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The Law Around Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol in South Africa and Examples

- Featured article by LAWYERS-ONLINE.CO.ZA - June 2019

Driving under the influence of alcohol, or “drunk driving” is a criminal offence in South Africa, and can result in heavy penalties including imprisonment and fines. It is also a serious problem in South Africa as many people tend to take the dangerous risk of getting behind wheel when they are over the legal limit. A 2015 survey actually showed that South Africa has the highest number of incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol – a whopping 58% at the time!

But what constitutes being over the limit? To find out, we look to the National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996 with specific reference to section 65. The legal limit is determined by looking at the blood alcohol level of a driver and it actually differs for normal drivers and professional drivers:

  • For normal drivers the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream must be less than 0.05g per 100ml for blood tests and for breathalysers it must measure less than 0.24mg per 1 000ml
  • For professional drivers the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream must be less than 0.02g per 100ml for blood tests and for breathalysers it must measure less than 0.10mg per 1 000ml

These measurements equate to one unit of 10ml pure alcohol per hour for a person of average build, that being 68kg. Of course not all drinks are made equally and it is important to know what constitutes one unit of alcohol. Let’s look at a few examples below:

  • One75ml glass of wine equates to 1 unit, meaning a full glass (250ml) of wine is 3.3 units
  • One shooter is half a unit depending on the strength of the alcohol
  • One spirit cooler equates to 1.25 units
  • One beer is 1.25 unit, depending on the alcohol volume of the drink
  • A cocktail can range between 2 and 4 units depending on the contents

Although we are only speaking of alcohol as an example, it is illegal to drive under the influence of any narcotics, including marijuana and those narcotics that are illegal.

So what are the penalties for being found guilty of drunk driving in South Africa? The maximum amount of time a person may spend in prison is 6 years, while also facing a maximum fine of R120 000, not to mention the potential suspension of their driver’s licence. A heavy punishment for the proverbial “one for the road”. Not only that, but drunk drivers will also have a criminal record which could negatively impact their ability to get a job or travel internationally.

On top of the charge of drunk driving, there are additional charges that may be levied against a person - the charges may be pushed to include negligent or even reckless driving. Interestingly, these charges apply even if an intoxicated person is merely occupying the driver’s seat of a car while the engine is on. So as soon as the key turns in the ignition, drunk driving laws are in effect in South Africa.

So how are people caught for roadblocks? Well, firstly should their reckless behaviour result in a car accident they will be tested for alcohol in their bloodstream, but the most common way that drunk drivers are identified is through the use of roadblocks conducted by law enforcement officials such as SAPS and Metro Police. It is within the rights of the officers at these roadblocks to request a breathalyser.

If you are found to be over the limit following the test, you may be arrested as per the provisions laid out in section 40(1) of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 for the charge of being in contravention of section 65 of the National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996.

This arrest can result in detainment, which means being taken to the nearest police station as soon as possible for more tests (such as blood tests), because although a breathalyser may say one thing, conclusive proof is needed to prove that someone was driving under the influence. There is no right to refuse a blood test, however the arrested driver may request his medical practitioner to be present, and they may ask to see syringe in order to be assured that it sealed and hygienic. Under the Criminal Procedure Act, the following persons are authorised to draw blood for a drunk driving arrest:

  • A medical officer of the prison
  • A district surgeon
  • A registered medical practitioner like a nurse

If you are arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, the Criminal Procedure Act states that you must be brought before a court within 48 hours, excluding public holidays or weekend, and that the arrested person must be informed of their right to bail.

Should you require any assistance regarding the law pertaining to driving under the influence of alcohol in South Africa, please feel free to send us a query and will put you in touch with a qualified lawyer who can assist.

The Law Around Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol in South Africa and Examples