Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Would reducing the legal limit save lives?

So the AA — that’s the Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous — is calling for the legal blood-alcohol limit to be reduced to the equivalent of one beer an hour, effectively halving it.

This was in response to the tragic deaths of two Outsurance pointsmen who were on their way to the 702 Walk the Talk event on Sunday; Michael Modiba and Stanley Nzimande were killed when a drunk driver crashed into their scooters near the Grayston Drive offramp on the M1. The motorist was found to be four times over the legal limit.

Which makes me wonder: would Michael and Stanley still be alive today if that driver had been, say, eight times over the limit?

A rhetorical question, clearly, because I don’t believe for a moment that a reduced limit would have made any difference to his behaviour at all. The fact is that years of campaigning appear to have had little impact on drunk driving behaviour (though in some countries there is evidence that ad campaigns have been effective). South Africans are not a naturally law-abiding nation. We’re not like the Germans, say, who’ll slam on brakes to let a pedestrian cross (I’ve experienced it. It’s unnerving). Somehow, they’ve absorbed obedience to the law along with their mother’s milk.

A lot of us drive over the limit because we assume we will get away with it. And most of the time, we do. Come on, be honest — have any of you non-teetotallers reading this never driven knowing you’re probably not entirely compos mentis? Going out, getting pissed and then driving home in the early hours of the morning is as profound a South African ritual as, say, circumcision: a weekly rite of passage, a celebration of freedom and adulthood. (A celebration, too, of youth, though many older South Africans also drive drunk.)

It’s so unnecessary. Take the Australians, for example. They drink like fish — binge drinking is in many ways a part and parcel of Australian weekend culture — but because they also have a culture of a) law enforcement and b) using of taxis and public transport to get around, their road death toll is much, much lower than South Africa’s.

Around five years ago the Corolla I drove was turned into a Tazz by a drunk middle-aged businessman (from Ninapark in Pretoria, a detail I will always remember) in a Mercedes-Benz, who slammed into the back of the car as my husband and I waited at a red traffic light on the William Nicol. There is absolutely nothing we could have done to avoid that accident; in fact, we’d just changed lanes to avoid him because he was weaving all over the road. After the accident the driver left his vehicle — including his wallet and laptop — and simply vanished into the night. Later the Metro Police showed up, and made a cursory attempt to find him. I laid a charge at the local police station but nothing ever came of it.

So why should that poephol, who could so easily have killed both of us, have any reason to stop drinking and driving? He got away with it. Insurance paid for the Merc. Maybe he felt a little guilty for a couple of days — I got a pathetic, grudging apology from him a couple of days later — but next time the opportunity came up to have a liquid lunch, what reason did he have to turn it down?

My point is that South Africa’s cavalier attitude to drunk driving* will not change just because the laws get stricter. The laws have to be enforced in the first place. There has to be a real possibility that if you drive over the legal blood-alcohol limit, you will be caught, and there will be unpleasant consequences. Anything else is just lip service to the tragedy of our awful road death toll, the placing of a bandaid on a gaping wound as the victim bleeds to death. Next time there’s another fatality offering the possibility of PR mileage, the AA should find something more useful to say.

* On that point, drunk pedestrians are as big a hazard, if not bigger.