Should we have zero blood alcohol while driving?

Before you drive home from the pub after a couple of drinks, consider what your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is. Alcohol was involved in 15% of fatal crashes in NSW in 2013-2015 and over 20% of fatal crashes in Qld in 2014-2015.  Unfortunately, most drink drivers who hurt others are well over the legal BAC limit. But what if the limit was zero alcohol?

Senate inquiry

This is why the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) has proposed to a Senate Inquiry on Drunken Violence, a radical drop from .05 to .02 and then to zero.

The RACP paper says the social damage from alcohol misuse is $15-36 billion in healthcare costs, road accidents and lost productivity, 5,000 deaths and 150,000 hospital admissions each year. It also recommends raising the legal age for buying takeaway alcohol, shortening trading hours for bottle shops and bars, challenging existing liquor licences in communities, banning sports sponsorship and bringing in alcohol packaging with warning labels.

Very few countries have a zero tolerance to alcohol while driving, including Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Alcohol consumption

These recommendations come at a time when alcohol consumption appears to be falling. In May 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a 5-year low in “apparent” alcohol consumption to 9.7 litres per person. (This is measured according to the supply of alcohol rather than actual consumption). Other statistics show a favourable slow shift away from drinking above recommended guidelines, binge drinking, and alcohol-related violence.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education claims 20% of the population drink 75% of alcohol sold. So is it fair to penalise the 80% who consume wisely? Australia, like many western countries, still has a strong drinking culture. How would people respond to zero tolerance when the majority of drivers always do the right thing?

Road safety campaigns

Two current road safety campaigns on mobile phone distraction and fatigue reflect the importance of other factors in road crashes.

For example, fatigue is involved in 17% of fatal accidents and even dehydration can affect cognitive skills as much as 05% BAC. Yet, as Griffith University Chris Irwin notes, the authorities don’t enforce recommended sleeping hours or drinking of water. The .05 limit is not a reliable indicator for everybody. We all respond differently to alcohol as it depends on quantity and type of alcohol, your age, gender and weight, drinking history and whether you ate anything.

Random breath testing started in 1982 and police test about 5 million drivers a year. Driving over the limit is a criminal offence so you can be charged and have to appear in court. These are current BAC limits:

Licence class BAC limit
 L driver  Zero
 P1 and P2 drivers  Zero
 Full licence  Under .05%

If zero tolerance sounds radical, Thailand, with the second highest global rate of road fatalities, has a more drastic idea. It plans to make drink drivers and repeat traffic offenders work in hospital morgues. As a spokesperson for the Bureau of Public Health says:

“In the morgue, they will have to be cleaning up and transporting bodies, so that hopefully they would feel the pain, so that they may understand and attain a good conscience…”

What do you think of zero tolerance to alcohol?

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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