Honesty call…..If I asked you what the drink driving limit was right now could you confidently tell me?

You are not alone if you can’t – in fact only 17% of respondents in a NZ survey got it right, so there is clearly a lot of confusion and miss understanding amongst Kiwis when it comes to this serious life and death topic. Connecting with others has never been more important as lives get busier, so it’s not about encouraging people to stop drinking or steer away from the pub/ catching up with their mates. In this article we want to set the facts straight and help you to make the decisions that are right for you when it comes to alcohol.

The research of 800 Kiwis found a general lack of knowledge when it comes to understanding what we’re drinking. While most people had a theory on the number of drinks they thought they could consume and still be safe to drive, only 11% correctly pointed out that there is no set number of drinks that ensure we are all safe to drive. So here is what you need to know to make smarter choices about drinking and getting behind the wheel:


What is the drink driving limit in NZ?:

The drink driving limit in New Zealand is also commonly referred to as the BAC limit and these limits vary, depending on your age:

  • If you are under 20 years of age, the BAC limit is ZERO. That means if you drive after consuming even one drink you can be charged with drink driving
  • For those over 20 years of age, the BAC Limit is 50mg / 100mls blood (0.05) or 250mcg / litre breath

Note: Although the breath and blood measures appear different, they are essentially the same. Both measure the same level of alcohol in your system for drink driving purposes.

Naturally, the penalties for drink driving vary depending on the severity and the driver’s previous history but as a guide for drivers over 20 years of age:

  • If you record under 250mcg / litre breath you will not be penalized
  • If you record between 251mcg / litre breath and 400mcg / litre breath you will have your keys taken off you and you will be issued with a ticket/ infringement notice. 50 demerit points will also be loaded against your license
  • If you record over 400mcg / litre breath it is a criminal offence and you will be required to appear in court where you can be fined and/or in extreme situation sent to prison

Even if you’re just over the limit, in the eyes of the law you’re a drink-driver and a criminal – there is no grey area.

So how many drinks is this you ask – well unfortunately there is no simple answer. No doctor, police officer, scientist, lawyer, brewer or anyone else can give you a definitive answer on this as there are a number of factors that can contribute to BAC. The key facts that do exist in this space are as follows:


The Facts:

  • The safest and smartest choice you can make is to not drink any alcohol if you are planning to drive. This is the only way to be 100% sure you are fit to drive
  • The human liver can only process 10gms of pure alcohol per hour, that’s 1 standard drink. Regardless of whether you are big or small, male, or female, middle aged or old, the human liver is the human liver and there is no way to speed this alcohol processing up
  • Excess alcohol that is waiting to be processed by the liver flows into the bloodstream and does a tiki tour of your body’s vital organs – heart, brain, lungs etc. You can find out more about this here
  • The liver needs to be supported by the rest of the body to do its job effectively so there are a variety of factors that impact how you feel the effects of alcohol and whether or not you are safe to get behind a wheel

The Guidelines:

Because we are all different, the best guideline that can be provided in social drinking space is made with data from the Crown research institute – Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

It is important to note that the guideline is just that – a rule of thumb that should help most adults stay on the right side of the law but it does come with a large amount of small print.

  • Most adult men should be able to have three standard drinks over two hours and stay under the limit
  • Most women should be able to have two standard drinks over two hours (i.e. 1 standard drink an hour)


The decision as to whether you drive needs to be a decision that you make for yourself and yourself alone. How alcohol affects us can change from day to day, hour to hour so don’t let anyone tell you “you’ll be fine you only had 2 wines”. They have no idea how you are feeling inside, if you haven’t slept well for the last few nights, that you missed lunch and you are stressed about family stuff. All these things, and the below can impact the way alcohol affects you:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Body fat/weight (BMI)
  • How much food you have eaten
  • If you have exercised and/or done physical activity
  • Hydration levels
  • Mental health
  • Fatigue

With so many varying factors at play, why risk it?


It is also important to remember that alcohol is a mind-altering drug. It impairs your judgment so the decisions you make after the first drop of alcohol has touched your lips, will never be as good as the ones you make stone cold sober.

Research indicates that driving ability is impaired after consuming any level of alcohol but with an excess of two standard drinks in your system (note this is 2 standard drinks not necessarily 2 glasses or bottles), you will have started to lose your ability to:

  • Concentrate
  • Reason
  • Perceive depth (distance/speed)
  • Use your peripheral vision
  • Recover quickly from glare/bright lights in your eyes
  • Your vision may also be blurred

All of which are essential to driving safely and making timely decisions behind the wheel. If you are going to drink, you are best to just plan not to drive. Find an alternative way to get home and leave the driving to someone else!


The Myths:

  • Eating absorbs alcohol so it’s ok to have one or two drinks with a meal – FALSE
  • Coffee and/or water sobers you up – FALSE
  • A cold shower sobers you up – FALSE
  • Fresh air gets alcohol out your system more quickly – FALSE

The only cure is time. Put simply, the adult body can only process one standard drink an hour, regardless of your age, size or how much you’ve eaten and there’s no way to speed that up. So, when you’re drinking a typical 5% bottle of beer or cider at a BBQ, remember it will take your body 1.3 hours to process the alcohol in that bottle. Not thinking about or understanding this processing time is why people often get caught drunk driving the next day after only a few hours sleep!!

The standard drink information is printed on every label of alcohol sold in NZ so if you have a drink in your hand, you have the key info you need to make a smarter drinking choice right at your fingertips! You can also get this standard drink information from our cool online calculator.

Drink smart, stay safe and if you drive drunk, you’re a bloody idiot.

 Alcohol&Me team


*Research commissioned by Lion’s Alcohol&Me, Dec 2018