levels over 240mg/100ml of blood.
This not only confirms that the real menace on the roads is caused by seriously heavy drinkers, who disregard the legal limits anyway, but also suggests that the use of drugs such as cannabis is a critical factor too.
Even if it could be proved that reducing the blood alcohol limit would reduce the road toll, is that on its own a compelling argument for it? Reducing the speed limit from 100 kmh to 80 kmh would reduce the road toll too, but no one seriously suggests doing it. So would banning all vehicles with no disc brakes or electronic traction control. The question, as in so many issues, is where to strike an appropriate balance that takes reasonable account of safety considerations without becoming unduly oppressive.
If it were left to them, the compulsionists in the bureaucracy and the universities would err on the side of oppression; that’s their instinct because they know what’s best for everyone. Personally I’m relieved that Joyce is holding his hand up and refusing to be rushed.
Footnote: In the latest issue of The Listener, out this week, I argue that the neo-wowser lobby has grossly overstated our alcohol problem and conveniently overlooked the enormous advances in the drinking habits of the typical New Zealander.