Warning over zero-percent alcohol limit in South Africa

South Africa’s proposal to reduce the legal blood alcohol limits for drivers to zero will make it one of the strictest in the world, aligning it with countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia.

This is according to Gerhard van Onselen, senior analyst at Sakeliga, who has warned that the change would bring with it a host of logistic, capacity, and economic issues which he says government needs to explore further.

Van Onselen presented to parliament on Thursday (18 March), on proposed changes to the National Road Traffic Act which will effectively change the legal BAC limit for drivers from 0.05 grams per 100 millilitres to 0.00g/100ml, and the breath alcohol concentration from 0.24g/1,000ml also to zero.

He said that South Africa’s current BAC legal limit is around the general country ‘midpoint’, and is the same as other countries such as New Zealand, Denmark, Greece and Italy.

Currently, around 16 out of 194 countries have a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0% for driving based on internationally available data.

Logistic issues

Van Onselen raised a similar point to that of the Automobile Association, in that a zero-percent alcohol limit leaves no space for BAC readings above zero, brought about by something ingested, or medicine used, that does not affect or limit driving capacity.

He pointed out that there are several over-the-counter medicines in South Africa which have trace amounts of alcohol which could be flagged by a BAC test.

This extends to several foods, such as;

  • Pure vanilla, almond and other extracts;
  • Foods that include cooking wines;
  • Some vinegar (small amounts);
  • Some mustards (Dijon mustard) made with white wine;
  • Some Soy sauces (e.g. Kikkoman soy sauce).

He said that there is room to set stricter limits without immediately applying a zero limit. Instead, government could look at using a ‘graduated system’ which will allow for higher penalties and criminal sanction to be introduced at higher BAC levels.

He pointed to Brazil which has a zero-tolerance rule, similar to that proposed by South Africa, but has leeway for some BAC levels and special equipment for margins of error.

“Brazil has a ‘dry law’ indicating a nearly zero alcohol tolerance law regarding driving. The tolerated blood alcohol limit is 0.2g/litre, to allow for alcoholic mouthwashes or certain medicines,” he said.

Capacity issues

Van Onselen also raised questions around capacity – specifically, whether the South African Police Service would be able to cope with the increased number of offences with a zero-tolerance policy.

“The zero limit policy is likely to increase arrests for DUI significantly, evidently even at minute BAC concentrations, and these arrests must be processed which will have lasting effects.

“If police or courts spend more resources on such enforcement, what would be the impact on other categories of crimes be?”

With high levels of crimes and already overburdened courts – inaccessible to many – flooding the system with these types of arrests would be detrimental to an already stressed environment.

Economic issues

Van Onselen said that the zero-limit could also effectively end up restricting alcohol sales in the country, as drivers would not be allowed to have ‘even one drink’ in some scenarios.

This will add pressure to industries such as tourism, restaurants, he said.

He said that it is uncertain to what extent the new policy will impact these industries – but this is something government should seek clarity on.

Because of these and the other issues, Van Onselen said that Sakeliga recommends maintaining the current limits. However, he said that this does not exclude stronger enforcement of the current rules.

He added that the government should not apply a zero limit without considering:

  • A more international comparison;
  • Lessons from countries such as Brazil;
  • Differentiated legal approaches of other countries a “graduated” penalty perspectives;
  • Likely impact of a zero limit in terms of certain medicines and foods;
  • Economic spillovers and the cost of removing “one drink” from many businesses;
  • Impact on competing resources for policing increase in DUI arrests.

Read: Uber faces legal threat in South Africa after UK ruling

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Warning over zero-percent alcohol limit in South Africa