Australian state fights drunk drivers . . . and appears to win

One Australian state appears to be reducing automobile deaths by administering random alcohol breath tests to drivers. The State of New South Wales has long given breath tests to people involved in traffic accidents - but during the Christmas holiday season it began an experiment with randomly administered breath tests.

The result: a drop in the state's seasonal road deaths from 61 to 26.

Police signaled drivers to pull off the road, then cited those whose tests showed they had more than 0.05 percent alcohol in their bloodstream, a level usually reached after drinking no more than three glasses of beer in an hour.

State authorities tried out the random tests - despite some protests that they violate privacy and civil liberties - because deaths on Australian roads have been spiraling upward.

Critics argue that the random tests invade drivers' privacy and erode civil liberties. (In the United States, the accuracy of the breathalyzers is being questioned. A major manufacturer of the testing instruments and laboratory experiments have shown that readings on some breathalyzers can be affected by radio transmissions.)

Australian supporters say the program helps protect the civil liberties of people endangered by drunk drivers.

When the measure was introduced in New South Wales Dec. 17, authorities say they noted an immediate change in Sydney, the nation's biggest city, and in other urban centers. Traffic dropped at night. Neighborhood bars and restaurants , to which people could walk, thrived while bars in commercial and industrial districts suffered a bit. Sales of low-alcohol beer and of mineral water rose.

Brewers, liquor distributors, and bar owners lobbied hard against the random tests, and warned that bartenders' jobs were threatened, along with jobs of liquor manufacturing industry workers. They pressed to raise the limit on alcohol in the bloodstream from 0.05 to 0.08 percent.

So far the New South Wales state government is standing firm on 0.05 percent. ''Most people would not want to tamper with the present system, which is clearly saving lives,'' says George Paciullo, a state politician who campaigned for the random tests. ''There was a similar fuss when wearing seat belts was made compulsory, but now we put them on without a second thought.''

Observers say they think opposition to the program will melt away when longer-term statistics are compiled in the experiment. They say the public will not feel inconvenienced once they come to see that drinking and driving do not go together.

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