From 1 December 2014, the alcohol limit lowered for drivers aged 20 years and over.

Alcohol contributes to around 30 percent of New Zealand’s fatal road crashes. Over the last 10 years, fatal crashes caused by drink-driving have claimed the lives of around 1,100 people and caused serious injuries to another 5,300.

Changes to drink-driving limits from 1 December

What are the new drink-driving limits?

From 1 December 2014 the alcohol limit for drivers aged 20 years and over lowered from 400mcg of alcohol per litre of breath to 250mcg. The blood alcohol limit lowered from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.08), to 50mg (0.05).

For drivers under 20, the limit stays at zero.

The law says you must not drive if the amount of alcohol in your breath or blood exceeds these limits.

How much will I be able to drink and legally drive?

There are many factors which will determine how quickly alcohol is absorbed into your system, including body type, gender, weight and food intake.

Even small amounts of alcohol affect your judgement, and the ability to drive safely begins to deteriorate after even one drink. 

Guidance from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) indicates that most adults may be able to drink two standard drinks over two hours and are likely to remain under the new drink-driving limits for adults.

A standard drink contains 10g of pure alcohol. This is approximately to equivalent to 330ml of beer, 100ml of wine or 32ml of straight spirits, containing 4, 12.5 and 40 percent alcohol respectively. In New Zealand, the label on the packaging of an alcoholic drink must state the approximate number of standard drinks it contains.

The Science Media Centre has developed a graphic based on the ESR guidance (external link) (external link). 

It is important to remember that there is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol for driving, and the best advice is to keep it simple and avoid any doubt by making the choice not to drive if you are going to drink. Call a taxi, take a bus or get someone who hasn’t been drinking to drive you home. Think ahead - it’s always easier if you have a plan.

More information and resources

Penalties for drivers aged 20 years and over

What happens to me if I’m caught over the new limits?

If a breath screening test shows you have more than 250mcg of alcohol per litre of breath, you will be asked to take an evidential breath test (EBT), usually in a booze bus or at a police station.

If this confirms you are over 250mcg, you will  likely be forbidden to drive for up to 12 hours. You will need to arrange a lift or have someone come and drive your car.

What are the penalties for drivers aged 20 years and over?

If you…

What happens

Notes

Fail an evidential breath test 251-400mcg of alcohol per litre of breath

$200 infringement fee + 50 demerit points.

No criminal conviction.

No option to elect an evidential blood test.

 

Fail an evidential breath test over 400mcg of alcohol per litre of breath

No change – you will face criminal charges.

 

Refuse or fail to complete an evidential breath test, or can’t complete it for genuine reasons (such as a medical condition)

You will be required to have an evidential blood test.

 

Show blood test result of 0-50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood

No infringement or criminal charge.

You may be liable for costs associated with the blood test.

Show blood test result of 51-80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood

Infringement fee of up to $700 + 50 demerit points

The total costs you must pay may vary depending on the circumstances leading to your blood test.

Show blood test result of more than 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood

No change – you will face criminal charges.

 

Fail or refuse to permit an evidential blood sample to be taken

If convicted for a first or second offence, you face a fine of up to $4,500, a licence disqualification of at least 6 months and a prison sentence of up to three months. Higher penalties apply for a third or subsequent offence.

 

Accumulate  100 or more demerit points from driving offences within 2 years

You will receive a 3 month driver licence suspension.

See the NZ Transport Agency (external link) website for more on demerits (external link) and suspensions. (external link)

These penalties apply to drivers aged 20 and over.

For drivers under 20, or those with an alcohol interlock licence or a zero alcohol licence, the limit stays at zero and the penalties remain unchanged.

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Drink-driving in New Zealand

How many people are killed and injured by drink-driving?

Alcohol is a factor in around 30 percent of New Zealand’s fatal road crashes.

For every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers or riders who die in road crashes, 47 of their passengers and 16 sober road users die with them.

Over the last 10 years, fatal crashes caused by drink-driving have claimed the lives of around 1,100 people and caused serious injuries to another 5,300.

How much does it cost us?

The average annual social cost of crashes with over 20 year old drivers with known alcohol levels is $446 million.

How many people are killed in crashes involving drivers in the new adult infringement offence range (51-80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood)?

Road crash data collected by Police over 22 months recorded 53 drivers involved in fatal and serious injury crashes with a blood alcohol concentration level in the range of 51-80mg per 100ml of blood. These crashes resulted in 5 fatalities and 62 serious injuries.

What’s the public attitude to drink-driving?

The Ministry of Transport’s Public Attitudes to Road Safety Survey indicates that sixty percent of New Zealanders favour a lower legal alcohol limit for driving.

The lowered limits received strong support from people who made submissions to the Select Committee on the Land Transport Amendment Bill that changed the limits.

What’s been the impact of the zero alcohol limit for drivers aged under 20 years?

Based on a year's worth of data, since the zero alcohol limit for drivers under the age of 20 years was introduced in August 2011, there has been:

  • a 46 percent reduction in the number of offences by under 20s between 50 and 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.
  • a 43 percent reduction in the number of offences by under 20s who are over 80mg.
  • a 44 percent decrease in road fatalities for 15-19 year olds (not entirely attributable to the zero alcohol limits).

How does alcohol affect driving?

Research by University of Waikato, commissioned by the government, showed:

  • Substantial impairment across a broad range of cognitive and driving measures occurs at 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (the legal limit before 1 December 2014).
  • Cognitive skills such as response times, problem solving, memory and attention were not significantly impaired at 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (the legal limit after 1 December 2014).
  • Drivers at both 50 and 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood were unable to accurately judge either their actual level of intoxication or their ability to drive, but the level of error in judgment was significantly higher for those at 80mg.

