“Lowering the Legal Limit”


So, this happened …

When I left South Africa, I had been (legally) driving for over 10 years, but had never been breathalyzed. Not once.

And this is in spite of the fact that I drove everywhere: university, work, friends, shops, bars and restaurants. Not once was I stopped and breathalyzed.

During that period, the death toll on South African roads was bad. (No, not because of me!)

The biggest two contributors to these road accidents were speeding and drink-driving*, both of which (sadly) were common.

The traffic police improved the speeding problem in three ways: installing speed bumps** in the suburbs to slow cars down, laying more speed traps on the main roads, and using “average speed” cameras on highways.

To my memory, these measures did achieve a reasonable degree of success. Certainly, I was driving more slowly after that.

But on the other hand, in trying to solve drink-driving, the traffic police did something ridiculous: They announced they would lower the blood alcohol concentration limit from 0.05% to 0.03%.

The problem was, they hardly ever set up breathalyzer testing. So what was the point of lowering the breathalyzer limit?

People took chances with drink-driving because they knew they were extremely unlikely to be stopped and tested. The perceived (and indeed actual) risk of being caught was almost zero.

But if they weren’t catching people at the 0.05% limit (because they were simply not testing), then it made no sense to lower the limit and still not be testing people’s alcohol levels.

It would have been much more effective to leave the limit at 0.05%, but actually initiate extensive breathalyzer testing. Especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

  • The problem was not that the limit was too high.
  • The problem was that people weren’t caught when they were drink-driving.

If people knew there was a high chance of being tested on the way home from dinner, they would have massively cut down drink-driving, even at the 0.05% limit.

It’s amazing how much effort can be spent on putting solutions in place that are completely meaningless.


Translation for readers around the world :)
   * drink-driving, drunk-driving, drinking-and-driving, driving under the influence
   ** road humps, speed bumps, sleeping policemen


Simple Definition

Lowering the Legal Limit: This #hashtag-story reminds us that there is no sense in having stricter requirements when you don’t even monitor compliance with the current requirements.

Summarizing what it means

Children these days spend an inordinate amount of time on their phones. Instagram, TikTok, Roblox … it’s using up their spare time, it’s distracting them from their homework, and it’s messing with their brain chemicals.

Parents are desperately trying to stay somewhat in control by giving their children time limits, like “Don’t spend more than 2 hours a day playing on your phone.”

But … these parents don’t monitor their children’s phone time, they don’t look at the iPhone “Screen Time” for example, so they have no idea how much their kids really are on their phones.

So when they feel their kids are using phones too much, rather than actually monitoring usage to see if it’s less than the 2-hour limit, they reduce that time limit to 1 hour.

But they continue not to check usage. And their children continue on their phones, unconstrained as before.

The problem wasn’t that the time limit was too high, it was the fact that compliance with the original limit wasn’t being verified.

When you realize this “phone time” example is just another version of the “Lowering the Legal Limit” #hashtag-story, you get an instant understanding of what the real problem is, and therefore what actions need to be taken to get better results.

As usual, #HashtagYourLife gives you a label for a simple concept. Hereafter, when you see something similar to this scenario, you will remember to compare it to “Lowering the Legal Limit”, and gain an immediate understanding of the situation.

Life can be so much simpler for you, if – through labels – you can see what’s happening around you for what it really is.

Discussing what it means

Enforce the law, Enforce the rules, Enforce your requirements

Phrased a little more carefully:

If the rules or requirements are not generating the intended results, then first confirm people are meeting the current requirements, before making the rules or requirements stricter.

This non-breathalyzer problem that I wrote about – which can still be seen in many countries around the world – is costing lives. At the time, people were drink-driving because they knew they could get away with it. They weren’t scared of 0.05% and they certainly weren’t going to be scared of 0.03% … either way they knew they wouldn’t be tested.

This type of scenario is surprisingly common, even though you’d think people would have been able to work out the reality of implementing lower limits, versus ensuring compliance with the current limits.

Consider the following alternative examples, and check that you can see the parallels.

  • Your Russian teacher thinks your progress is a little slow, so asks you to study vocabulary for half an hour day. After a while, because she isn’t noticing an improvement, she starts to insist you study for an hour a day. But she never asks how much you’re actually studying, so doesn’t realize you aren’t even doing 5 minutes daily, let alone half an hour!
  • Your salespeople are required to do a certain number of calls a week, but in spite of this requirement, they’re still missing their sales targets. So you increase the weekly call requirement – but still, their sales results aren’t improving. If you had taken the time to insist they log every call, you would have seen that they weren’t even making the initial target number of calls – so why bother pushing up the limit?

It’s different when they are YOUR rules for YOU

In the drink-driving example, the police wanted to improve behavior by making the rules stricter. It was one group pushing another group.

But it’s different when you’re pushing yourself.

  • For example, sometimes it’s easier to be very strict about a diet, rather than to be half strict (and then rapidly deteriorate back to your previous unhealthy habits).
  • Similarly, it’s sometimes easier to commit to exercise every day, than to exercise “every few days”. The more relaxed and flexible schedule leaves you feeling more relaxed and flexible, and so you forgive yourself too easily for missing a workout, and then missing another. Eventually, you find yourself completely sedentary again.

So when you’re motivating yourself, you might find it easier to have stricter requirements to actually get more done.

This is because there is a difference between self-motivation, and doing things out of obligation. “Lowering the Legal Limit” only applies to the latter.

Lessons from “Lowering the Legal Limit”

If you’re telling your kids to go to sleep by 10pm, but they’re still waking up the next morning tired and grumpy, you might find yourself automatically pushing them to go to bed earlier.

But then you hear the sound of singing angels, and suddenly you remember this chapter, “Lowering the Legal Limit”, and you get a moment of clarity.

You ask yourself with a crisp mind, “Is the problem that 10pm is too late? Or is the problem that I’m assuming they are actually asleep at 10pm, but maybe if I looked into their rooms at 11pm, I’d see they’re still messaging with friends?”

With this insight, you can now set about solving the problem in an effective way.

There is no sense in implementing stricter rules when you don’t even monitor the current ones.

Focus on making sure they go to bed according to the current deadline, before pushing an even earlier target time (which they would have ignored as well).

It could be both

It probably isn’t necessary to say this, but I will say it anyway: It might be possible that you do need a lower limit!

Perhaps the legal alcohol limit – at 0.05% – was too high, and accidents were happening as a result of people in the 0.03-0.05% range.  And maybe the limit should indeed have been reduced.


You don’t know whether the problem is non-compliance with 0.05%, or whether it’s the people in the range 0.03-0.05%, until you make sure they are complying with the current requirements, before you set about making changes.

It could be both, but first things first!

Making it personal

Take a couple of minutes to think of at least one example of each:

  • When last (including now) have you effectively been “lowering the legal limit”, without first properly checking whether someone was complying with the current limit?
  • When last (now too) has someone in effect tried “lowering the legal limit” with you, which you knew would be pointless because you weren’t even complying with their previous limit? (Try to be super honest here, OK?)

Now that you have identified these situations, what are you going to do about it?

Related stories

#[It was never the chicken’s fault]
#[If Snake-X then Antidote-Y]
#[The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches]
#[Air without Water]

Headline Picture Credit