Brake on boozing

11 January 2013 - 02:05 By MHLABUNZIMA MEMELA and TJ STRYDOM

Not a drop. That's how much Transport Minister Ben Martins wants you to drink before you get behind the wheel.

"We want [the blood-] alcohol [limit] to be 0% in drivers," Martins said in Durban yesterday when announcing the preliminary statistics for festive season road deaths.

With the toll at 1465, Martins warned that he was consideringa complete ban on drinking and driving.

Experts doubt such a move will help bring down casualties but Martins and his department are adamant.

"Most crashes are the result of drunk driving, speeding, dangerous overtaking, not using seatbelts and unroadworthy vehicles," he said.

His predecessor, S'bu Ndebele, mooted lowering the speed limit to 100km/h, from 120km/h, to curb road deaths. Nothing came of this suggestion.

Martins said that the carnage on the roads cost the economy about R306-billion a year. Automobile Association spokesman Gary Ronald put the cost at closer to R157-billion.

Ronald said that he doubted that a lower blood-alcohol limit would change drivers' behaviour.

"The problem is not that the limit is too high, it is that people do not feel the consequences," he said.

Forensic scientist David Klatzow agrees and believes that the government will not be able to enforce a new limit adequately because forensic laboratories are a "sorry mess" and lack the skills needed to generate evidence that would put offenders behind bars.

The present limit for drivers of private vehicles is 0.05g of alcohol per 100ml of blood, and for commercial drivers 0.02g.

Department of Transport spokesman Tiyani Rikhotso confirmed that a total ban on the drinking of alcohol by motorists was one of the proposed amendments to the National Road Traffic Act due to be introduced this year.

"Most of our plans are in the pipeline and we hope to introduce everything this year," he said.

The department had received overwhelming support from the public for the proposed ban, he said.

According to Rikhotso, more than four of five crashes could be attributed to human error and "alcohol is the common denominator in most fatal crashes on our roads".

Of the 3944 motorists arrested during the festive season, 2 856 were found to have been drinking and driving.

Martins said this season's road-safety campaign had been a success but there had still been carnage on the roads despite all the efforts of the government, the private sector and civil society to enforce the rules of the road and raise road-safety awareness.

As many as 17000 traffic officers had been deployed on the roads between December 1 and January 8, he said.

The preliminary estimate of road accident deaths is slightly below the 1475 in the corresponding period of 2011/2012.

About 40% of the people killed this year were pedestrians, most of whom were walking on the roads while drunk.

"The deaths on our roads result in serious social and economic costs. The economic ramifications include an increase in social development and health [spending]," Martins said.

As well as advocating the lowering of the blood-alcohol limit, he supports a total ban on alcohol advertising, saying it has a huge influence on road deaths. Such a ban was first mooted by the Department of Health and Social Development.

Free Market Foundation executive director Leon Louw thinks a ban on advertising is a particularly bad idea.

"It is an example of feel-good regulation and there is no evidence that will make any difference."

Louw warned that it would result inconsumers having less information about products.

A ban on alcohol advertising, said Louw, would hit industries such as the media, the arts and sports hard - because they relied on advertising and sponsorship revenue - without bringing down alcohol abuse.