How Holland closed 23 prisons since 2014

The Dutch justice system is cutting the prison population by offering specialist rehabilitation to people with mental illnesses. Since 2014, this has allowed 23 prisons to be shut, turning them into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. Holland now has Europe’s third-lowest incarceration rate, at 54.4 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. In July 2019, New Zealand’s incarceration rate was 201 inmates per 100,000. 

When the Labour led coalition government came to power two years ago, Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that Labour intended to reduce the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years. The prison population at the time was 10,394. Two years later it’s still 10,200. This is expensive. The cost of keeping one person in prison in New Zealand is over $100,000 per year.

Psychiatrist Melina Rakic says the backgrounds of people who go through the Dutch psychological rehabilitation programme are always complex
The article below is an except from the Guardian on 12 December 2019. For the full article go here.

Why are there so few prisoners in the Netherlands?

When Stefan Koning, who has a history of psychosis, was found guilty of threatening a stranger with a knife, a long custodial sentence might have felt like the only answer.

In fact, after a short spell in jail, he is back at his home in Amsterdam.

“Bob is a character from Twin Peaks, a murderer who creeps into the skin of innocent people and makes them do terrible things like murder,” says Koning. “There’s a Bob in me who says ‘kill this person’, that sort of thing. If I take my medicines, Bob is quiet.”

Koning is a beneficiary of a growing tendency in the Netherlands to avoid jailing people unless it is necessary. One key aspect of this is a prodigious programme of care in the community for people with psychiatric problems.

“We work on two aims: number one, preventing another crime, and then on psychiatric suffering and the social problems that come with it,” says Hommo Folkerts, a forensic psychologist and outreach worker who helps Koning.

“We don’t treat people with just depression – it’s people with psychotic vulnerability, autism, severe learning difficulties, often in combination with severe personality disorders, addictions, financial problems, no good home or links with family, and often they are traumatised.

“Nobody would approve of the crimes or violence they have committed, but there is a very sad world behind them. If you want to mend all this, it will take a long time.”

In 1988, the UK criminologist David Downes contrasted a relatively humane Dutch prison system favourably against those in England and Wales. Today plummeting prison sentences have left the Netherlands with an unusual problem: it doesn’t have enough inmates to fill its prisons, even after renting out places to Norway and Belgium.

Since 2014, 23 prisons have been shut, turning into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. The country has Europe’s third-lowest incarceration rate, at 54.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the justice ministry’s WODC Research and Documentation Centre, the number of prison sentences imposed fell from 42,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2018 – along with a two-thirds drop in jail terms for young offenders. Registered crimes plummeted by 40% in the same period, to 785,000 in 2018.

Miranda Boone, a professor of criminology at Leiden University, has studied the collapse in the prison population. “There is no doubt that the prison population has been reduced very significantly in the last 13 years – an amazing and, in the western world, unparalleled development,” she says.

Half of the people in Dutch prisons have received a one-month sentence, she says, and almost half entering detention in 2018 were actually awaiting trial. Experts attribute the decline to a variety of factors, including more sentencing before reaching or outside of the court system – such as fines – than other countries and the use of court-ordered mediation.

But there is also a special psychological rehabilitation programme known as TBS.

“TBS is a rather unique institution in the world,” Boone says. “In many countries there’s a limited choice: people can either be held accountable for their deeds and sentenced to prison; or held not accountable and put into a psychiatric institution. We have a psychiatric institution that is part of the criminal justice system for people who can be held not [accountable] or only partly accountable.”

Unlike high-security hospitals in the UK or the Netherlands, TBS has very specific conditions. People must have committed a crime with a minimum prison term of four years and have a high chance of recidivism: the programme works on specifically on their reintegration into society. If this is not deemed possible, or they refuse to cooperate, they can eventually move to a normal high-security hospital and be confined indefinitely.

There were 1,300 people detained with a TBS ruling in 2018: people stay in a treatment centre, sometimes after a jail term, and are treated for the psychological conditions that are thought to have played a role in their crime. Every two years, judges assess whether the treatment should be extended, and the average stay is two years.


