Wednesday, 28 July 2010

DOWN TO THE DOCTOR’S: Dry motorists should demand compensation!

Libertarianz leader Dr Richard McGrath ransacks the newspapers for stories and issues affecting our freedom.

This week: “Dry motorists should demand compensation!”

One morning recently, I was driving through Masterton on my way to a rest home, where I had been asked to see a sick patient. What should I spot up ahead but a gaggle of police officers, half a dozen of them, blocking the flow of traffic. Up ahead of me, cars were stopped, and police officers were thrusting portable sniffer machines into drivers’ faces, fishing for evidence of alcohol ingestion.

In due course I was stopped by a police officer, asked to wind down my window and to count backwards from five into the hand-held sniffer. Instead of this, I commented that the law that allowed the police to do this was an invasion of the privacy of motorists. The officer did not seem to realise that in earlier days, police or traffic officers were not allowed to detain motorists without just cause -– they could only do so if (for instance) the person was driving erratically, had a light on the car not working, or if the car was obviously not of a safe enough standard to obtain a warrant of fitness. All this officer knew however was that he had unbridled power to stop my car and order me to breathe into his machine, and there he was (ab)using it.

I made my displeasure known to the officer, stating that detaining me without just cause was an invasion of my privacy, and that he had no moral right to interfere with people going about their daily business in peace.

My comments served to inflame him somewhat. Despite finding no alcohol on my breath, this defender of public safety started frantically scanning the windscreen of my car for evidence of missing paperwork –- an expired warrant, or worse: tax evasion via failure to pay road user charges. Sadly for the poor man, all papers were in order, which meant my two-year old car was probably roadworthy, and the IRD had taken their cut. I offered to show him my driver’s licence but he wasn’t interested. I was waved on, and drove away, still fuming. This was 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning. The alcohol from the Emerson’s beer the previous Tuesday evening had been successfully metabolised by my liver into less exciting molecules.

That same evening, I was pulled over again in a different part of town and asked by yet another policeman to exhale into a sniffer. This time I smiled and did exactly as asked. At last, I had won the battle over myself. I loved Big Brother. Well, not quite.

The test was once again negative. I was waved on. Over the next few days I got to thinking about the powers of the police and just what the law allows them to do. In their own words they can stop any car, anywhere, anytime, without the slightest shred of evidence that the driver or anyone else aboard has committed an offence against other people or their property. Innocence is no defence. Unless the fact that you are driving a motor vehicle makes one a carbon criminal. And as carbon dioxide is an end product of alcohol consumption, drinking and driving would thus contribute in two ways to catastrophic global warming.

But I digress. The police can stop anyone randomly with the excuse of checking for one of the many risk factors that cause driver impairment. If one doth protest too loudly, the scope of the examination is widened to include checks for evidence of tax evasion and expired currency of driver licensing and vehicle warrants of fitness and registration.

And why can they do this? Simple – because their masters, the state, own the roads. And this is the same agency that also has the legal monopoly on the use of force. Because of this infernal conjunction of affairs, they can unilaterally set whatever rules they like, regardless of any “buy-in” from those who use the roads, and enforce them in any fashion that they like. They can, and they do, any time they like.  They can turn the roads into checkout terminals, motorists into cash cows, the police into de facto revenue officials—and the citizens they were supposed to serve and protect into subjects who made to comply and shell out.  

It is time we the motorists fought back against this tyranny of tax collectors. Anyone over the limit with breath or blood alcohol faces a stiff fine and temporary loss of their driving permission slip. I have some difficulty with this, as although people with alcohol in their blood are often impaired in reaction times, co-ordination and fine motor skills, technically they have hurt no-one and have committed no actual crime (no crime in the sense that no-one deserves compensation). They have hurt no-one. They have not damaged property or people. There are already laws that provide for redress when a person wrongfully damages someone’s property or person. Drink-drive laws focus only on one risk factor, and one risk factor only. They are the foot in the door. Only a few steps away are roadblocks where police search cars for cell phones switched on, sources of music and even the presence of passengers, all of whom could possibly distract the driver and make accidents more likely. The principle is the same. Very soon we could have mandatory governors in engines to restrict road speed.

This is not targeting crime; it’s punishing pre-crime.

So, what does this libertarian suggest?

First, to stem the increasing loss in public support for the police because of this kind of jack-booted pre-crime policing, there should be instant compensation for innocent motorists when they are detained at dragnets and screened for evidence of toxic impairment. I’m talking five dollars per driver per stoppage. A tax refund, if you like. But just compensation for the inconvenience of being prevented from going about one’s daily business, particularly when time is money. and a lost opportunity to serve a customer is a net loss for both parties.

