Would A Zero Blood-Alcohol Limit Law Prevent Further Tragedy?

Like most of Australia, I woke Sunday morning to the news of the four children whose lives were tragically taken by an alleged drunk driver behind the wheel of a car he should never have gotten into that night.

Also like the rest of the country, I felt the shock, disbelief, horror, anger, and grief as details of the event continued to unfold. I cried for the children and their families; held my own children a little tighter. Even as I write this, it is impossible to not shed more tears while confronted with such unimaginable loss.

With a nation running high on emotion, it’s understandable that the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) are calling for Australians to consider a zero blood-alcohol limit as a way of reducing the risk of alcohol-related fatalities on our roads. And in the wake of this weekend’s tragic event, it’s easy to believe the implementation of a zero tolerance law would eliminate such incidents from occurring in the future.

As with any tragedy, we look for something to blame. We rage against alcohol, against our laws that enable such irresponsible behaviour, against a culture with an obvious drinking problem. We grieve alongside the families of those who have lost their precious children; pour our wrath upon the woman arrested only 24 hours later for crashing her car with a three-year-old girl inside while allegedly being six times over the legal limit, upon every person who has been selfish enough to engage in such contemptible acts that put the lives of others at risk.

The victims' mother Leila Geagea (right) at the scene where seven children were hit on a footpath by a four-wheel drive in the Sydney suburb of Oatlands. (Image: AAP)

And as much as anybody, I am heartbroken and furious at a choice one person has seemingly made that has taken more from these families than I will ever be able to comprehend. But the reality is, Samuel Davidson’s blood-alcohol level was allegedly three times over the legal limit. Would a zero blood-alcohol limit have changed this situation?

We want to believe the implementation of a stricter law will alleviate such tragedies from occurring, but as it turns out, this isn’t necessarily the case. Countries such as Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania have implemented zero blood-alcohol limits in drivers and have achieved some success.

But in Brazil, researchers who studied the effect of traffic fatality rates both before and after a drastic reduction in the legal blood-alcohol limit came to the conclusion that there was no evidence the new zero tolerance law reduced traffic-related deaths (in three major Brazilian cities).

A study of zero tolerance laws in Chile, where the permissible blood alcohol content was reduced and punishments were increased in 2012, also indicated that the new law did not reduce alcohol-related fatality rates. Accidents were reduced, but dangerous drivers continued to drink and drive -- those who changed their behaviour were believed to already be safe drivers.

The cases we see of alcohol-related accidents and fatalities are extremes. The majority of those behind the wheel at these times haven’t merely indulged in a glass of wine while out to dinner, or enjoyed a Friday afternoon beer with mates, but have had blood-alcohol levels many times higher than the legal limit, sometimes exorbitantly so. They are drivers who choose to disregard the law, the value of their own lives, and the lives of those around them. And they would likely make this choice whether the legal blood-alcohol remained as is, or was reduced to zero.

Before reducing the blood-alcohol limit to zero, we should try other measures, like ignition interlock devices. (Image: Getty)

We cannot deny that drink driving is a serious issue which needs to be addressed in Australia. We know the statistics and have seen the devastation it has caused. But there is no worse time to effect change than when a country is emotionally charged. Before we dive headfirst into such an extreme measure, there are other safety measures which could be considered first, such as car breathalysers -- also known as ignition interlock devices -- which require drivers to give a breath sample prior to starting their cars. If the driver’s blood-alcohol level is over a certain limit, the car then won’t start.

A zero tolerance limit won’t stop those who choose to drink and drive from doing so. All it will do is provoke frustration for the majority of Australians who choose to drink responsibly and comply with the current legal limit. For every one person who does the wrong thing, we must consider the thousands of others who choose not to.

The tragedy that occurred this weekend is one that will remain heavy on my heart for a long time to come -- one which I hope as a nation we never forget, and learn from. But until we find a way to make drivers more autonomously responsible, a change of law isn’t going to prevent these tragedies from happening again.

Sadly, zero tolerance will never be equivalent to zero stupidity.