Will the courts ever get serious about drunk driving?

NZ Police carry out roadside breath testing. Stuff.co.nz

Back in the late ’80’s, when I first became a Ministry of Transport Traffic Officer I was full of hope for the future. I had great plans for making the world a better place. I was going to protect the motoring public by taking one dodgy driver off the road at a time. It was me and my black and white uniformed mates against all that was evil on the roads. It was going to be great, and as a bonus, I would get to hoon around on motorbikes.

Oh, how things changed.

Back then, I revelled in catching idiots and as we used to get paid overtime back in the good old days, I used to make sure that I picked up a drunk driver just before knock-off time so I could grab myself a bit extra in the pay packet for the week. Nowadays, of course, the opposite happens. Police actively avoid having to do any work in the last hour or so of a shift as there is no financial incentive to do that. You just end up giving your time for nothing.

But back when I was an idealistic shiny bummed new officer, we would quite regularly catch two or three drunk drivers each on any given late shift. It was sport and we were good at it.

There was lots of paperwork of course, but we got pretty good at smashing those files out and getting the bad guys off the road and before the court.

And we knew that the court would generally back us up. Sure there were a few dodgy lawyers out there who would jump up and down, call you a liar and generally make themselves look like the self-serving knobs they were. But on the whole, if it came down to a case of his word against ours, the judges would generally come down on the side of the good guys. (At least some of them got their comeuppance).

Disgraced, Struck off, and?bankrupted lawyer Barry Hart. Photo credit: NZ Herald

The penalties for drunk driving in those days were pretty easy to figure out. The fine was generally set by the court at one dollar for every microgram of breath. If you blew 700 mgm you would probably get a fine of $700.

I never really felt that the fines conveyed the seriousness of the offence, particularly for recidivist offenders, who might get a couple of hundred more, or maybe another month or three of disqualification.

Then back in 1997, then Transport Minister Jenny Shipley announced??there would soon be some new legislation introduced that would help solve the problem of careless, dangerous and drunk drivers by massively increasing the then current penalties. Mrs Shipley advised:

“It is important that people who drive dangerously realise the risks they pose to others’ safety and by increasing the penalties we are sending a clear signal that dangerous driving is totally unacceptable. We want people to suffer the financial consequences of their actions rather than the tax payer always picking up the costs of prison sentences.

“The sooner we have the penalties in place the sooner lives will be saved […]? End quote.

After that new legislation came into force with the introduction of the Land Transport Act 1998, with those greatly increased maximum penalties for driving whilst drunk, I was quietly hopeful that this would lead to greater penalties being handed down from the courts, and hopefully to a reduction in alcohol-related harm on the roads.

I recall doing a bit of a personal survey around 2003, looking at the penalties that were being handed down by the judiciary in relation to drunk drivers. I was able to confirm my suspicion that despite the penalties having gone up threefold in the 1998 legislation, in that five-year period the actual penalties being given had not increased one jot.

So twenty years after the introduction of those greatly increased maximum penalties, how are things looking now?

Well it’s pretty easy to find out, all one has to do is look at the court page of your local paper. Here’s a screenshot of the court page from my local rag The Mountain Scene who have, for the last year or so, been on a campaign to highlight the ridiculous amount of drunk driving in the Queenstown Lakes area.

Mountain Scene court page, 9 Aug 2018

What is plain to see is that really,?nothing has changed, (other than perhaps the prevalence of foreign sounding names!)

An analysis of the crimes and penalties above shows that all of the fines were within a few percent of the alcohol level. Five of those shown are not even as high as that!

So what is going on with our courts? Why are they not utilising the tools that they currently have to send a message that driving whilst impaired will not be accepted?

How can it be that twenty years after Jenny Shipley gave the courts the ability to triple their fines, things are still no better? Fines haven’t increased at all.

But could it be that after all this time, the percentage of fatal crashes involving alcohol might have reduced? After all, during 1996 alcohol contributed to 28 per cent of road deaths. What is the rate now?

Yep, you guessed it, 28% as of the last 2016 stats.

Or from the Land Transport website,

Alcohol is a factor in around 30 percent of New Zealand?s fatal road crashes.

For every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers or riders who die in road crashes, 47 of their passengers and 16 sober road users die with them.

Over the last 10 years, fatal crashes are associated with drink-driving have claimed the lives of around 1,100 people and caused serious injuries to another 5,300. end quote.

Maybe it is time for some minimum penalties to be forced into legislation as clearly increasing maximum penalties hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference.

Perhaps by doing something to force the courts to be more proactive, we might actually make a difference to the amount of alcohol-related carnage on our roads.

Is there a political party out there that will ever have the cohones to put into place minimum penalties for this type of offending, or at least make sure the judiciary is giving appropriate sentences in some other way?

If you have never been involved in a car crash caused by a drunk driver, (I have), just check out this short video below.

It’s quite sobering.

(Caution: Contains sweary words but not as bad as Marama!)