For the full article in The Guardian go here.



Corrections surreptitiously constructing the equivalent of two large prisons

Kelvin Davis: another billion bucks down a bottomless hole

In 1985, there were 2,775 prisoners in New Zealand.   On 29 November 2016,  Corrections Opposition spokesperson, Kelvin Davis (now the Corrections Minister), posted a message on his Facebook page stating that the muster had just passed 10,000 – an increase of 364% in 30 years – and the National Government was planning to build a new prison.  Davis wrote:

We’re spending a billion dollars to build a new prison and I have just one question: what happens when that is full? Build another? That will be another billion bucks poured down a bottomless hole.

The reality is that the prison population had been on the rise for 70 years and was projected to hit 12,000 by 2022.  Kelvin Davis and the Labour team aren’t keen on building an expensive new prison every three years so when the current coalition government took over, Justice Minister, Andrew Little announced he intended to reduce the prison population by 30 per cent over the next 15 years.

It’s not that hard

Little even said “It’s actually not that hard if we choose to resource it properly.” The prison population at the time was 10,394.  Two years later it’s still at 10,200, which the NZ Herald described as a prison system bursting at the seams.

Andrew little
Andrew Little: “reducing the prison population is not that hard”

So despite Andrew Little’s claim that reducing the prison population is “not that hard”, the coalition government has made no progress towards that goal whatsoever – we still have over 10,000 people in prison. But to give credit where credit is due – at least the muster has stopped going up – for the moment.

The Corrections Department clearly does not expect this pause in the upward trajectory to last. In response to an OIA, Corrections advised that, even though they are not building a new prison, they are in the process of expanding capacity at eight existing prisons using Chinese made modular (prefab) ‘rapid deployment cells’ – although according to Corrections Association president, Alan Whitley, the deployment has been far from rapid.

The extra beds will be at the following prisons and cost $406 million:

Prison New beds
Rolleston 244
Tongariro 122
Christchurch Womens 122
Christchurch Mens 244
Rimutaka 244
Total new beds 976

Three other “prisons also have capacity projects in progress” budgeted at $916 million. Corrections claims the new beds in these three prisons “do not all represent expansions” as these new units will allow older units at these prisons to be disestablished. Obviously, older units are unlikely to be disestablished if there is a blowout in inmate numbers.

Prison New beds
Waikeria 600
Mt Eden 318
Arohata 69
Total 987

Total new prison beds

Altogether, the Government is adding a total of 1,890 new beds. Currently, each of the four largest prisons in the country holds approximately 950 prisoners.  By adding another 1,890 beds, the Government is surreptitiously constructing the equivalent of two large prisons – at a cost of just under $1.5 billion. This covert expansion in prison capacity highlights the hypocrisy of Kelvin Davis’ hope that Labour would do things differently.

Winston Peters
Winston Peters: “No you can’t repeal three strikes”

I agree with Andrew Little that reducing the prison population is not that difficult. But to do so requires legislative changes such as repealing the disastrous Bail Amendment Act which doubled the number of prisoners on remand within two years. The problem is that to pass the necessary legislation, Labour requires support from NZ First – and when Andrew Little proposed repealing the repugnant three strikes law, Winston Peters rapidly pulled the rug out from under his feet.

The coalition agreement

The problem is that when the Labour Party went into this alliance with New Zealand First, it failed to make justice and prison reform a part of the coalition agreement. The only law and order related issue in the agreement was to:

Strive towards adding 1800 new Police officers over three years and commit to a serious focus on combatting organised crime and drugs.

Not only did Labour fail to address prison reform with its coalition partners when forming a government, nor did it seek cross-party agreement with the National party on any of these issues. Given that National takes a ‘tough on crime’ law and order approach (which inevitably involves building new prisons), establishing a 15-year goal without cross party agreement is unbelievably naive. New Zealand has a three-year election cycle. Labour would have to win five elections in a row to make progress towards such a long-term goal.

