A South African Police Service roadblock on the M4 in the central business district of Durban. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)
The severity of the punishment, if caught, is not a deterrent to the commission of crime. If alcohol users can be reasonably certain that when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle they will be stopped and tested, they are less likely to do so and make alternative arrangements or postpone their trip.
The ban on selling alcohol during lockdown remains controversial territory, with private sector groups trying to craft an inexpensive, if not self-exculpatory, narrative. While alcohol traffickers and alcohol harm reduction groups may have very different views and practices, both camps agree that alcohol regulation laws must be effectively enforced.
For example, if there is to be a new minimum blood alcohol level that applies to driving out of the country currently 0.05 g / 100 ml blood to a little less or even zero, then it still has to be enforced, as a change in the law is meaningless if it is not enforced.
The second problem with law enforcement in general is that the severity of the punishment, if caught, is not a deterrent against the commission of crime, but rather the certainty of being caught. If alcohol users can be reasonably certain that when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle they will be stopped and tested, they are less likely to do so and make alternative arrangements or postpone their trip. South Africa has one of the toughest criminal regimes (mandatory minimum sentences for a wide variety of crimes), but it doesn’t seem to stop people from committing crimes.
Driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol content of over 0.05 g per 100 ml is a criminal offense and is referred to as “driving under the influence” or DUI for short. Enforcement of the DUI legislation falls on SAPS, the metro police (if any) and local law enforcement. However, when people are arrested for DUI, these numbers are ultimately recorded by SAPS and are included in the crime statistics reported by SAPS.
DUI arrests, in all likelihood, are primarily due to roadblocks and crash scenes that law enforcement agencies are taking care of. In 2020, there were 94,273 DUI arrests nationwide registered by SAPS. For comparison: in 2006 there were only 33,076, which corresponds to an almost three-fold increase. The data shows that There is a connection between DUI enforcement and road deaths in the sense that for approximately every 10 DUI arrests per 100,000 inhabitants there is almost one less traffic death. It therefore makes sense to consistently enforce the DUI legislation.
Enforcement of DUI legislation has created some controversy over the years, most notably about using a breathalyzer to test a person, and this has contributed to enforcement issues. The Western Cape Supreme Court found in 2011 that the manufacturer could not be the supplier and arbiter for the accuracy of the equipment (S versus Hendricks (CC46 / 2010) ). This could explain a decrease in DUI cases in some provinces and is discussed below. In 2019 the Dräger alcohol tester was restarted, although it requires a fairly cumbersome paper trail.
However, the use of alcohol testers has been discontinued since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Enforcement remains an important issue and, given the DUI numbers per province, there is a worrying trend across three provinces. While six provinces have seen steady increases, the Eastern Cape, North Cape, and Western Cape have seen steady decreases in DUI arrests in recent years.
In the Western Cape, for example, the number peaked at 17,500 DUI arrests in 2012 but fell to 12,400 by 2020 – a decrease of nearly 30%. This is due, at least in part, to the Supreme Court decision mentioned above. In the Eastern Cape it fell from almost 11,000 in 2010 to 5,262 in 2020 (a decrease of more than 50%) and in the North Cape from 1,434 in 2008 to 620 in 2020; a decrease of 57%. As a result, there are significant differences between the provinces in the number of people arrested for DUI.
The 2019 population statistics can be used to calculate the number of DUI arrests per 100,000 inhabitants per province. The national rate is 161 arrests per 100,000 people and Gauteng tops the list with 232 arrests per 100,000 people, followed by KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape with 184 and 182 / 100,000 people respectively. At the end of the list are the Northwest (87 / 100,000), the Eastern Cape (81 / 100,000) and the North Cape (49 / 100,000). While DUI arrests declined in the Western Cape, the rate per 100,000 remained above the national rate at 182 / 100,000.
On the positive side, two provinces are Gauteng and KZN. There were fewer than 8,000 DUI arrests in both provinces in 2006, but by 2020 the number was 35,000 and 21,000 respectively.
In short, a drunk driver from Gauteng is five times more likely to be arrested than a drunk driver from North Cape. This substantial increase appears to indicate a firm political decision to enforce DUI legislation and may be linked to close cross-agency collaboration, particularly focused on traffic management. It is not clear what is behind the rapid declines in the three Cape Provinces (aside from the Supreme Court decision) and whether there were other priorities or a de-escalation of DUI enforcement.
Roadblocks are a source of DUI arrests, and the various law enforcement agencies have the power to set up roadblocks. In 2019/20, SAPS announced that it had erected 32,769 roadblocks nationwide, or 28 roadblocks per police station. There are 1,154 police stations, which equates to 2.3 roadblocks per police station per month in 2019/20. Weekends are the preferred binge drinking of South Africans, but with such a low frequency, not even covering the four weekends of a month, the certainty is that the drunk driver will not encounter a roadblock.
Enforcement inconsistency is further reflected when looking at the number of vehicles registered per province and the DUI arrests per 1,000 vehicles registered. The national rate is 13.3 arrests per 1,000 vehicles registered and The provinces then fall into two groups with an outlier.
The first group is close to the national rate of 13.3 arrests per 1,000 registered vehicles and ranges from 10 to 13 arrests per 1,000 in 2020 (Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Western Cape).
The second group are rural provinces with a low number of vehicles (KZN, Limpopo and Northwest), which include between 21 and 27 arrests per 1,000 vehicles. The complete outlier is North Cape with 1.9 arrests per 1,000 vehicles. The North Cape also has the highest proportion of citizens per registered vehicle in one registered vehicle per four people compared to the Northwest at 1:32. Gauteng has five people per registered vehicle and six in Western Cape.
In relation to its population, the North Cape has the most vehicles on the road, but by far the lowest number of DUI arrests. However, this has not always been the case and seems to have evolved over time since 2008. The data for 2015-2017 also indicate this The North Cape has the highest traffic deaths (all deaths) per 100,000 people (between 32.6 and 35.7) compared to Gauteng and Western Cape, which are generally less than 20 deaths per 100,000 people.
However, it is unfortunate that the roadblock data is not broken down by province, enforcement agency (SAPS or metro police), or location (e.g. urban, suburban or rural). Another and important unknown is the origin of DUI cases or how the authorities became aware of the matter, such as a road block or an accident. It may indeed be the case that it is the latter that is afterthought. What is required is proactive radio frequency testing to capture the sense of enforcement.
While the ideal solution is self-regulation, it seems that the smartest investment at this stage is effective, consistent, and predictable law enforcement. If significant numbers of people are consistently caught and prosecuted for DUI in all provinces, it won’t be long before drunk driving perceptions and, ultimately, behavior change.
While the punishment for a first offense is not that harsh, the important problem is that people who overstep the limit are caught. DM
Lukas Muntingh is an Associate Professor and heads the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative (CSPRI) at the University of the Western Cape’s Dullah Omar Institute.