Australian state cuts drunk driving with stiff laws

Australia's state of New South Wales says its crackdown on drunk driving is the most successful road-safety campaign in the world. Through a combination of breath tests, a reduction in the legal limit of alcohol intake, and stiff penalties, state authorities say they have cut deaths on the state's roads by about 25 percent in the past six months.

In May, the state had its smallest road death toll in any month for 27 years. The improvement is even better than the statistics suggest because the number of cars on the roads has skyrocketed since the 1950's.

This year, there were 389 road fatalities compared with 562 in the same period last year. And over the Christmas holidays, road deaths in some areas were halved compared with earlier years.

An advertising campaign is also credited with making a deep impression on the state's drivers.

Radio and television ads say: ''Will you be under .05, or under arrest?''

The state had reduced the permissible level of alcohol in the driver's bloodstream to 0.05 percent from the previous level of 0.08 percent - the equivalent of three beers instead of five, authorities say.

The laws were backed by tough penalties. A court can send a driver to jail for six months, even on the first offense, if the driver's alcohol intake is high. But the usual penalty for a first offense is suspension of one's driving license for from three to six months, and a fine of from $300 to $500.

Another result of the reduced road accident figures is a slowing of the otherwise steady increase in insurance premiums paid by motorists.

All states and territories in Australia require motorists to hold insurance policies to cover their passengers or damage they cause to other vehicles.

Premiums have been increasing at a faster rate than inflation in recent years. But in the states which introduced the strict new laws last year - New South Wales is not the only state - insurance companies have said reduced accident rates means there will be no increase at all in premiums.

According to a politician who was largely responsible for the tough laws in New South Wales, it isn't just the laws themselves that have caused the lower accident and road death rates.

George Paciullo, chairman of a parliamentary committee that researched the problem and recommended the laws, says that in the past drunk driving was not recognized as a serious offense by the general community.

He believes there has been a dramatic turnaround in public opinion since the new laws came into effect last December.

The public, he says, has recognized and accepted the role which alcohol has played in road accidents, and as a result the road carnage has been dramatically reduced.

Apart from the reductions in road accidents, police report a far smaller proportion of people tested either in random breath tests, or at tests at hospitals following road accidents, as having significant alcohol readings.

In New South Wales, the random breath test law is enforced by teams of police working near major highways who stop up to a dozen motorists at a time. They check to see what the level of alcohol intake is.

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