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New Zealand: New Blood and Breath Alcohol Content Limits for Drivers Come into Effect

(Dec. 5, 2014) On December 1, 2014, new drunk driving limits came into effect in New Zealand. (Land Transport Amendment Act (No 2) 2014, Ministry of Transport (last updated Dec. 2, 2014).) The changes follow the passage of the Land Transport Amendment Act (No. 2) 2014 (New Zealand Legislation website (Aug. 2014)). This Act lowered the breath alcohol limit for drivers over 20 years of age from the previous limit of 400 micrograms of alcohol per liter of breath to 250 micrograms. The blood alcohol limit was also reduced, from 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood (0.08%) to 50 milligrams (0.05%). (Id. § 4.) For drivers under 20 years of age, the Act maintains the existing zero alcohol limit that was introduced in 2011. (Land Transport Act 1998, § 11(c), New Zealand Legislation website.)

Background

Drunk driving is a significant issue in New Zealand. The Ministry of Transport states that around 30% of fatal road accidents involve alcohol as a factor and that over the past ten years such accidents have resulted in about 1,100 deaths and 5,300 serious injuries. (Land Transport Amendment Act (No 2) 2014 Questions and Answers, MINISTRY OF TRANSPORT (last updated Dec. 4, 2014).) A 2012 survey indicated that around 60% of New Zealanders favored lowering the legal alcohol limit for driving. (Id.) In 2013, the World Health Organization reported that 89 countries had adopted its recommended adult blood alcohol content limit of 0.05% in their drunk driving laws. (Id.)

New Zealand law permits police officers to stop drivers at any time in order to test their breath for alcohol. A passive breath test is conducted using a handheld device. A breath screening test will then be required if any alcohol is detected. If this test shows a high alcohol level, the person will be asked to take an evidential breath test or a blood test. (The Official New Zealand Road Code: About Limits, NZ TRANSPORT AGENCY (last updated Nov. 19, 2014).)

The 2014 Amendment Act

The 2014 Amendment Act introduced a new infringement offense for drivers for whom an evidential breath test shows between 251 and 400 micrograms of alcohol per liter of breath, which is penalized by a $200 infringement fee and 50 license demerit points. (Land Transport Amendment Act (No. 2) 2014, § 5 & sch 2.) Infringement fees and demerit point levels are set in the Land Transport (Offences and Penalties) Regulations 1999 (New Zealand Legislation website). The offense does not result in a criminal conviction, and drivers cannot elect to have an evidential blood test. Under existing law, drivers who accumulate 100 or more demerit points within a two-year period will have their license suspended for three months. (Land Transport Amendment Act (No 2) 2014 Questions and Answers, supra.)

The current law provides that a person will face criminal charges if an evidential breath test shows more than 400 micrograms of alcohol per liter of breath. (Land Transport Act 1998, § 56.) This was not changed by the 2014 Amendment Act. First and second drunk driving offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to NZ$4,500 (about US$3,500) and license suspension for six months or more. Third and subsequent offenses attract a penalty of up to two years of imprisonment or a fine of up to NZ$6,000 (about US$4,668) and license suspension of a year or more. (Id.) The requirement for a court to impose a three-year “zero tolerance license” for repeat offenders was introduced in 2012 (id. § 65B), as was the ability to enter a person into an alcohol interlock program; the interlock program involves a series of steps that include having an alcohol interlock device installed in the offender’s vehicle starting system. (Land Transport Act 1998, § 65A; The Alcohol Interlock Programme, NZ TRANSPORT AGENCY (last updated Dec. 1, 2014).)

If a person refuses or is unable to complete an evidential breath test, he or she is required to have an evidential blood test. (Land Transport Act 1998, § 72.) A person can also elect to undertake a blood test if the evidential breath test shows more than 400 micrograms of alcohol per liter of breath. (Land Transport Amendment Act (No. 2) 2014, § 10, amending § 70A of the Land Transport Act 1998.) Under the changes in the 2014 Amendment Act, a blood test result of between 51 and 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood incurs an infringement fee of up to NZ$700 (about US$545) and 50 demerit points. (Land Transport Amendment Act (No. 2) 2014, sch 2.) A result of more than 0.08% will still lead to criminal charges with the same penalties outlined above.