A long and bumpy road to RBT
Sydney Morning HeraldTuesday 17 December 2002
|By Andrew Stevenson
Few legislative packages have changed social norms as much as random breath testing.
"Before RBT, drinking and driving was regarded as almost as natural as breathing. The culture in every pub was 'let's have one for the road'. You don't hear that any more," says George Paciullo, the former NSW MP and an architect of the scheme, with some pride.
Pulling over some 2 million drivers each year at random and testing how much alcohol they have in their system now makes perfect sense to most of the community.
It wasn't always so. In fact, its gestation from idea to law in NSW was long and tortuous, involving bitter attacks and denunciations.
The liquor industry, not surprisingly, led the way, screaming that pubs and clubs would be forced to shut their doors.
But the question of civil liberties, apparently pegged on the imposition of drivers being forced to break their journey for anything up to a minute to complete a test, was also marshalled by opponents.
The Australian Law Reform Commission recommended against RBT. "Important liberties should not surrendered on the basis of a hunch or as a consequence of wishful thinking," it reported.
The Australian newspaper editorialised that RBT was a gross intrusion on human rights and freedoms as the law was based on the assumption that the driver might be drunk.
Queensland's premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a teetotaller, thought the idea stank: "It is not a vote-winner. It gets a lot of people's backs up." His colleague Don Lane went further: "Random breath tests are a fascist or Nazi-style approach."
The Australian Hotels Association called on the NSW Government to direct its attention to the accidents in which alcohol was not involved, and praised the vast majority who drank wisely.
On the first night RBT began, the last Friday before Christmas, with every venue in the city full of yuletide revellers, the problem was not getting busted. It was just getting home.
Thousands were left stranded in the city, waiting in endless queues at taxi ranks. Some hung on the telephone line for two hours trying to get hold of a taxi. Others simply gave up and walked home.
NSW breath-testing history
December 16, 1968:
Breath testing began; blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 introduced; drivers could be tested only after an accident or driving offence.
December 15, 1980:
Limit dropped to 0.05.
December 17, 1982:
Random breath testing trial begins.
December 10, 1985:
RBT becomes law.
Death toll: 1291 in 1981; 524 in 2001.
Lives saved: The RTA estimates that 4367 lives have been saved in the past 20 years because of the introduction of RBT.
Statistics: Men represent 86 per cent of all drink drivers involved in fatal accidents.
Accidents: Crashes occur most frequently between 6pm and midnight and between Thursday and Sunday.