The problem with having a zero-percent alcohol limit for drivers in South Africa – and what can be done to solve it

Non-profit group Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance (SAAPA) has thrown its support behind the government’s proposed drunk driving rules, but has warned that the regulations will need to be adapted to avoid wrongful convictions.

The changes are included as part of amendments to the National Road Traffic Act which are currently being debated in parliament.

The amendments effectively change the legal blood alcohol content (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.

“The message must be unequivocal that drinking and driving don’t mix and is socially unacceptable. The regulatory environment must empower citizens to influence and sanction people who drink and drive,” SAAPA said in its parliamentary presentation.

However, the group cited potential problems with having a zero-tolerance system in place, as drivers could face conviction even if they have not been drinking, due to ‘false positives’ taken by breathalysers.

“We accept that there are potential difficulties in imposing a zero rate because of the presence of alcohol in medicine and other products that might lead some people to have a false positive reading,” SAAPA said.

“But the possibility of such unintended consequences is not a reason to change the recommendations in the bill.”

The group said mitigating steps that can be taken include a sliding scale for dealing with infringements, as follows:

  • 0.0-0.02g/100ml – a warning for general and professional drivers;
  • 0.02-0.05g/100ml – fine for general drivers, a demerit point on a licence; criminal charge for a professional driver, the suspension of licence;
  • Above 0.05g/100ml – criminal charge for all and suspension of licence.

Changes will cause chaos

The Automobile Association (AA) has previously warned that the proposed amendments to the National Road Traffic Act to reduce the legal blood alcohol limits for drivers to zero will criminalise innocent motorists, and is unlikely to have the results authorities think it will.

“These proposed changes are concerning on a number of levels and although the stated reason for the change is the promotion of road safety, within the current framework of traffic law enforcement, nothing will change, except that innocent drivers are likely to be criminalised.

“For instance, someone who is using medication which contains alcohol will now be arrested, charged and possibly prosecuted for having a small dose of alcohol in their blood while their driving ability has not been impaired,” said the AA.

The Association said the proposed amendment will make motorists soft targets for traffic law enforcers, and that the desired outcomes of improved road safety will not be met.

“How will traffic law enforcement change to accommodate this proposed amendment? And, perhaps more importantly, how will a single piece of legislation change driver’s attitudes when nothing else around traffic law enforcement changes at the same time?

“Without proper and implementable actions, we don’t believe the amendments relating to the alcohol levels will have a material impact on our abysmal road fatality statistics,” said the AA.

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The problem with having a zero-percent alcohol limit for drivers in South Africa – and what can be done to solve it