South Africa’s proposed zero-tolerance drunk driving laws have a big problem

South Africa’s proposed new drunk driving laws introduce a 0% blood-alcohol limit.

Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula formally introduced the National Road Traffic Amendment Bill to parliament on 1 June 2020.

The bill aims to introduce dozens of new traffic and motoring-related changes including further regulations around driving schools, licences, and traffic wardens.

It also proposes a major change to the laws around drunk driving by removing previous blood-alcohol limits and introducing a zero-tolerance approach.

This would totally prohibit the consumption of alcohol by all South African drivers.

Allowed blood-alcohol levels for normal and professional drivers are currently less than 0.05g and 0.02g per 100ml, but under these proposed new laws, if you were to be tested and found to have any detectable concentration of alcohol in your blood you would be prosecuted.

The bill will now follow a full consultation process including consideration by the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.

If it is approved, it will then be assented to and signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

To find out more about the potential consequences of this 0% blood-alcohol limit, MyBroadband spoke to Justice Project South Africa chairperson Howard Dembovsky.

Potential issues

Evidential Breath Alcohol Testing (EBAT) equipment was reintroduced in South Africa in late 2018.

Dembovsky said this should have had the effect of all but eliminating the need for forensic blood samples in prosecutions, but it has not appeared to have had any effect on the conviction rate.

“If the law enforcement and prosecution authorities, together with the health department (for blood alcohol testing) do not get their act together, no court is going to convict anyone in the absence of forensic evidence.”

“In the unlikely event that the authorities do get their act together regarding prosecutions, there is another issue that is of concern,” Dembovsky said.

“A small proportion of people’s systems naturally produce ethyl alcohol (see auto-brewery syndrome). Although the condition is rare, the prospect that any person can be convicted without consuming any alcohol is of concern.”

While one advantage of removing the threshold for alcohol in a driver’s system is that there is no longer any doubt regarding how much is too much liquor, motorists might also find themselves being arrested many hours after consuming alcohol.

“Generally, alcohol is eliminated at a rate of 1 unit per hour, however, this varies from person to person,” Dembovsky said.

“If a person has consumed 6 beers (1.5-1.7 units each) it will take a minimum of 9 hours for his or her body to eliminate all the alcohol after they stop drinking. Wine is 1 unit per 75ml serving, so the same goes for it.”

“If he or she drives before that time and is tested, he or she may well be arrested – and most likely convicted – if conviction rates are increased,” he said.

Dismal arrest numbers

Dembovsky said that the allowable threshold is irrelevant when so few drivers are convicted after being arrested for drunk driving.

“Whether there is an allowable threshold of alcohol in a person’s blood or breath sample or not, is irrelevant,” he said. “The problem South Africa currently faces is that very few DUI arrests result in convictions.”

“Removing the limit will not change that. Our courts will still not convict anyone if the State fails to provide the requisite evidence.”

“Our view has always been that the only way to reduce the incidence of DUI is to convict all those who are arrested, and to do so relatively quickly, without taking shortcuts,” Dembovsky added.

He said that when people realise that such a low proportion of people arrested for driving under the influence are convicted (around 6% according to the last reliable information provided to JPSA), they will resolve to take their chances with the ineffective criminal justice system.

“All we can see this achieving is increasing the number of arrests for DUI – not increasing the conviction rate or reducing the number of intoxicated drivers on our roads and/or reducing carnage.”

Now read: Demand surges for “isolated car” rides in South Africa

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South Africa’s proposed zero-tolerance drunk driving laws have a big problem