Minister determined to legalise zero drinking/driving ban

…..article posted 1st May 2021…….

Road Bill being used to enforce zero alcohol limits…..

Legislation that probably has less effect upon business and industry than most but has, nevertheless, attracted more than 7,000 submissio is an amendment to road regulations under the National Traffic Act calling for a number of changes to South Africa’s anchor road law..   To the surprise of many, changes to alcohol limits whilst in control of a vehicle have been added to this enormously long Bill dealing with road signs, number plates and such issues as rail crossing liability.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, who has been trying in a headlong rush to amend alcohol limits to zero for quite a while, was pulled up himself for attempting to legalise his plan under the new transport Bill dealing with AARTO and demerit matters.  His change should have been promoted through the National Traffic Act.  Consequenty, this matter is only now being dealt with after months of discussing the proposal.

Whether this change in law will help reduce the carnage on the roads is highly doubtful say many voices in response to Parliament’s “Have Your Say” call for comment. .

Tacked on

The newly tabled National Traffic Amendment Bill is an update of traffic law generally dealing with new regulations for the driving-school industry; proposals to handle better fraud and corruption in traffic management and control; outlines changes the national number plate system; increases penalties for various traffic violations and, controversially and now tacked  on, almost out of context, includes amendments reducing both the blood and breath alcohol concentration (BAC) limits to zero percent.

Parliament has been asked for urgent passage of the Bill.  Three days of public hearings have now been conducted by the Portfolio Committee on Transport before Parliament closed for the Easter recess and MPs will hear the response of the Department of Transport (DOT) to the many public submissions once Parliament resumes.

Minister Bumble

The legislation was tabled in Parliament in a haze of confusion.  Prior to the lockdown, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula had referred a number of times to a zero-alcohol “limit” purported by him to be in the AARTO Amendment Act as part its points-demerit system in respect of traffic violations. This Act, approved by Parliament some time ago was signed by the President in August 2019 but is still not on the statute book as law, delayed on purpose because the demerit system was not ready in any case.

Being at  the time of the introduction of COVID 19 lockdown and with so much happening, nobody took much notice of what Fikile Mbalula was talking about.   Minister Mbalula then decided to state on a different subject that the AARTO would be announced as law by the end of June 2021. This is also going to result in confusion because without doubt the demerit system is only partially working.

Held back

Whether Parliament can oblige Minister Mbalula in the time frame allowed to allow for his proposals to be rejected or modified in the normal parliamentary manner is now the question.  The Minister’s zero liimit proposal has raised may objections since the Bill, to cut out the fancy wording, proposes a total prohibition of alcohol consumption by any driver on all SA roads wherever and whenever.

Technically, the Minister proposes a change of 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 by deleting reference to any allowances for any alcohol content in the blood or breath specimen whilst at the wheel. This the same thing amounting to a ban..

Overkill

At this stage, before any serious debate on the Bill happens, comments in meetings from various MPs across party lines would seem to indicate a general disinclination to the take the DOT prohibition stance, calling the zero limit “disproportionate” and “not actually dealing with the problem at hand”.

Most MPs, including chairperson Mosebenzi Zwane, are already recommending a reduction to a compromise level of possibly 00.02%, acknowledging at the same time that drunken driving has indeed become a major problem for authorities, but that the Bill goes too far in trying to rectify this.

Attacking wine

The Agricultural Business Chamber questioned whether reducing the blood alcohol concentration readings would achieve any objectives at all other than crowd the courts and criminalize ordinary well-behaved citizens.

They quoted also serious unintended consequences such as an adverse effect on the wine and tourism industries, i.e. foreigners in charge of hired vehicles detained and false positive-test results due to medication and medical conditions. If a zero percent BAC limit was to be instituted, then they suggested that it should be for drivers only below the age of 21.

Punishment greater than the crime

Stellenbosch Wine Routes pointed out that there was no evidence as far as they could determine, after serious research, that a BAC below 0.05 percent impaired a person’s driving ability at all.   The put to MPs that if the BAC limit was 0% then any amount of alcohol would of course constitute a criminal offence.

This would lead to an inordinate number of prosecutions with consequences way beyond that which matched the offence, i.e. one glass of wine two hours before driving was to be a criminal act with all the consequences of loss of licences, employment opportunities and a police and criminal record to boot.

Not thought through

BASA said that business and industry was committed to working together with government to find a holistic solution to the problem of driving under the influence of alcohol and that some way had to be found to increase patrols to bring the message home, but they did not see this Bill as it stood as the answer.

They also noted that as a BAC limit was a particularity controversial issue with many socio and economic implications and in their view the actual percentage should be decided by experts, not DOT and SAPS alone. (This was possibly implying the need for an in-depth socio-economic assessment).

Paper jungles

Sakeliga, in similar vein, warned that such a change would bring with it a host of logistical, capacity, and economic issues which government needed to explore further. Only 16 out of 194 countries had a BAC of 0% for driving, they said, and this must be for good reason and advice should be sought on a far wider scale.

As was raised by the Automobile Association in their presentation, Sakeliga also pointed out that a zero-percent alcohol limit leaves no room for readings brought about by medical applications, foods and other substances in any blood reading and which had minimal percentage of alcohol but no effect on driving ability.

Meanwhile, FEDHASA feared that a zero percent BAC would have a chilling effect on international tourism. There was nothing wrong with the law as it stood, they said, but it just needed to be better enforced.

COSATU supported the blanket ban on drinking and driving which they said was ‘long overdue”. Too many people were being killed on the roads and discipline in drinking habits was called for by them.

Good doctor

The alcohol, tobacco and drugs research unit of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) represented by the director, Prof Charles Parry, made observations which drew the attention of MPs.   Prof Parry said that whilst SAMRC supported a broad zero-tolerance approach to drinking and driving he was adamant that the BAC limit should be 0.02 percent in order to reduce the possibility of false positive tests due to medication and bring practicality to the issue.

If the limit had to be zero percent, he said, then SAMRC felt, firstly, that all cases below 0.02 percent should not be prosecuted and, secondly, that drivers with a BAC between 0.02 percent and 0.05percent should be penalised with an administrative fine only.  This  was in order to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system simply as a practical measure.  Thirdly, SAMRC felt that only cases only above 0.05 percent should be criminally prosecuted.

On questioning, he admitted that there was very little data on low and middle-income countries to go by on this matters and that was a reason why South Africa should collect data and assess the situation properly. The World Health Organisation had plenty to say on the subject and contact should be made as part of the decision-making process.  He agreed with one MP that better law enforcement was crucial to any solution.

Next stage

Parliament recalls early May and no doubt the National Traffic Amendment Bill will be amongst legislation considered on an urgent basis since Minister Mbalula is under pressure to contribute to the campaign to reduce road deaths.  The department must now return to Parliament and present their responses to members as a result of the public comments made. Debate will follow this.

As was originally intended the legislation also includes proposals regarding the number plate registration system; new rules for number plate manufacturers, number plate reflective sheeting applications; general applications for plates for businesses that work on a car; those that sell number plates; and those that manufacture or supply the microdots currently being used for vehicle identification.

 

 

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