Drunk drivers off the hook?

2015-01-05 00:00

DELAYS in the opening of a provincial forensic laboratory could see drunk drivers caught this festive season only appear in court by the end of 2015 — if ever.

And a high-ranking Pietermaritzburg police officer said it can take years for the results to be returned and sometimes they receive nothing at all.

The DA’s spokesperson for health, Wilmot James, said the new laboratory, based in Durban and originally scheduled to be opened by the Health Department on January 1, was expected to cater for the influx of blood samples collected throughout the festive season.

Nationally, over 900 drunk drivers were arrested between December 1 and December 23.

The laboratory’s new opening date has been moved to May 1. However, there is no guarantee that this new deadline will be met.

“With the backlog of testing that needs to be done, it is highly unlikely that drunk drivers caught during the 2014 festive season will even appear in court until the 2015 festive season,” said James.

The DA heavyweight said due to delays, drunk driving cases are “thrown out of court”.

Currently all blood samples are sent to one of three centres in either Cape Town, Johannesburg or Pretoria. As of November, the national backlog was 35 501 cases

“Even with a 100% processing rate and with all the laboratories, including Durban, being operational, it will take an average time of six months to return results,” James said. He said results could be returned within six days by an efficiently run lab.

“Chemical analysts are looking only for ethanol in blood,” James said.

A senior police officer, who would not be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media, confirmed that “cases ended up having to be withdrawn”.

“Blood samples sometimes end up needing to be resent and warrants of arrest have to be reissued. There is a huge delay and huge implications caused by waiting for results to be returned. I can arrest you today for drunk driving, but there is no guarantee when you will appear in court. There is a major delay in getting the blood test results back,” said the police officer.

Justice Project South Africa chairperson Howard Dembovsky said the conviction of drunk drivers would serve as a warning to drivers not to drive under the influence of alcohol.

“It is a reassurance that something is being done about drunk driving on South African roads with the opening up of a new forensic laboratory. Something needs to be done to show that there is a harsh punishment for those who are caught driving while drunk,” he said.

Health Department head Dr Sibongile Zungu said the laboratory, is an initiative of the National Health Department, was scheduled to open in May. “While infrastructure development is proceeding, staff are undergoing training.”

At a road block, if a driver is suspected of being under the influence of alcohol:

a breathalyser test is done;

the driver is then taken to a facility where a blood sample is taken;

the SAPS hands over the blood sample to a forensics lab for testing;

the sample is marked at a lab;

chemical analysts check the ethanol levels in the blood;

results are done and tagged; and

the sample is then returned for the court case.

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