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New Zealand: ‘Wowserism?’: Controversial call to cut drink-drive limit

New Zealand: ‘Wowserism?’: Controversial call to cut drink-drive limit

Star News
By Rob Kidd
September 16, 2022

A judge has called for the drink-drive limit to be slashed – but one academic has dismissed it as wowserism.

Judge David Robinson’s comments came this week at the Dunedin District Court sentencing of Angela Hamlin (41), who was convicted of drink-driving for the third time, four years after she crashed and killed her teenage passenger in rural Southland.

The judge opined that the legal blood-alcohol limit should be reduced to 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

The current criminal limit for over-20s is 80mg, but in 2014 legislation was amended meaning a level of 50mg-80mg results in a fine.

Judge Robinson, a former ambulance officer and coroner, has spoken repeatedly in court about the dangers of drink-driving.

He said lowering the limit to slightly above zero would mean those who consumed alcohol the night before and drove the following day would be given a degree of leeway.

“The science tells us that really the only safe level of alcohol in your system is zero,” he said.

“Right from the first drop you become impaired.”

That was disputed by criminology Emeritus Prof Greg Newbold, who said there was research to say a small amount of alcohol actually improved driving capability — before it quickly “dropped off”.

He said the legal level was already relatively low and he was confident that decreasing it further would have little effect.

“I don’t think it would have the impact some people think it will. It’s just the wowsers stopping people from having a drink,” he said.

“The main thing that’s going to reduce people’s drink-driving is higher policing [levels], not lower limits,” Prof Newbold said.

Institute of Environmental Science and Research forensic toxicologist Dr Helen Poulsen said there was an argument that changing the law could make people more conscious of their drinking habits.

But often the people who paid heed to the changes were the ones who would not drive while drunk anyway.

“Instead of having two glasses of wine, they’ll have one glass,” she said.

Dr Poulsen was sceptical that changing the breath and blood alcohol limit would have any impact on those with an entrenched history of offending.

A Minister of Transport spokesman said there were no current discussions about changing drink-driving legislation.

The Otago Daily Times asked the office of the Chief District Court Judge whether Judge Robinson’s views were reflective of a wider judicial concern or whether it was appropriate he had made such comments.

No response was received before publication.