(First published in The Dominion Post, December 11.)
I wonder if this will be the summer when I get pinged for exceeding the drink-drive limit.It’s bound to happen sometime. Like most New Zealanders I enjoy a drink, and we’re coming into the season of Christmas parties, barbecues and leisurely outdoor lunches.
Trouble is, the tougher drink-drive laws introduced last year make it far more difficult than before to judge whether you’re over the limit.The old limit – 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood – allowed you to enjoy a social occasion without constantly fretting that you might fail a breath test.
This didn’t mean you felt free to get plastered. The central nervous system would start sending warning signals well before you reached the point at which it became unsafe to drive. Responsible drivers – which means most of us – knew when to stop.The difference now is that you can be as sober as a Mormon bishop and still be over the legal limit.
This is clear from the latest Transport Agency TV advertisement in which a woman, thinking she’s doing the right thing, takes the wheel after a party rather than let her husband drive home.She appears unaffected by alcohol. She’s not giggly and her speech isn’t slurred. But a breath test at a police checkpoint says she’s intoxicated.
As her young son watches from the back seat (oh, the shame of it) she’s escorted to a booze bus and processed. The family gets a taxi home because she’s too mortified to phone her parents, even though they live nearby.The message is that even responsible, law-abiding people risk social disgrace and humiliation by unwittingly exceeding the 50mg limit.
And make no mistake: disgrace and humiliation are crucial to the ad’s impact. Its tone is as primly moralistic as any sermon from a pulpit.But the scenario is realistic. I know people who found themselves in exactly the same predicament as the woman in the ad after the new law came into effect a year ago.
Immediately the law changed kicked in, police launched a blitz that netted people who had probably never been a danger on the road in their lives. For some it was a traumatic experience, and one that changed their view of the police.The other unmistakeable, if unstated, message conveyed by the TV ad is that the only way to ensure you don’t fall foul of the law is to avoid alcohol altogether. This is consistent with the alco-phobia promoted over the past decade by police, academics and health authorities.
Yet alcohol has been a central part of our culture for centuries. It’s how we celebrate, how we socialise, how we relax and how we reward ourselves after a hard day or a stressful year.And here’s another thing. The law change was sold to us on the basis that it would reduce road deaths. Yet the road toll for the Christmas-New Year period immediately after the new limit came into force was more than double that of the previous year.
And that’s how it has continued. When I checked two days ago, the toll so far this year was 293 compared with 271 a year ago.This presents a slight credibility problem for all those who supported the lower limit on the basis that it would result in safer roads.
Wellington alcohol counsellor Roger Brooking admitted in a recent interview with Tim Fookes on NewstalkZB that the biggest impact of the law change appeared to have been on responsible drivers, who were now being even more careful about their alcohol intake. Serious binge drinkers, on the other hand, appear to be still offending at the same rate.In other words, the law makers missed their target – just as they so often do (think Sue Bradford's anti-smacking law), and just as critics predicted they would.
This hasn’t stopped the police from continuing to enforce the law with moralistic zeal. Over the summer period, every driver they pull over, for whatever reason and at whatever time of day or night, is likely to be breath tested.This is oppressive. It will turn more people against the police.
Now ask yourself: Would the woman in the TV commercial have risked an accident had she not been stopped? There’s nothing in the ad to indicate her driving is hazardous or irresponsible, and I suspect that’s true of many drivers who have been fined as a result of the law change.But this doesn’t matter to the finger-wagging, Mother Grundy authorities, who won’t rest until ordinary New Zealanders are so cowed that they become frightened to drink anything at all.