You can’t win with two captains

Since we’re all Kiwis, let’s use a sporting analogy. Setting a 15-year goal to reduce the prison population by 30% without cross-party agreement is like playing an endless game of rugby without a referee. When they get possession of the ball (i.e. the power to govern), each side just does whatever it wants. The goals and strategies of previous governments are cast aside.

Similarly, a coalition agreement with New Zealand First which does not include an agreement to reform the justice system is like an All Black team with two captains (in this case, Jacinda and Winston). Jacinda captains the forwards and they want to attack (to reform the justice system and reduce the prison population). Winston captains the backs and when it comes to law and order, he just wants to play defence (and lock em up). When the backs and the forwards have different captains and opposing strategies, it’s a struggle to move the ball forward, let alone score a try.

This situation highlights the difficulty of introducing radical reform in a democracy with elections every three years. 90% of democratic countries have four or five-year terms which give governments more time to make changes. And the prison population could be reduced by 50% within five years. But even that wouldn’t solve the problem facing Jacinda Ardern when the other captain is constantly undermining the team.

The lesson that Labour should learn from this is that they should have been a lot tougher negotiating with Winston Peters before they got into bed with him and agreed to form a team  (apologies for the mixed metaphors). In the justice arena, getting into bed with Winston has been an abortion – with billions still getting poured down a bottomless hole.

Criminologists want name change – to Climate Crisis Response Bill

Climate emergencyCriminology graduates and a senior criminology lecturer at VUW are calling for the Climate Change Amendment Bill currently before Parliament to be totally transformed so that it reflects the reality that the world is facing an existential crisis.

Graduates taking CRIM 417 (an Honours level course called Crimes against the Environment) and their Course Coordinator have crafted a comprehensive submission to Parliament. The criminologists are calling for the name of the Bill to be changed to the Climate Crisis Response Bill and the Climate Change Commission proposed in the Bill to be called the Climate Crisis Commission.

The submission is supported by Ollie Langridge who has been conducting a one-man protest outside Parliament for the last two months calling on the Government to declare a climate emergency.

The submission also recommends that strategies adopted by Parliament based on the Commission’s recommendations should be made compulsory – with financial penalties for industries, agencies and individuals who fail to comply.

Finally, the criminologists are suggesting that regulatory impact statements (RIS) for all future legislation proposed by Parliament, relating to any matter whatsoever, should be required to describe the likely contribution of any new policies, procedures or regulations (resulting from the proposed legislation) to future greenhouse gas emissions.

This would ensure that in the future, Parliament would be required to take the climate crisis into consideration with every single Bill that comes before it. So, for instance, if the Government wanted to build a new prison at a likely cost of $1 billion, it would need to produce a regulatory impact statement describing how much carbon dioxide building and operating such a prison would emit. In other words, it would need to be sure that a new prison was compatible with the goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Another example is that it would require the Government to justify decisions such as giving $50 million to Te Papa (announced in the budget for 2019) when the building will likely suffer irreparable damage from rising seas by the end of the century.

Huskies on water
Highlighting the emergency – huskies appear to be walking on water in northwest Greenland.

Sweden has Greta Thunberg – New Zealand has Ollie Langridge

Greta Thunberg – flashing a rare smile

Hopefully, just about every Kiwi knows who Greta Thunberg is. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, she’s the schoolgirl in Sweden who took time off class to draw attention to the climate crisis. She protested outside the Swedish parliament with a sign reading ‘School strike for the climate’  kicking off a strike by school kids around the world. What’s remarkable about Greta is she realised our house is on fire at the age of 15, and is trying to put it out all on her own. The response to her courage and conviction has been extraordinary, from around the world.

Ollie Langridge outside Parliament – head down -demonstrating the message is more important than the man

New Zealand now has a lone parliamentary protester as well. His name is Ollie Langridge. At 55, he’s a few years older than Greta and has a wife and six children. Langridge began his protest two weeks ago after the UN Biodiversity Report was released, which warned Earth was in the middle of a mass extinction. He said he was motivated by the fear he felt for his children’s future and was going to stand outside parliament, seven days a week until the Government declares a climate change emergency.

Is there really an emergency? The World Meteorological Organisation advises that levels of greenhouse gases are now higher than they have been in the past 800,000 years.  The result is global warming. Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation says:

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now.”  

