Moving towards zero tolerance

Should you take that sip before steering? 
Shift to a Zero Tolerance Policy in South Africa

It’s Saturday afternoon, you’re sitting at the braai, your friends are asking you to be the designated driver, but your partner objects as “you’ve had a beer, less than an hour ago!” and “there is a zero-tolerance policy”. Debate ensues and you’re starting to wonder whether the legal limit has changed. If so, has it gone to a “zero-tolerance policy”?

Has the BAC limit changed?

There has been widespread discussions surrounding the apparent change to a “zero-tolerance policy”, whereby South African drivers will be subject to penalties, should there be any percentage of alcohol found in their system. The National Road Traffic Act, 93 of 1996 (“NRTA”) regulates traffic offences, including the level of alcohol legally permissible within a driver’s blood or breath specimen. In April 2020, notice was given that the National Road Traffic Amendment Bill (“NRTA Bill”) was to be introduced to Parliament.

One of the purposes of the NRTA Bill was “to further prohibit and reduce the limit of alcohol in a specimen of blood [or breath] taken from any part of the body”. More specifically, to read that “no person […] shall drive a vehicle; or occupy the driver’s seat of a motor vehicle the engine of which is running, while there is any concentration of alcohol in any specimen of blood [or breath]. 

After public comment and departmental deliberations, few factors came to light. Firstly, that reducing the Blood Alcohol Content (“BAC”) to 0% could have unintended consequences, including but not limited to, causing “false positives” by certain medications which also contain alcohol; adversely affecting the tourism and restaurant industry; halting industry growth of non-alcoholic beverages, which contain trace amounts of alcohol and overwhelming the criminal justice system.

It was also questioned whether reducing the BAC limit to 0%, in isolation, would have the direct consequence of reducing alcohol-related road deaths, whether the proposed amendment would achieve the desired effects. Furthermore, if there was sufficient proof that a reduction in the BAC limit, since 1996, has had any effect of reducing alcohol-related road deaths.

The public called for a more holistic, evidence-based solution to reduce alcohol-related road deaths. In September 2022 the NRTA Bill was amended by the Portfolio Committee on Transport (“Portfolio Committee”). This amendment included a rejection of certain clauses, including clause 46, which was aimed at further prohibiting and limiting the amount of alcohol legally permissible in a driver’s system. This amended bill has been sent to the National Council of Provinces for final approval.

What is the current BAC limit?

The reason for a specified BAC limit, is due to the difficulty in determining whether a driver is “under the influence” of alcohol, so legislature penned a determinable amount, whereby it could be assumed that such a driver has been negatively affected by alcohol intake. 

S65 of the NRTA states that the legal limit whereby a person will not be criminally penalised for getting behind a steering wheel is 0.05g per 100 ml’s (Blood Alcohol Content or “BAC”) or 0.24mg per 1000ml’s (Breath Alcohol Content or “BrAC”).

When a driver is pulled over and found to be over this limit, he can be subject to a fine, imprisonment (not exceeding 6 years) and, irrespective of a fine or imprisonment, licence suspension of 6 months (for a first time offender), to a limit of 10 years.


Clause 46 of the NRTA Bill, prior to the Portfolio Committee amendments, would have effectively changed this BAC limit from 0.05g to 0.00g. This could result in the abovementioned penalties, should there be any trace of alcohol within the driver’s system.

How is alcohol measured in your system?

Alcohol is typically measured in units (“u”), whereby one unit is equal to 0.02mg. This means that roughly two and a half units of alcohol will put one over the current BAC limit (>0.05g). Knowing the numbers are good and well, but to prevent one from taking a calculator to every family braai, South Africans against Drunk Driving (“SADD”) has created a website with helpful information. A summary of their infographics indicate that the amount of alcohol that will be present in one’s blood, after consumption, is as follows:

* Cider (340ml) = 0.02g-0.04g

* Cocktail = 0.04-0.05g

* Beer Quart (750ml of 5.5% beer) = 0.08g

* Beer (500ml of 4.5% beer) = 0.046g

* Beer (330ml of 4%) = 0.026g

* White Wine (90ml of 12% wine) = 0.02g

* Red Wine (75ml of 14% wine) = 0.02g

SADD, however, does emphasize that “the safest driving rule is ZERO ALCOHOL” and it is important to note that “all calculations has been done on a healthy male, weighing 68kg’s,
who has eaten a meal”. This means that these calculations might differ when taking your own circumstances into account and caution should always be applied when using averages. SADD further advises that it takes roughly one hour for one unit (0.02g) of alcohol to be metabolised by a person’s body and that nothing but time assists the metabolism of alcohol, not caffeine, exercise or water.
 

Conclusion

Although the BAC will remain unchanged, it is always urged to steer clear of any alcohol consumption when driving and, if necessary, make alternative transport arrangement when planning on consuming alcohol. Whether a holistic and evidence-based approach, coupled with adequate enforcement, to reduce alcohol–related road deaths, will come to the forefront in the following years, remains unclear; however, for the time being, the BAC limit of 0.05g remains.

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