Threat of a quick puff is not enough

Sydney Morning Herald

Tuesday 17 December 2002
By Andrew Stevenson

Twenty years after random breath testing was introduced in NSW a recalcitrant minority of criminals and heavy drinkers continues to flout the law.

Despite a hardening of public disapproval, more than 20,000 people are convicted each year.

Official statistics show most offenders are unlikely to have miscalculated their alcohol intake. More than half of the open class licence holders are convicted with blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of more than 0.11 - equivalent, among men, to six standard drinks.

Particularly alarming is the number of people caught for second or subsequent offences with high range BACs (above .15). More than 1000 are caught every year, four times the number caught in the low range (.05-.08).

Even ardent supporters of RBT such as Professor Ross Homel, the head of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, say if governments are serious about further lowering the alcohol-related road toll then heavy drinkers are the challenge.

"What people are finding around the world is that there are a minority of drivers who are very difficult to influence," he said.

George Paciullo, the former NSW MP who headed the Staysafe committee which ushered in RBT, said repeat offenders should have their cars confiscated. If they then steal a car, they should be jailed, he said.

Harold Scruby, the executive director of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, argues for mandatory detention for a second offence.

Victoria, which led NSW in introducing RBT, has also moved on repeat offenders, mandating the use of ignition interlock systems in their cars after their licences are returned. NSW will begin using interlocks next May, but only on a voluntary basis.

Nearly one in three Victorians caught driving under the influence are repeat offenders. NSW does not collect full statistics on recidivism.

Random breath testing, introduced by the Wran government, produced an immediate drop in the proportion of alcohol-related fatalities from 50 per cent to around 25 per cent, a level which has been maintained.

But the hard core dominate those alcohol fatalities, with two-thirds of this year's deaths involving BACs of more than .15.

Associate Professor Soames Job, who as senior behavioural scientist with the Traffic Accident Research Unit argued the case for RBT, and who has himself been tested 37 times, said the public was now less forgiving towards drink drivers.

In 1982, 65 per cent of survey respondents described drink drivers as irresponsible, criminal or potential murderers. A survey in 2001 by the Health and Safety Psychology Research Unit at Sydney University found this had risen to 80 per cent.

This year the landmark 1960s US study which quantified the increased crash risk at each level of blood alcohol was dramatically revised. People who drive after three drinks are more than twice as likely to crash than if they had not drunk, according to the study co-authored by Dr Marcelline Burns of the Southern California Research Institute.

At .15 BAC the original Grand Rapids study found drivers were 10 times more likely to crash; Dr Burns' team says the real risk is 22 times. The 332 drivers convicted in NSW in 2001 with BAC levels in excess of .25 - five times the legal limit - were at least 150 times more like to be involved in an accident.

"The fact that you're at an increased risk doesn't mean you're falling down drunk or displaying obvious signs of impaired driving. It just means if you're in an emergency situation you're not going to be able to handle it," argued Dr Burns.

"We've been studying alcohol in the laboratory for more than 30 years and when you understand what alcohol is doing to the brain's ability to process information I wasn't surprised.

"I guess I'm surprised that so many people drive with alcohol and don't crash but, you know, they just get lucky."