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21/07/2014

Don’t drive drunk after the Barnyard – or ever

News24.co - Georgina Guedes

There is a Facebook post doing the rounds this morning, warning all Johannesburg residents about the dangers of drunk driving. Now, while the gentleman – I’m going to call him "Smith" – who wrote this warning is clearly a little late to the alcohol-free party, obviously the sentiment is a good one.

Readers all around South Africa will, I believe, agree with the fact that drunk driving is a bad idea. You could, you know, kill someone, or yourself, or damage your property, or someone else’s. Or you could get arrested and have to spend a lot of time and money on the South African legal system.

It turns out that all Smith is actually concerned about is the fear of arrest. Those other things I mentioned first don’t really feature in his decision to stop drunk driving.

But I'll get to that later. Let's unpack the real dangers of driving when over the limit – or even just under it.

The dangers of drunkenness

Never mind the serious drunks who are swerving all over the road and getting home by bouncing off curbs and driving on pavements, a study by the University of California revealed earlier this year that even "minimally buzzed" drivers who are under the limit are more likely to be officially and solely responsible for accidents.

The authors also found that there was no "threshold effect" – no sudden transition from blameless to blamed at the legal limit. Rather there was a steady and smooth increase in culpability as the blood alcohol level increased from nothing to approaching the legal limit.

And although studies vary on the actual and exact impact that alcohol has on reflexes, balance and concentration, no one in the world would argue that it doesn’t impair the senses.

Most studies show that while a drunk person could drive down a straight, silent, well-lit road, as soon as you introduce random or unknown factors like a phone ringing, a nice song on the radio or an obstacle, drunk drivers don’t respond nearly as well their sober counterparts.

Arrested but not very drunk

Back to Smith’s story. On Friday night, he and his friends were driving home in convoy from the Barnyard Theatre in Cresta, where they’d had a few drinks. One of their friends was arrested for failing the breathalyzer test, and was shoved into a van along with all the other offenders.

Smith says “she only had four Savannas”. He says that 19 people who’d been at the theatre were arrested, “none were what you and I would call drunk or dangerous”. And he adds, “We all do it. We all drive after a few beers.”

What happened next was predictable, but it surprised Smith. His friend was taken to a police station, thrown in a cell – the same cell as would have been used for murderers and rapists – given a dog blanket to sleep under, and not given anything to eat or drink.

Her friends brought her bread and water, and the next morning, she was caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare as she was transported from one police station to another, with the receiving police station refusing to process her.

At this point, I would like to make it clear that I am aware of and disgusted by the way that the South African Police Services treat criminals and citizens alike, and I think that what happened to this drunk driver, while not particularly outrageous, is evidence of a system that needs serious work.

However, I disagree wholeheartedly with Smith’s view that his friend is somehow better than the other criminals. Sure, she’s not full of malicious intent, but she made a choice to drive her car when she was over the legal limit. She committed a crime. Simply put, she’s a criminal. "Not very drunk" and “everyone does it" don’t make what she did any less of a crime.

SA’s culture of drunk driving

I am not painting myself as a saint here. I’ve driven drunk. I often break the speed limit. But if I were to be arrested for either of these offences, I wouldn’t ignore my own part in breaking the law when complaining about the way that I was treated by the police.

This is how the police treat people – don't break the law. Especially when it’s avoidable. Drinking and driving isn’t an accident or a human right; it’s a choice.

South Africans have come a long way in their drunk driving habits. When I was younger, everyone drove home smashed. Now, when we go to social events at which alcohol is flowing, one of each couple abstains, or taxis are arranged.

And I don’t think it’s just the wisdom of maturity – most of the young people I know are also more responsible about this sort of thing than my friends and I used to be.

The reason for this is simple: drunk driving is wrong. Not because driving drunk is breaking some arbitrary law, but because lives can be lost.

In countries where police treat people far better than they do here – Japan, Australia and the UK, for instance – people still don’t drive drunk because it’s just a stupid and dangerous thing to do.

Smith’s 'revelation'
This is Smith’s conclusion: “The long and short of it that my friend now has to appear in court, she may potentially have a criminal record which could follow her for the rest of her life. All because she had four Savannas over the course of three and a half hours.

"I know we all go out and have a few drinks and drive home. All this road block stuff and holding cells and assaulting police officers will never happen to us. BUT IT DOES AND IT WILL. This incident over the weekend has made me change my entire outlook.

"I am hugely worried about the state of South Africa Police force, but I am also never going to have more than a single beer and drink again (sic). It is just not worth it."


Smith hasn’t had a revelation. He’s not quitting driving drunk because it’s a bad idea. He’s giving it up because the police are mean. His whole argument smacks of a teenager yelling at a parent (shortly before slamming a door), "Fine! I’ll NEVER go out and have ANY fun EVER again!"

So, yes, Smith, I’m glad you and your friends will be less likely to kill me on the roads on a weekend night.

But I do wish that your concern for every road-user’s wellbeing was what motivated your decision, rather than fear of being caught by the police doing their jobs.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.



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