Sunday, May 26, 2024

NSW Police commemorate 40th anniversary of RBT, 123 million tests and 1 million arrests later

Police in NSW have commemorated more than 123 million random breath tests – after taking close to 1 million drunk drivers off the road – on the 40th anniversary of roadside alcohol testing in the state.

Victoria was the first jurisdiction in Australia to introduce roadside random breath tests for alcohol in July 1976.

NSW eventually followed suit – after years of fierce community debate – on 17 December 1982 when an anonymous motorist was stopped on Parramatta Road, Granville, at the start of a three-year trial that has never ended.

Although community standards deem drink driving unacceptable today, in the late 1970s and early 1980s powerful lobby groups opposed the radical idea to test drivers randomly for the effects of alcohol.

In 1982, the NSW Australian Hotels Association president, Barry McInerney, described random breath testing as “an imposition on the working class” and “an unfair attack on responsible, sane drinking drivers who pose absolutely no danger on the road.”

Incredibly, the Australian Law Reform Commission at the time was also opposed to the introduction of RBT: “Important liberties should not surrendered on the basis of a hunch or as a consequence of wishful thinking.”

In the early days, the biggest proponent of random breath testing, Liverpool MP George Paciullo – who died in 2012 – was booed when introduced as a special guest at Liverpool Speedway despite being in his own electorate, where he would later become the area’s longest-serving mayor.

In 2002 – on the 20th anniversary of RBT – Mr Paciullo told The Sydney Morning Herald: “Before RBT, drinking and driving was regarded almost as natural as breathing. The culture in every pub was ‘let’s have one for the road’. You don’t hear that any more.”

Before random breath testing was introduced, in the 1970s there were between 3500 and 3700 road deaths annually across Australia. In recent years, the national road toll has fallen to between 1100 and 1200 deaths.

In 1982, NSW alone reported 1253 road deaths – of which 340 were attributed to alcohol – among approximately 3 million NSW licence holders.

Last year, NSW alone reported 270 road deaths – of which 47 were attributed to alcohol – among approximately 6.4 million NSW licence holders.

Today, NSW Police conduct more than 4 million roadside breath tests each year, and catch between 20,000 and 30,000 drunk drivers over the 0.05 limit.

Based on these numbers, police estimate close to 1 million drunk drivers have been taken off NSW roads over the past 40 years.

The term “booze bus” was coined in the early days after police used ex-government buses to conduct further breath tests after drivers blew over the limit roadside.

Today, police use dedicated buses and vans with specialist equipment for roadside retesting.

“We were one of the first jurisdictions in the world to see Random Breath Testing taking place,” NSW Deputy Premier and Police Minister Paul Toole told a media conference to commemorate the 40th anniversary of RBT.

“The statistics speak for themselves. They have saved thousands of lives over that time. When we go back to the 1980s, we saw around 30 per cent of fatalities on our roads occurred because people were drink-driving. Today that (ratio) has almost been halved.”

NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Brett McFadden, who is in charge of the Traffic and Highway Patrol Command, said police will be ramping-up drug testing after new statistics revealed it was an increasing factor in the road toll.

While alcohol is deemed a contributing factor in 17 per cent of road fatalities in NSW, illicit drugs are emerging as a bigger danger.

“In the last five years the presence of drugs has resulted in a 23 per cent indicator or contributing factor (in road deaths in NSW),” said Assistant Commissioner McFadden.

“We need to be looking at moving from RBT to looking at Random Drug Testing … as part of what we do.

“As we move forward in the next 40 years, we need to make sure the work we’ve done in educating our community on the dangers and hazards associated with alcohol, we need to make sure the same education (applies to) the adverse effect of drugs.”

When asked if technology would one day allow police to conduct roadside tests for drugs and alcohol with one device, Assistant Commissioner McFadden said: “I would love technology to catch up with that need. I would love the ability to be able to have an immediate indicator of (a motorist) under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

“I wish all the tech providers every success in reaching that challenge, and we are happy to work with them on any new technology that comes forward.”

As it stands, police today use two different types of technology to test for drugs and alcohol on the roadside: a voice-activated device to detect the presence of alcohol, and a tongue strip to detect illegal drugs.

Technology has come a long way from the first roadside random breath test devices.

The first roadside random breath test device required drivers to blow through a clear tube – which had crystals in it – into a clear plastic one-litre bag to determine the concentration of alcohol in their breath.

If the crystals in the tube turned green, the driver would be taken back to the station for further testing.

Breath test devices then went digital, initially with a small handheld machine with internal sensors. Drivers were asked to blow into a white plastic tube, and the device would then show a digital readout of the driver’s concentration of alcohol.

Police then rolled out a larger device that required officers to key in the registration of each car tested. However, this became cumbersome and time-consuming and police went back to the more compact alcometer.

In 2014, technology advanced to be able to detect alcohol on someone’s breath by having a motorist count from one to 10 in close proximity to a sensor on a screening device.

This eliminated a lot of waste because the technology no longer relied solely on breathing tubes, and was faster at delivering results.

Today’s voice-activated RBT devices also have the ability to check breath via a white plastic tube for a second reading before a driver is taken back to the station for further testing.

Although random breath testing is a way of life in Australia, it is not a common road safety initiative overseas.

“It’s a worldwide initiative and we’ve shown the success of it,” said Assistant Commissioner McFadden. “There are still other advanced countries that struggle with the concept of what we do with the random testing for drugs and alcohol.

“All drivers have a social contract without other road users. Aside from the legislative obligations, it’s up to you to make sure that you and the people in your car – and those that you pass each and every day – are able to go about their business, and get to where they’re going safely.

“You can expect to see us on the road and expect to be engaging with us both with Random Breath Testing and Random Drug Testing.”

Alcohol breath-testing was introduced in NSW in December 1968 – when the blood-alcohol limit was 0.08 (before it was lowered to 0.05 in 1980).

However, drivers could only be tested after an accident, driving offence, or if suspected by police of driving under the influence. After years of debate, safety advocates pushed authorities to test drivers randomly.

Roadside Random Breath Test history in Australia

Victoria: 1976
Northern Territory: 1980
South Australia: 1981
NSW and ACT: 1982
Tasmania: 1983
Queensland: 1988
Western Australia: 1988

NSW Random Breath Test History

16 December, 1968:  Breath testing began, blood-alcohol limit of 0.08 introduced. Drivers could be tested only after an accident or driving offence.15 December, 1980: Alcohol limit dropped to 0.05.17 December, 1982: Random breath testing trial begins.10 December, 1985: RBT becomes law in NSW.17 December 2022: RBT commemorates 40th anniversary

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