(First published in The Dominion Post, December 9.)
I checked the latest road toll statistics a few days ago. Interesting.
For the year from January 1, road deaths were up from 291 last year to 300. For the 12 months to Tuesday, they were up from 315 to 328.
For driver fatalities, the figures were up from 138 to 151 (for the calendar year to date) and from 146 to 170 (over 12 months)
These are not big increases, but they appear to be more than mere statistical blips.
Even more interesting are some of the figures from a Ministry of Transport booklet called Alcohol and Drugs 2016.
Most of the tables in the booklet pull together figures covering the years 2013-2015 without breaking them down year by year. They reveal that alcohol and/or drugs contributed to 12 per cent of fatal smashes.
This might come as a surprise. Given the official obsession with alcohol as a risk factor (all those checkpoints, all those TV ads, all those earnest lectures from senior police officers every holiday period), I imagine most people would have thought the ratio of deaths attributable to booze must be much higher.
But what especially interested me was whether road deaths involving alcohol had decreased since the legal blood-alcohol limit was lowered on December 1 2014.
This is information of some importance, since the objective of the law change was to reduce the road toll. But you have to turn to page 8 before you find any figures relating to the year after the new limits kicked in.
These reveal that the number of alcohol-affected drivers involved in fatal crashes actually increased from 70 to 90 in the 12 months after the new law came into effect.
This was not what we were led to expect. It is the opposite of what the new limit was intended to achieve, which was to deter people who had been drinking from getting behind the wheel.
Opponents of the law change argued that it would punish safe, law-abiding motorists while hard-core drink-drivers would continue to flout the law with impunity. That appears to be precisely what has happened.
Drink-drive fatalities last year were the highest since 2010. In the 20-24 age group, the number of alcohol-affected male drivers involved in fatal crashes increased from 12 to 22 – that’s nearly double. For men overall, the number was up from 56 to 82.
If the numbers had gone the other way, I’m sure the ministry would have been shouting from the rooftops. As it is, it’s hard to escape the impression the figures were buried.
We shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised that the law change hasn’t delivered the promised improvement. Control-freak policy-makers and poll-driven politicians refuse to accept that human behaviour can’t conveniently be changed by legislative decree.
That’s also apparent from the anti-smacking law (on average, one child continues to be killed by domestic violence every five weeks while responsible parents risk prosecution for disciplining out-of-control kids with a harmless slap) and from laughably ineffective dog-control rules, which have entered a whole new realm of fantasy with the expectation that owners of dangerous dogs will obtain special high-risk dog owner licences, submit their dogs to good citizenship tests, have their properties inspected and demonstrate they understand their legal obligations.
Yeah, right. Can’t you just see gang members meekly queuing at council offices to fill in the forms and register their blood-flecked pitbulls for obedience training?
Now here’s the key point. Any benefits arising from lower blood-alcohol limits – and so far there don’t seem to be any – should be weighed against the social downsides. As we brace for the annual bout of Christmas finger-wagging, we should ask whether New Zealanders’ enjoyment of life has been unnecessarily diminished just to satisfy the bureaucratic urge to regulate and control.
There’s an economic cost too. Country pubs - the heart of some rural communities - are going out of business and wineries can expect fewer summer visitors because people fret that a harmless tasting will push them over the limit.
Any supposed benefit must also be weighed against the undoubted change in the public attitude toward the police, who are increasingly resented as bullies and harassers - unwilling or unable to attend burglaries, but never short of the numbers to run alcohol checkpoints at all hours of the day, or to hamper law-abiding bar owners in their attempts to run a business, or to make the staging of public events such as wine festivals so onerous that some participating companies decide that it's just not worth the effort any more.