Second, take the state out of the ownership equation by privatising the roads by both distribution and sale to competing interests so that motorists can come to contractual agreement themselves with road owners on mutually agreed terms and conditions allowing use of the road in question. If motorists feel the owner of one road is excessively zealous, they may be able to choose to bypass that particular route and contract with a different road owner. If the road owner doesn’t want a particular car or driver on their road because (for instance) they pose a likely danger to others, they can exercise their property right and exclude the car or driver from their land.

The incentive will be to make driving on the road more convenient and thus attract more users in order to maintain profit levels for the shareholders in companies that own and manage the traffic routes. There may be other less intrusive ways of screening for alcohol intoxication and other causes of functional driving impairment than the current roadblocks. The free market has a knack of finding solutions to problems that minimise customer inconvenience. Our boys and girls in blue would do well to remember that. And our elected representatives should also consider implementing a pilot scheme to privatise the operation of some of our highways, especially new ones. Give New Zealanders a tax break and allow tolling of roads so that the user pays. Redirect police back into their proper role of protecting the public. End the harassment of motorists. And compensate those who are harassed.

I reckon five bucks per innocent motorist stopped is fair enough, until the law is changed. What do readers think? It would certainly offer a small incentive not to drink and drive!

“When the people fear the government, there is tyranny – when
the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
- attributed to Thomas Jefferson


  1. What's bugging me at the moment is the zero alcohol limit for under 20's (and no I'm well out of the range).
    If they're old to fight, vote & drink why shouldn't they be allowed a pint after work.

  2. I would like to see the New Zealand Police named in a manner that more accurately reflects what they actually do - how does IRD Blue sound?

  3. Would be a nice little earner for motorists who would presumably drive through as many checkpoints as they could find, possibly multiple times, to get the $5 of someone else's money each time.

  4. My job involves interaction with The Ministry of Agriculture. If an import takes their fancy they examine it, nothing wrong in this given their position and what is at stake.

    However regardless of whether the target of their attention proves to be hazardous to bio-security or not – they still charge! So an importer has to pay even when they are innocent.

    How does that work?

    Great post by the way.


  5. Richard, suppose that it is a private road that you were travelling on as you described. How would the situation you encountered withe the police be any different if the owners of that private road you were driving thru did the same thing. They stopped their roadusers at random on their own private roads to breath test drivers?

    I am not convinced that roads should be privatized. Do you think that private roads and their owners will never do alcohol breath test? I would argue that private roads is similar to illiquid markets?

  6. @FF, you ask, "How would the situation you encountered ... be any different [on a] private road"?

    The answer lies in Richard's post, i.e., Simple – because the good folk who own the roads WON'T be the same agency that also has the legal monopoly on the use of force.

    That's one big difference.

  7. Well said Richard!

    Talk-back moaners were carrying on about tougher punishment, confiscate private property and lower limits all in the name of accident prevention of course.

    In the mean-time I was wondering how many accidents are due to alcohol. So I looked it up.

    On average 14% of road accidents involve alcohol. Note that it doesn't mean alcohol was the cause. They call it a contributing factor. In other words if someone sober swerves in upcoming traffic a less drunk driver might have been able to avoid being hit by the sober guy.

    So let that 14% stand. It means 86% of accidents have other causes. Old age, distraction, mechanical, confusion and so on.

    Yet almost all the focus is on this 14% alcohol related number. And apparently it is OK to force road-side checks on such a minor issue. Nobody seems to realise where this is leading. Richard is quite right when he points out that you may as well have road-side checks to avoid other driving risks.

    I invite you to provide examples here.

  8. @FFF

    The difference, as PC points out, is that it won't be the police who stop you on a private road (unless you really have hurt someone or something or trespassed, etc., and the owner calls the police). Owners of private roads would have incentive to make any screening of drivers as unobtrusive as possible.

    Police roadblocks, on the other hand, are blunt instruments that seriously inconvenience vast swathes of law-abiding New Zealanders. The emotional reponse engendered by getting pulled up at one of these things is a threat to safe driving, IMHO!

    As an example off the top of my head, the road owner could insist that all drivers on his road have a device installed in the car that stops the engine starting if the driver has alcohol on his breath. No need then for the roadblocks! Problem solved.

    Thanks for the great editing job, PC.

  9. It certainly makes more sense just to wait for for a drunk driver to crash and injure or kill someone than intrusively invade the rights of innocent motorists with these arbitary checkpoints. Statistically there is only a very small chance that it might be you or your family they hit.

    I certainly don't think taking the power away from Police to breath test drivers would encourage many more people to drive drunk knowing that they would not get caught either.

