Driven to Drink

By Jim McVeagh 22/09/2010


I see the Herald seeks to stoke the hysterical debate on the legal limit of blood alcohol. I have noticed that these OIA requests come in really handy for revisiting a story a couple of months after it is dead. Of course, it really is too much effort to find some actual news, instead of this nonsense. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from this in terms of actual debate. The certifiable Idiot Savant of No Right turn and the Rabid Bomber of Tumeke! are both accusing the government of murdering people (as Scrubone points out, it is strange that neither make the same accusation of the previous government, who had nearly a decade to do the same thing). The Herald article has professors making similar accusations. These people are supposed to be scientists, for goodness’ sake! Instead of scientific facts we get this:

Professor Jennie Connor, from the University of Otago, said Prime Minister John Key and Transport Minister Steven Joyce needed to explain why they were prepared to sacrifice the lives of New Zealanders and the dollars in social costs each year.

This is codswallop, of course. While there are plenty of papers showing a correlation between reduction of alcohol limits and road deaths, it is highly debatable how much of this reduction is actually due to better policing and safer cars and how much is due to reducing the BAC limit. New Zealand has a higher road fatality rate than Australia, for instance, but the reduction in road death in Australia since the lowering of blood alcohol limits has been mirrored in the reduction in the road toll in New Zealand. But instead of sensible scientific debate on how we could determine the actual effect on the real-life road toll, we get hysterical innuendo like this:

“It shows a callous disregard for victims of drink-driving,”

She said a clue to the Government’s reluctance cames from recently revealed internal documents of the alcohol industry where lowering the blood alcohol level for driving was listed as “one of the main fears the industry has about changing social policy on alcohol”.

You can just hear the automatic assumption that the “alcohol industry” doesn’t care about drink-drivers as long as it sells more alcohol. Evil, evil alcohol industry. Completely ignored is the very real concern of the industry that little or no reduction in road fatalities will eventuate, at a considerable cost to the hospitality industry. That cost will certainly translate to job losses. It would be rather nice to demonstrate reasonably conclusively, in a scientific manner, that lives will actually be saved before we create more unemployment. One would have thought that Prof Connor would be keen on rational scientific argument. But maybe not. Certainly the contribution from the redoubtable Prof Sellman lacks scientific rigour.

National Addiction Centre director Professor Doug Sellman said the alcohol industry needed people to be able to drink a lot socially and still be legally able to drive their cars home.

“A standard scientific definition of intoxication is 50mg alcohol in 100ml of blood (0.05g), which means the current adult alcohol limit in New Zealand of 0.08 is legalised drunk driving.”

It seems that Prof Sellman neglected to point out that the “scientific definition of intoxication” is entirely arbitrary and is by no means “standard”. A microseconds worth of thought would confirm this because people’s reaction to alcohol is extremely variable. I drink a glass of red wine with my evening meal most evenings. My limit at restaurants is two glasses (well below the 0.05% limit we are talking about). I can guarantee you that even a single glass of wine would render youngest MacDaughter (who does not drink) far less safe behind the wheel than the MacDoctor at 0.05%, even though my reaction time would be significantly more impaired. This is because safety behind the wheel of a car consists of far more than reaction times. Otherwise the safest drivers would be teenagers, which is clearly complete drivel. Thus a “scientific definition of intoxication” in terms of BAC is obvious nonsense.

The fact that academics would make such unscientific, loaded statements merely illustrates the intensely polarised nature of such debates. This is due to silly media articles such as this one giving oxygen to extreme views. It’s enough to drive the MacDoctor to drink…

I end with the only sensible comment in the entire article – that of the eminently reasonable Steven Joyce:

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said lowering the blood alcohol limit was an emotional and contentious issue that had been debated for years.

“There is a sizeable body that wants it to happen and there is a sizeable body of people who are worried that they’ll be criminalised for doing nothing more than having one or two drinks before they drive and they feel that they’d be quite safe in doing that.”

Indeed.

Additional:

More sensible stuff can be found in my post here.

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