Alcohol and driving

We've all seen the graphic ads, and some of us have had the awful experience of being involved with a drink driving tragedy first hand. The loss of life, personal suffering, and cost are an enormous and preventable burden on society. Alcohol is involved in a significant number of vehicle crashes that result in death and injury.

Consuming alcohol has the effect of slowing your reactions, dulling your judgement and impairing your ability to drive. Crash risk increases as a driver's blood alcohol level increases. At high blood alcohol levels, the risk rapidly increases.

Did you know?

The risk of being involved in a fatal crash increases rapidly at high blood alcohol levels. For example, a driver over 30 years old is 16 times more at risk of a fatal crash at the current blood alcohol limit than someone with no alcohol in their system. At double the blood alcohol limit they are 200 times the risk!

Younger drivers present the same exponential risk, but with much less alcohol in their system.

Ministry of Transport 2010 Crash Factsheet

Studies have shown that someone who is twice as drunk is not twice the risk, they're multiple times the risk. In 23% of the fatal crashes where alcohol was tested for betin 2010, the driver was found to be nearly twice the legal limit

Young drivers, and in particular young males, are over-represented in alcohol-related fatal crashes. Drivers impaired by drugs and alcohol don't only kill themselves. For every 100 alcohol/drug-impaired drivers who died between 2007-2009, about 82 passengers and other road users died with them.

Enforcement of drink driving

There is intensive enforcement of drink driving laws, with Police checkpoints and testing at the roadside. Enforcement is targeted at times and locations where drink drivers are most likely to be on the road. Police take the car keys from offenders and confiscate the vehicles of repeat offenders. Disappointingly, the Police continue to catch drink drivers despite extensive publicity on TV. In 2008, over 34,000 people were caught over the blood alcohol limit.

Excessive alcohol use in the community is a complex social issue and it's unrealistic to expect the threat of Police drink drive campaigns to stop all drink drivers.

The majority of drivers involved in alcohol-related crashes have not previously been caught drink driving. This implies that many people are prepared to take the risk of drink driving. An American study quoted by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) found that drink drivers in the US have driven drunk on average 87 times before being caught.

Police figures from 2011 showed that 6702 of the drivers charged with drink driving had offended at least twice before. If someone has alcohol addiction problems, it's unlikely that they will change behaviour based on penalties and fines. Those with addictions need assessment and treatment, or it will only be a matter of time before they re-offend.

AA speaking up for motorists

AA Members have a very low tolerance for drink driving, particularly repeat offenders and those with very high alcohol levels. A driver caught in a first offence can have driven drunk many times before being caught.

Get drink drivers off the road

There must be continuing and increased emphasis on getting drink drivers off the roads and importantly keeping them off. The AA encourages Members to think about their overall fitness to drive whenever they pick up their keys. This means thinking about how much sleep you've had recently, any medication you've taken and how much you've had to drink.

If you feel impaired, don't drive, and never yourself get into a car with a drunk driver. Always arrange a sober driver before you go out to events where alcohol will be served. If you are hosting guests, provide food if you are serving alcohol and never let your guests drink and drive.

Education, enforcement, rehabilitation and engineering

Education, enforcement, rehabilitation and engineering all reduce the harm caused by drink drivers. Some of the initiatives the AA is calling for include:


  • Targeted and ongoing publicity programmes that emphasise the penalties and consequences of drink driving and the certainty of being caught.
  • A secure, ongoing source of funding for youth alcohol programmes such as SADD (Students Against Driving Drunk).


  • Increased compulsory breath testing, linked with random stopping at properly established mobile testing stations, at places and times where there is a high risk of drink driving.
  • Introduction of random roadside saliva drug testing alongside breath testing, and an increase in the penalties where there is evidence of combined drug and alcohol to reflect the greater risk posed.
  • Increased enforcement of unlicensed and disqualified drivers because these drivers cause the most fatal crashes where alcohol/drugs are involved.
  • Speeding up court action and removing technical defences through clear and specific legislation.
  • Greater education and support for judges so that convictions are more consistent, or better still, create specific drug and alcohol courts so impaired drivers are met by the same judge whenever they appear.
  • Penalties to reflect the severity of the risk: very high BAC levels should be a distinct offence and carry much higher penalties.


  • All related fine revenue should go towards alcohol and drug prevention and treatment.
  • Courts need well-resourced education, rehabilitation and treatment options and more intensive monitoring of offenders.
  • Availability of early rehabilitation to stop someone from becoming a repeat offender.


Funding alternative transport options for people who have drunk (e.g. buses running all night, dial-a-driver schemes, designated driver ride sharing). More protective engineering features such as median barriers and rumble strips, to protect the public against the consequences of drink driving.

Repeat drink drivers

For repeat drink drivers the AA calls for:

  • Much tougher penalties (including impounding, clamping and ultimately confiscation) for repeat drink drivers, following an international review of what penalties are effective.
  • Compulsory fitting of vehicle ignition interlocks for repeat drink drivers, which test for alcohol on a driver's breath. This device requires a driver to blow into a small handheld alcohol sensor unit attached to the dashboard. The car cannot be started if the blood alcohol concentration is above a set level.
  • Stringent medical and psychological addiction assessment and treatment before repeat drink drivers are given their licences back and allowed to drive again.
  • A national rehabilitation and community support programme where judges can refer repeat drink drivers, possibly funded from drink driving fines.

Further research

To build a more complete picture of impaired driving, we believe all drivers involved in injury or fatal crashes need to be tested for alcohol, drugs and medication, instead of the current situation where just those who are suspected to be impaired are tested.

To better understand the issue of repeat drink driving, we want research done in New Zealand similar to that quoted by MADD in America on the number of times drivers have driven drunk or drugged before being detected.

Blood alcohol limit

The legal blood alcohol limit for adult drivers is no more than 80 milligrams of alcohol for every 100ml of blood.

Drivers under 20 have a zero alcohol limit, meaning they must not consume any alcohol before getting behind the wheel.

The AA supports a comprehensive review of the current legal 0.08 BAC limit for fully licensed drivers aged over 20.

Drink drive penalties

Depending on the circumstances, including whether you have been caught before, currently if you are found drink/drug driving you can face a range of penalties including:

  • Loss of licence for 6 months or more
  • Fines up to $6,000 (up to $20,000 if you cause injury or death)
  • Imprisonment up to 2 years (up to 10 years if you cause injury or death)
  • Confiscation of your vehicle
  • Immediate 28-day licence suspension

Some penalties differ slightly for under 20s who are subject to a zero alcohol limit. We want a review of drink drive penalties and would like to see much tougher penalties for repeat drink drivers.

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