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Drink driving is a crime, not a petty infringement

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One would have thought somebody, somewhere, in the ACT government would have realised that three weeks after announcing the worst year for deaths on Canberra roads in half a decade was not the best time to propose effectively decriminalising low range drink-driving.

That is what Attorney-General Simon Corbell did on Wednesday when he released a discussion paper proposing level two drink-driving offences by first offenders be dealt with by criminal infringement notices [CINs].

A low level drink-driving offence is one in which the driver records a blood alcohol level of between .05 and .079 per cent.

It will join other petty crimes such as urinating in a public place and sneaking into a cricket match in being dealt with by a process closely related to that used to collect parking and speeding fines.

While drivers would lose their licence for two months, accepting this penalty and paying the fine would not constitute an admission of guilt. No offence would appear on the individual's criminal history.

The plan, to allow only the drink-driving CINs to be considered as a first offence in the event of a subsequent breach, appears problematic and open to challenge by any clever lawyer.

February 23 this year marks the 34th anniversary of the historic Fraser government cabinet meeting that supported the application of random breath-testing on a national scale and the development of what ultimately became the famous "if you drink and drive you are a bloody idiot" campaign.

The two-pronged approach of public education and random breath-testing was a response to absolute carnage on the nation's roads. Of the 3318 Australians killed in car crashes in 1981, more than 1000 died in accidents in which alcohol had been identified as a factor.

In 2015, despite Canberra's poor showing on the road safety front, just over 1100 people died across the nation.

Of these only about 12 per cent, or just over 100, were killed in incidents in which alcohol was a factor.

The question that has to be asked is "why is the ACT government even considering tinkering around the edges of such a remarkable success story that has literally saved the lives of tens of thousands of people?"

The short answer appears to be administrative efficiency. Criminal infringement notices were introduced here in 2008 to reduce the amount of time police spent processing minor offences and to move them out of the court system.

"The time savings associated with the use of criminal infringement notices allow the police to focus on more proactive policing activities, including targeting and investigating more serious offences," the latest discussion paper said.

It conceded "making level 2 PCA offences eligible as CIN offences may be seen as watering down the serious nature of drink-driving and the community's expectations that such offenders be brought before the court".

This is the case against in a nutshell.

After nearly 30 years of saying drink-driving is a serious crime the ACT government will be sending a very confusing message to the public if it adopts this proposal.