What’s the drink-driving limit for adults in other countries?

In 2013, 89 countries (including Australia) had adopted the World Health Organization’s recommended adult drink-driving limit of 50mg or less. (World Health Organization’s Global status report on road safety 2013 (external link) ).

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Impacts of the lowered limit

How will the lowered drink-driving limit affect road safety?

International research supports expectations that this move will make a significant difference in reducing road trauma. It will help realise the government’s Safer Journeys (external link) vision of a safe road system increasingly free of death and serious injury.

As well as saving lives in the range of 251 to 400mcg of alcohol per litre of breath, the change is expected to save lives by reducing the number of people driving with higher alcohol levels. This is reflected in the results from introducing a zero alcohol limit for drivers under the age of 20 years.

The lower adult drink-drive limit is estimated to have a net benefit of $200 million over 10 years.

How many additional offences are expected under the lower drink-driving limits for adults?

The number of drink-drive prosecutions is steadily decreasing and Police is anticipating that the lowered level will have a general deterrent effect.  While it is estimated there will be around 19,000 additional offences, it is not possible to predict numbers with certainty.

Why won’t drivers caught in the new range (251-400mcg) face criminal charges?

An infringement fee plus demerit points is expected to change most drivers’ behaviour without the stigma of a criminal conviction or putting undue pressure on the court system.

How will the lowered limits change the worst drink-driving behaviour?

International evidence clearly shows that lowering the drink-driving limits leads to reduced drink-driving offending at all alcohol levels, including those in the high range.

Crash risk increases exponentially with higher alcohol concentrations, so even a small reduction in the level of offending by drinkers exceeding the current breath or blood alcohol limits can result in significant road safety benefits.

Reducing the alcohol limits is one element in a package of initiatives to increase safety on New Zealand’s roads and to reduce the social harm caused by alcohol-related road crashes. Public education, treatment and rehabilitation options also play a critical role in reducing the harm from drink-driving.

What impact will the new limits have on Police and the courts?

Police carry out some three million breath screening tests a year. They will continue to set up checkpoints based on both risk and resource availability, and deal appropriately with those they apprehend.

The infringement regime is intended to minimise any additional pressure on the court system. Infringement offences do not enter the court system unless the person does not pay the infringement fee by the due date, or they challenge the infringement offence. If they challenge the offence, they have the right to a court hearing.

Will the new system’s impacts be measured and reviewed?

The Ministry of Transport monitors road safety statistics closely and regularly publishes the results on its website.  This will allow any emerging trends to be identified.

After three years of data has been collected, the Ministry of Transport will carry out a review and report to the Minister of Transport on the effectiveness of the lower adult drink-driving limits. A key objective will be to evaluate how effective the infringement fee and demerit point system is in changing driver behaviour.

What else is being done to reduce drink-driving offending?

The Ministry of Transport is currently undertaking a review (due by the end of July 2015) of other drink-driving issues, including:

  • penalties for offences over 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (or 400mcg of alcohol per litre of breath)
  • the alcohol interlock programme
  • rehabilitation and monitoring of offenders.

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More about evidential blood tests

Who is liable for blood test costs?

From 1 December, most drivers who undergo a blood test will be liable to pay the blood test costs, regardless of the result of the test.

As is currently the case, if a driver is convicted of a drink-driving offence, the Court can order them to pay costs related to a blood test as part of their sentence.

Blood test costs include a blood test fee of $109.25 and associated medical expenses.

Drivers who face a $700 infringement fee because they failed or refused the evidential breath test will not be liable for blood test costs as these costs are covered by the higher infringement fee.

What if there is a medical reason that means a driver cannot undergo an evidential breath test and must have a blood test instead?

Provided the driver has not committed an infringement or criminal offence and can provide evidence of an appropriate medical condition, blood test costs may be waived.

Will drivers be informed of their liability for blood test costs before undergoing a blood test?

Because blood tests are optional in most circumstances, police will be required to inform drivers of their liability for blood test costs so they can make an informed decision about whether to request a blood test.

What if blood cannot be drawn from a driver?

 The Land Transport Amendment Act (No 2) 2014 introduces a ‘rebuttable presumption’ to prevent a small number of drivers avoiding prosecution because blood cannot be drawn from them for medical or physical reasons. The problem arises because the result of an evidential breath test becomes inadmissible if a driver has elected to undertake an evidential blood test.

The presumption will apply to a driver who has escaped prosecution in the past due to an inability to provide a blood sample. If the driver is apprehended on a subsequent occasion, and is again unable to provide a blood sample, they will be presumed to have refused the evidential blood test by taking advantage of their likely inability to provide a blood sample.

Police would be able to charge the driver with refusing to undergo an evidential blood test, and the driver would be able to disprove, or rebut, this presumption in court.

Drivers who are convicted of refusing to undergo an evidential blood test face fines of up to $4,500, a licence disqualification of at least 6 months, and a prison sentence of up to three months for a first or second offence, while higher penalties apply for third or subsequent offences. These penalties will now also apply to drivers who elect but are unable to undergo an evidential blood test and fail to refute the presumption that they had refused the blood test.

Where can I get resources and information?

The Transport Agency’s public information campaign (external link) about the lower alcohol limit for adult drivers.

Information leaflet on the lower alcohol limit for adult drivers (external link)

Information poster on the lower alcohol limit for adult drivers (external link)

Health Promotion Agency’s Straight Up Guide to Standard Drinks (external link)

Health Promotion Agency What’s a standard drink? (external link)

Health Promotion Agency’s interactive guide to pouring a standard drink (external link)

More resources available at ACC’s Safety Week website (external link)

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