  10. And why can they do this? Simple – because their masters, the state, own the roads.

    Trouble is, the state would simply insist that its police have these powers on private roads, too. They're always giving the police "new powers" (like they're Superman or something!) to invade private property.

  11. @Michael

    Is a statistical risk enough reason to force road-side safety checks on everyone?

    I would think that you choose to take that risk the moment you participate in traffic.

    You may not like the odds but does that give you the right to force those odds down by limiting other people in what they do?

  12. Dinther, one persons freedom can impinge and restrict on others to a far greater extent than the initial liberty in question was ever restricted.

    The freedom to drink and drive without repercussions from the Police until you crash would result in many motorists myself included not using the roads we pay for between certain hours and on certain days, simply because the risk of being hit by a drunk would be too great.

    I have been commuting and driving around Auckland daily for the past 25 years and have not once been stopped either by a patrol car nor at a single check point. I would argue that the status quo impinges far less on my liberty than the alternative.

  13. This crap is exactly why Libz are unelectable.
    I'd rather suffer these inconveniences than be a paraplegic with the right to sue for a handsome sum in compensation!

  14. @ previous two posters.

    And that is why we are forever heading to a more and more regulated police state. Every issue is seen by itself.

    I rather have A than B and therefore...

    You fail to see the bigger picture here.

  15. The owner of a private road could make it known that on this road there are compulsory breath tests, which would almost guarantee to other drivers that nobody on this road is under the influence, resulting in more people using the road because they know there are no Drunks.

    On a private road it is the owners perogative to make whatever rules they want - If you dont like the rules on this road - dont use it. - No force - just choices

    People who drink would need to find another route.

    If most of the roads then did breath testing, drink drivers would find it difficult to drive without the certainty of getting busted.

    Drivers would have a choice to use a road that advertises NO breath testing - then you take your own chances.

  16. @Anon (stevew):

    I assume you would still be happy if the roadside sniffer test was extended to a check of driver licence, warrant, registration and road user charges (oh, I forgot, this happens already). Or if the officer asked nicely if he could have quick look in your boot for illegal firearms, marijuana or a bald spare tyre ("this will only take a few seconds, sir, then you can be on your way"). Or asked for a DNA mouth swab ("there's nothing to fear is there, sir, if you're innocent?"). Or quickly checked the children in the car for signs of child abuse or neglect ("wouldn't want to miss an abused child, sir").

    The problem I see is that there is no limit to what the government can tack onto these roadside testing areas. I imagine outstanding fines or rates bills will be another thing people will be asked about. There is NO LIMIT Steve, and that's what gets up my nose. I could end up being detained for 15 minutes, and that would really piss me off if I had done nothing wrong. It's the PRINCIPLE, Steve, that the police can stop people who have done nothing wrong, and interrogate them for as long as they like, that gets up my nose.

    And what about the people who are killed or disabled DESPITE the massive numbers of police out sniffing innocent drivers while the victims of real crimes such as burglary have to wait days for a policeman to appear?

  17. Police as our servants. Police doing their proper job of protecting life and property. Oh I enjoy a good comedy.

  18. @Richard McGrath
    Richard, why do you assume that I'd be happy to see testing extended to such other items? I didn't say so.
    None of those things is going to kill me - not even the illegal firearms, unless the holder of said firearms makes a conscious decision to shoot me. The point about drunk drivers is that they are not in a position to make decisions - their judgment is compromised by the alcohol in their bloodstream.
    I agree that their powers need to be kept in check and limited to those that are essential - this doesn't mean they should have no powers at all.

  19. @Stevew

    I'm hoping you WOULD feel less than happy if the police extended their search beyond that for evidence of alcohol-related driver impairment.

    But as PC points out in his later thread, checkpoints are an exercise in profiling; imposing a night curfew on dark-skinned people would probably prevent a lot of crime - would you be in favour of that too? If not, why wouldn't you?

    As Mr Dinther indicates, alcohol is involved in 14% of road accidents. I would wager dark-skinned people are involved in more than 14% of street crime at night. For a start they're damned hard to see at night - but that's beside the point. Statistically, there is a stronger case to be made for keeping pigmented people in their homes after dark than for checking drivers for alcohol impairment.

    You also assume a drink driver is going to have an accident. Wrong. On one or two occasions in my youth I accepted rides from drivers who were over the alcohol limit, and came to no harm.

    I agree with your claim that police powers need to be limited - pity none of the mainstream parties agree. If there was a groundswell of public opinion that police powers be extended to allow detailed searches of vehicles and compulsory DNA testing of suspects, you can bet our current crop of MPs would back it all the way.


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