- I recently bought a copy of Roger Brooking’s Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, I have found it so far to be a very insightful read, there was a section on Driving under the Influence, what I read was astonishing and decided to post about it due to the many deaths/injuries/near misses that happen on NZ Streets as a result of people under the influence.
From Flying Blind
The only drink-drivers in New Zealand required by law to attend an alcohol and drug assessment are those given an ‘indefinite’ disqualification – affecting only about 1,500 of the 30,000 people convicted each year. The vast majority of drink-drivers are disqualified for between six months and 12 months, and automatically get their licence back at the end of the disqualification – with no questions asked.
Every year, one third of those convicted are repeat offenders and many drink drivers continue driving while disqualified – and sometimes end up killing someone. Disqualified drivers involved in fatal accidents are three times more likely than other drivers to be under the influence of alcohol.
Surprisingly, treatment for alcohol dependence is not required even in the most serious cases when someone has been killed. For instance, in September 2009, 71-year-old Alison Downer was driving drunk and killed a cyclist near Otaki. It was her fourth conviction. Ms Downer was sent to prison for 2½ years and given an eight-year disqualification.
The disqualifications given to these drink-drivers who caused death, range from 3½ years to 8 years. Irrespective of whether they were sent to prison or not, they were given much longer periods of disqualification than normal because someone was killed. However, not one of them was required by the judge to attend an assessment or treatment for their drinking problem. Because none of them were disqualified ‘indefinitely’, they’re all eligible to get their driver’s licence back at the end of their disqualification without being required to attend any treatment.
The Dominion Post picked up on this anomaly in August 2010 and described it as a ‘loophole in the law which serious drink-drivers were slipping through’. This description is inaccurate because it implies there is a legal wall in place which effectively blocks the vast majority of drink-drivers from getting their licence back without treatment. Such is not the case. Currently, 95% of disqualified drivers get through the wall because there is no legal requirement to mandate drink-drivers into treatment (except the 1,500 given an indefinite disqualification). drives through. Each year up to 4,000 disqualified drivers get through one particular hole allowing them to apply for a limited licence – which theoretically enables them to drive for work-related purposes only.
Even for those given an ‘indefinite’ disqualification, the outcome is fairly meaningless. There’s nothing ‘indefinite’ about it. After a minimum period of one year and one day, drink-drivers with an ‘indefinite’ disqualification can see an approved alcohol assessor and begin the process of getting their licence back. If they pass the assessment, and resit their licence, they can be back on the road within 18 months. Although 1,500 people a year receive indefinite disqualifications, about 1,000 others with indefinite disqualifications get their licences back each year. Even recidivist drink-drivers with five or more convictions seem to have little difficulty regaining their driver’s licence.
So some scary stats
- A third of the 30,000 convictions for drink drivers are re-offenders
- Only small number of people convicted for drink driving receive a drug/alcohol assessment. But even then, these assessments are not necessarily done by addiction experts, the blood tests can be unreliable as for most people, stopping drinking for about a month will allow them to pass, and if a person gets an unsatisfactory result they can go to a different assessor to try get a satisfactory result. – Drink Driving Intervention Trust Submission on the Amendment
- Most people convicted of Drink Driving never receive drug/alcohol counselling and/or treatment before getting their licence back
Questions should be asked, is a system where people automatically receive their licences back a smart one considering the road toll, and the danger to society it poses. Surely it would make sense to have a system where people convicted of drink driving undergo a drug/alcohol assessment to determine if person has dependency/addiction and:
- If no, was it a stupid mistake that they are unlikely to repeat.
- If yes, undergo successfully a best practice drug/alcohol treatment programme to help with dependency/addiction before returning licence.
To put things another way, imagine if after a set period we just returned without question firearms licences to people who were convicted of using firearms while under the influence.
I looked up the Ministry of Transports Alcohol & Drugs Report which had some interesting information on the issue
- 28% of Fatal crashes had Alcohol & Drugs as the sole cause or a contributing factor.
- For every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers or riders who died in road crashes, 47 of their passengers and 24 sober road users died with them.
- In 2015 90 people died, and 1623 were injured in crashes where alcohol/drugs was at least a contributing factor
After the mandatory interlock period expires, if a person still has dependency/addiction it hasn’t solved their issue and they could re-offend, this is no different from prison where after release the same environment exists and the person can relapse. Since the interlock period is 1 year, around the average time a person pre-mandatory interlock would lose their licence anyway, it may not address long term re-offending of those who have addiction issues.
Mandatory Interlocks may help keep drunk drivers off the road, however if a person has dependency/addiction that doesn’t mean overuse/misuse of alcohol will stop, which can have flow on negative social effects in areas outside of transport such as Health, Social Services & other Criminal offences etc. NZ Law Commission Alcohol in our Lives, An Issues Paper on the Reform of New Zealand’s Liquor Laws, July 2009, Wellington, p 245 found that 80% of all offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Alcohol also plays a major role in violent crime. New Zealand studies suggest that more than half of the 140,000 physical and sexual assaults which occur every year involve a perpetrator who had been drinking. Alcohol also seems to be the drug of choice for murderers. Between 1999 and 2008, there were 489 murders in New Zealand. In half of these, either the perpetrator or the victim (often both) was under the influence of alcohol – Stevenson, National Alcohol Assessment, April 2009.
The new interlock system understands the reason they need to be mandatory, but does not address the fact well. The situation which was happening before was that the person had to pay for the interlock, as these are nearly $3000 a year these interlocks were unaffordable for many who were convicted, knowing this lawyers would ask judges to not give an interlock sentence and instead suspend licence. With the change now being mandatory with the low subsides being available many with struggle financially with could effect families or more realistically the person never being able to get licence back due to being unable to afford to pay for the Interlock. Thus at current this change very heavily hits the poor disproportionately.
Mandatory Interlocks don’t necessarily help people overcome dependency/addiction, we have to ask a question as a society if all we want to do is keep drunk drivers off the road, or do we want to treat this as a public health issue helping people who struggle with dependency/addiction which will reduce harm in the long run in more areas than just transport.
For those who want to read further the Drink Driving Intervention Trust Submission on the bill which goes into more detail on the matter of the effectiveness of interlocks, the current assessments & financial burden of interlocks can be found here which Roger Brookings was an author of.
While great strides have been taken on reducing Drink Driving, with better enforcement as well as education like Auckland Transport’s recent Drink Drive Free Campaign which has made Drink Driving much more socially unacceptable, and of course the famous Safer Journeys Ad, more needs to be done on making sure that people with dependency/addiction issues receive treatment before being let back on our streets.