Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oz has sobered up since the 1970s

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SYDNEY -- The random alcohol breath test turns 30 years old in one Australian state this year. Police officers plan to celebrate the birthday by testing one million drivers this summer.

Given there's probably only around four million Australians with a driver's licence in the state (New South Wales), that's a 25 per cent chance of getting tested at least once.

Those kinds of odds won't go unnoticed in a gambling nation, which has radically altered its attitudes to drinking and driving in recent decades.

It's kind of funny -- in a whimsical rather than a "ha ha'' sort of way -- to have lived long enough to track the social engineering bringing the once-comic drunk-behind-the-wheel into such disrepute.

Little more than three decades ago, a conviction was a largely socially accepted sign of middle-class devilry, a jocular little run-in with the law costing little by way of financial penalty, and even less in terms of social standing.

For a sensible, sober (in the broader sense of the word) motoring dad to drink four or five full-strength beers and a shot of rum "for the road'' at a back yard Saturday night party was not uncommon.

With the kids lounging in the rear seat sans seat belts, and possibly to the loud accompaniment of Glen Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy on the tape player, that law-abiding paragon of family values could set out on the highway confident he was placing no one at risk.

And if tragedy struck and the family perished in an inferno, his grieving friends would stand in a court of law, with steady hand on the Bible, testifying he was in no way alcohol-impaired when he left the party.

They wouldn't be committing a perjury -- "drunk" was harder to quantify in the 1970s when the scientific calibration of the breathalyser test was not available.

Walking unaided, with no visible stagger, was enough for a police officer who might draw a chalk line on the highway and watch with a professional (and often amused) eye as the motorist negotiated it.

An adult who might now be rated as having four times the permitted alcohol level (which stands as .05 per cent in Australia) in their blood could easily be graded as sober by an old-style cop who saw no visible signs of impairment apart from a cheery countenance.

When the random breath test (RBT) machines were introduced in New South Wales in 1982, there were howls of disbelief in a country which prided itself on its ability to hold its liquor, and took years to accept the drinking of a lite beer would not lead to emasculation.

Even the stately Australian Law Reform Commission recommended against it in an almost American-style defence of personal liberty, and the need for limited government intrusion in our lives.

"Important liberties should not surrendered on the basis of a hunch or as a consequence of wishful thinking,'' it sermonized.

The leading nationally circulated newspaper The Australian also noted haughtily the RBT was a gross intrusion on human rights "based on the assumption that the driver might be drunk.''

Turns out they often were.

And so our civil liberties were ruthlessly violated, the RBTs appeared on our roads and thousands of lives were saved.

New South Wales acting deputy police commissioner Mark Murdoch told reporters this week that, despite the massive increase in population since 1980, annual road fatalities have dropped from 1,253 to 364 today.

In the 1980s, one in two road fatalities were alcohol related. Today the figure is one in five.

A three-decade long national campaign to change public perceptions about drink driving, including the memorable slogan "if you drink then drive you're a bloody idiot," has robbed the offence of any traces of glamour.

Drunk or impaired driving can lead to job loss, jail and serious censure from family and friends who now grasp the lethal potential of putting several tonnes of speeding metal in the hands of a drunkard.

"If you drink, you don't drive,'' says Murdoch

"While some boofheads (idiots) clearly try, the message is very clear.''


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mainly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2012 A15


Updated on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 7:54 PM CST: Corrects spelling of Brisbane

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