Dangerous persuasions

Sydney Morning Herald

Tuesday 17 December 2002
Random breath testing in NSW turns 20 today. But for a small, determined group, it has made no difference, writes Andrew Stevenson.

They are the hard core. In every pub, every club and at every party they drink on, oblivious to the social revolution ushered in by random breath testing when it was introduced in NSW two decades ago today.

For them drinking and driving go together like cigarettes and ashtrays, hangovers and aspirin. RBT is annoying, inconvenient and unfair, but it remains a risk to be run, just like the occasional red light. Some 38 million roadside tests in the past 20 years are proof the police are out there, but hard-core drink drivers continue to feel confident in their ability to escape detection.

And they nurse a disagreeable sense of self-righteous outrage. Witness Anthony, who has eight convictions. "I always think if you haven't hurt anyone, what are you doing wrong, you know? You know what I mean? If you haven't hurt anyone, why send you to jail if you haven't hurt anybody? I mean there's murderers getting seven years' jail now and they're out in three. You know, it's all wrong. I think the law stinks for drink driving."

Many are alcoholics or problem drinkers. Alcohol is a component of every activity of their life. They work under the influence, walk under the influence, eat and sleep under the influence. Many are young risk takers for whom driving with high levels of alcohol in their bloodstream is indicative of bouts of abuse rather than a long-term addiction or dependency. And many more, at least half, according to several studies, are criminals with records that often include violence and assault. If breaking the law is part of your daily life, the possibility of a random test and a licence suspension is unlikely to prove a significant deterrent.

Kerry Smith, a road safety researcher in the school of law at the University of Canberra, has gone inside the mind and motivation of the recidivist drink driver more than anyone else in Australia, interviewing 40 men like Anthony for her four-year research project.

"The Australian community now doesn't find it acceptable to drink and drive. But their view is that it's completely normative. So I was asking them to tell me why, and in what circumstances, it's acceptable to drink and drive," she says.

The answer is most of the time; the hard core claim they are better drivers than the rest of the community. "They have really well developed strategies to avoid detection. We avoid drink driving by avoiding going over the limit, but all their efforts are directed, not at reducing their drinking, but to reduce the number of times they're picked up."

That Smith believes their strategies are effective most of the time should be cause for great concern. More than one-third of open class licence holders caught drink driving in NSW last year had blood alcohol concentrations greater than 0.13. It's worth remembering these are only those who are caught and only one test is made each year for every two drivers on the road.

"They blame the cops for picking on them; they blame the laws. They say 0.05 is OK for the general person, but 'I'm a good drinker - I can safely drive at .12'," she reports. "Because with random breath testing the police can't be everywhere all the time, and because of the low probability in certain circumstances of having a crash, these people report numerous times when they have driven at that level - some do it every day - and get home safely. They don't believe they are going to be caught and every time they avoid being detected it reinforces their behaviour."

So how many drunk people are on the roads? "The answer is we don't know ... We're pretty lucky we don't have a much higher road toll than we do," Smith says. The hard core continue to see drink driving as essentially a victimless crime, she says. "They ask: 'Why should I go to the big house for drink driving when I haven't hurt anyone? I've crashed my car but that's hurting me, not anyone else.' They use this as part of the justificatory rhetoric."

Witness Ewan, with five convictions: "If you're in the wrong and you kill someone, some pedestrian or kid or someone, you know you should get the full penalty. But if you haven't hurt anyone, that's the gamble you've got to take, I reckon."

Professor Ross Homel, head of the school of criminology and criminal justice at Griffith University, Queensland, warns against giving up the battle. However, he notes there are signs of a "hardening of the intellectual arteries" in public policy.

"Those people tend to be deviant not only in terms of their drinking and driving but in other respects. They have a criminal record, often including violence. When you think about it it's not terribly surprising: why would people who are persistent criminals not drink and drive? It wasn't ever envisaged that RBT would solve all the problems. The challenge now is how do you deal with that recalcitrant minority." The best approach, Homel argues, is for ignition interlock systems to be mandatory for high range and repeat offenders, plus careful case management and treatment for alcohol dependency where appropriate.

"I said we should be introducing this in 1979, so what's the problem? Why don't we do it? It's taken 23 years in NSW to even decide to use them on a voluntary basis. But the police need to be prepared to enforce it as well because no device is foolproof," Homel says.

Harold Scruby, the executive director of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, says the real question about RBT is why the NSW Government has failed to act. Repeat offenders should lose their licence for life; if they drive again, they should be jailed.

"It's one thing to have a lot of breath testing but what's it matter when that group of people who they've told to get off the road because they're drunk continue to drive," he says. "And the only time magistrates will jail them is after they've killed or maimed someone ... We catch a lot of people, but once we've caught them we thrash them with a feather."

George Paciullo, the former NSW MP who headed the Staysafe committee which ushered in RBT, says penalties are often trotted out by governments as the response to any rise in crime.

"But penalties mean nothing to an individual if they think they're not going to be caught. There's a real hard-core group for whom the current penalties make no difference ... Governments should confiscate their cars, take away the ability of the person to continue to commit the offence. Taking away a person's licence will have an effect on a certain group but not these people. They'll continue to drive without a licence. If they steal a car then you throw the key away. You hit them so they can't get back on the road."