One for the road

 
 

Following the recent introduction of a two-tiered system of drink-driving limits, Kate Smith questions the consistency of the message such legislation sends out.

This year’s Halloween weekend saw the implementation of several new drink-driving laws, the core of which imposes lower drink-driving limits on drivers. Where previously one could drive ‘under the influence’ so long as blood-alcohol levels in the body did not exceed 80mg, the new limits are fixed at 50mg for experienced drivers and a more severe 20mg for inexperienced and professional drivers. While the basic psychology behind the legislation – the desire to curb alcohol-related road accidents – is to be applauded, such a two-tiered system is hypocritical and discriminatory in nature.

The hypocrisy of the new system lies in the fact that it sends out a dangerous message: that drinking and driving, while meriting prohibition in some cases, is acceptable once you have a certain degree of driving experience to your name and do not drive a commercial vehicle. For starters, why do professional drivers deserve harsher measures than non-professional drivers? Such a move cannot be justified on the basis that professional drivers carry passengers and therefore have others’ lives in their hands, for bus and taxi drivers form only a subset of the ‘professional driver’ category. Truck and van drivers, and drivers with a trailer attached to their vehicle, often drive solo. It is the experienced person driving for personal reasons who is more likely to have human cargo on board. Nor can the distinction be justified on the basis that employers pay their professional drivers and provide them with commercial vehicles with the understanding that they maintain peak concentration levels at all times, for many professional drivers are self-employed and thus under no contractual obligation to protect the property of others. Such a distinction therefore seems arbitrary.

Secondly, imposing harsher limits on learner and inexperienced drivers suggests that alcohol affects inexperienced drivers differently than it does their experienced counterparts. There are two key problems with this notion. Under the new laws, one graduates to being an experienced driver after holding a full licence for a period of two years. What constitutes ‘experience’ in this regard, what magical transition takes place on the eve of one’s two-year anniversary of being a driver? While many first-time drivers might avail of their new-found freedom regularly, there are others who, for whatever reason, seldom drive at all. Surely experience should equate to the number of hours notched up behind the wheel rather than the arbitrary length of time one has owned a pink slip of paper.

Such a differentiation suggests that experienced drivers are capable of sustaining a far greater alcoholic ‘hit’ before finding themselves equally as incapacitated as their inexperienced counterparts when in the driving seat. On this view, the former can consume more alcohol than the latter before their cognitive functions are deemed equally impaired. However, focusing on the ‘degree to which one is impaired having consumed alcohol’ does not deal with the real issue: the fact that any alcohol intake impairs driving. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, “Alcohol impairs driving skills by its effects on the central nervous system, acting like a general anaesthetic. It [slows] information acquisition and information processing, making divided-attention tasks such as steering and braking more difficult to carry out without error”. When it comes to eradicating the phenomenon of drink-driving and saving lives, that one is more or less impaired should be immaterial; that one is impaired at all is what should count.

Those behind the legislation maintain that their ultimate goal is to eliminate alcohol-related road deaths and injuries. A zero tolerance approach is untenable since the body naturally produces alcohol in its day-to-day biological processes, and our penchant for alcohol-containing cough syrups and mouthwash would render us all criminals should such a measure be approved. So while the 2mg limit might seem severe to some, at least it has the virtue of consistency since it is tantamount to a zero tolerance injunction on drink-driving as drinking even one unit of alcohol would be enough to put them over the legal limit.

If the ultimate goal of imposing drink-driving laws is to eliminate deaths and serious injuries owing to alcohol-related road accidents, then logically this lower limit should be applied universally across all societal groups. The implementation of such a restricted limit, and the eradication of the current arbitrary differentiations, is the only way to ensure that people refrain from taking risks and second-guessing their ability to drive after having a drink, an ability they cannot objectively judge for themselves.

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