Shining a light on drink driving

Drink driving continues to be one of the main causes of road fatalities and injuries in Australia. It is clear why Governments and the Police support strong laws, and why the Courts impose tough penalties.

In this article we take a step back and examine why we have the laws we do today.

Random Breath Testing

Random Breath Testing (RBT) was introduced at different times around Australia as a major drink driving deterrent.

Police officers can require a driver to take a breath test. If the driver refuses to take the test, or, if the test is positive, that person will be arrested and taken to a police station for secondary or further breath testing within two hours of the first test or refusal.

Victoria was the first state to introduce RBT in 1976. Preliminary operations started slowly, but intensified over subsequent years. Statistics indicate that between 1977 and 2014, the proportion of motorists who died with a BAC reading that exceeded 0.05 declined from 49% to 15%.

There have been numerous evaluations of RBT as a road safety measure, and these have largely produced positive outcomes. For example, in New South Wales the introduction of RBT in 1982 led to an initial (and massive) 48% reduction in fatal crashes over a four and a half month period and an average 15% reduction in fatal crashes over a subsequent 10 year period. In Queensland, RBT led to a reduction in fatal crashes of 35% and 28% in Western Australia over a four year period.

The cost to the community

The statistics are staggering, and it is little wonder all Governments are keen to minimise the costs to the community.

In 2006, the cost of each fatal crash to the Australian community was estimated at approximately $2.6m, while the cost of each hospitalisation crash was estimated at approximately $266,000.

Penalties in Victoria

Drink driving is an offence under the Road Safety Act 1986 (Vic) with significant fines and disqualification periods applicable.

Depending on the type of licence held, there are different amounts of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) a driver is permitted to have in their body.

  • Drivers with a full licence must have less than .05 BAC in their system.
  • P-plate and L-plate drivers and those with a zero BAC condition on their licence (for example, taxi drivers, bus drivers and drivers of heavy vehicles) must have no alcohol in their system while driving.

In most cases, drivers caught with a BAC that exceeds the prescribed limit applicable for their licence type must be disqualified from driving (or, if unlicensed, disqualified from obtaining a licence) for a minimum period and issued a fine. The disqualification period and range of penalties depend on the BAC reading and whether it is a first or subsequent offence.

The Court may impose more severe penalties, for example, in circumstances where the driver has received other driving charges at the same time, was involved in an accident, or has a poor driving history.

Monetary fines also apply, and for more serious offences, a prison sentence may be imposed.

Additionally, offenders must attend a drink driver behaviour change program before the disqualification period is lifted or before applying to have a licence reinstated. They must also use an alcohol interlock device for a specified period as a condition of holding a licence. This is a device fitted to the motor vehicle’s ignition that prevents the car from starting if alcohol is detected in the driver’s breath.

Drivers convicted of a drink driving offence will also be required to have a zero BAC, usually, for at least three years after reinstatement of their licence.

As of 31 January 2018, Victorian drivers will be subject to Victorian drink driving laws irrespective of the state or territory in which they have been convicted.

Going to Court

Drink driving offences are dealt with in Court. The charge sheet issued to a driver from the Police will set out the day and time of the Court appearance. The Court process can be confronting and worrying, and penalties will likely be imposed.

No matter what charges or circumstances, and whether or not a person intends to plead guilty to the offence, it is always wise to obtain independent legal assistance well ahead of the Court date so the matter can be discussed, and the most appropriate course of action taken.

In most cases, a person who is found guilty of a drink driving offence will lose his or her licence and receive a fine. The range of penalties which the Court can impose depends on the BAC reading, the circumstances, and the person’s prior record for similar offences. A prison sentence may be imposed for serious offences.

Generally, unless the correct process was not used by the Police and / or the equipment used was defective, the Police prosecuting the case can rely on the outcome of the breath test to prove the offence.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to adjourn the matter so there is more time to prepare, or because the person’s lawyer may not be available on the first date. Legal advice is helpful in order to plan for the process properly.

If there is to be a guilty plea then the person needs to know what the likely penalties are, and if they need to do anything that might assist in reducing that penalty such as obtaining character references or other relevant evidence. A lawyer can assist by explaining the Court process and preparing appropriate submissions to support the case.


The Courts treat traffic offences seriously, particularly drink driving offences. For anyone confronting the criminal justice system it is important to get competent legal advice as early as possible and certainly before attending Court.

This article is intended to provide general information only. You should obtain professional advice before you undertake any course of action.

If someone you know is concerned about their rights and obligations with respect to a drink driving charge, or needs help or advice, please contact us on 03 8415 5600 or email

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