If that happens, quite a few cities around the world will be under water. That should put out a few fires – but a lot of people are going to drown first.

Greta Guardian
Greta – Guardian of the planet Earth?

Let’s check out a few other comments that Greta has made about this. At a TEDx talk in Stockholm, she said

“For those of us, who are on the (autism) spectrum, almost everything is black or white. We aren’t very good at lying and we usually don’t enjoy participating in the social games that the rest of you seem so fond of… There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.”

In October 2018, she addressed the ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ organized by Extinction Rebellion opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. She said:

“We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything.”

At the COP24 United Nations climate change summit on 4 December 2018:

“Our civilization is being sacrificed so that a very small number of people can continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury.”

Greta looking serious
Greta looking serious – go girl

Speaking to the financial elite at Davos on 23 January, 2019:

“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire – because it is”.

On 21 February 2019, Greta spoke at a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee about the need to keep global warming below two degrees centigrade. She said:

“If we fail to do so all that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history.”

In Berlin in March 2019, she talked about the school strike:

“We live in a strange world where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future – where the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most.”

At an April 2019 meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg with MEP’s and EU officials, she said if politicians were serious about tackling climate change, they would not spend all their time…

“talking about taxes or Brexit…  If our house was falling apart, you wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment.”

That’s Greta for you – blunt and to the point.  She may have started her protest alone, but not anymore. She’s got millions of supporters around the world.

On the other hand, Ollie Langridge has hardly said a word. So far, his is a silent protest. But he’s posted a lot of photos on Instagram. And you know what they say: one picture is worth a thousand words. So if you agree with Greta and Ollie that ‘the world is on fire’, head on down to parliament  and get your picture taken with him. Help Ollie persuade the Government to declare a climate emergency.

Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern,  now has an opportunity to show the world real leadership

What will that achieve? Possibly very little. But it would demonstrate to the world that New Zealanders care about the survival of the entire planet, not just Kiwis murdered in a mosque.  Jacinda Ardern earned enormous international kudos for her compassionate response to the Muslim community after those shootings. She has the world’s respect. If she now declared a climate emergency, people would listen to her as well as to Greta. And then she could take a picture with Ollie.

Brenton Tarrant – the only justifiable police pursuit in the last ten years

In response to the murder of 50 Moslems by Brenton Tarrant last week, the Government has banned semi-automatic rifles in New Zealand – a decisive response to prevent any future loss of life with such weapons. Tarrant’s homicidal rampage was brought to an end after two police officers tracked him down fleeing from the Linwood mosque in his car.  According to the police his intention was to continue his killing spree elsewhere.

By some strange coincidence, the two officers had been attending a training session earlier that day on how to stop armed offenders.  They pursued Tarrant, rammed his car off the road and arrested him. The two officers deserve a medal for risking their lives and preventing further bloodshed.

79 deaths in police pursuits since 2008

On the chaseGenerally, police pursuits in New Zealand do not involve such serious crimes or such dangerous offenders. Since January 2008, police have pursued over 30,000 fleeing drivers leading to hundreds of accidents and 79 deaths, nearly half of whom were innocent victims.  The number of pursuits and the number getting killed is growing every year. But the reality is that the vast majority of the 30,000 offenders pursued by police posed almost no risk to the public – until the police started chasing them.

So many Kiwis are dying that police pursuit policy is almost permanently under review. Coincidentally, the same day that Tarrant went on his rampage, the IPCA completed its sixth review publishing a 143 page document: Fleeing Drivers in New Zealand.

The IPCA found that:

  • 35% were stopped for a driving offence for which they would not have been arrested
  • 15% were merely ‘suspected of offending’;
  • 14% were stopped for ‘suspicious behaviour’;
  • 9% stopped for an arrestable driving offence;
  • 6% were simply routine stops.

The review recommended better training and more oversight for police but no change to the pursuit policy. Police Commissioner, Mike Bush, claimed the review relieved the police of any responsibility arguing…

“the review has shown that our staff generally manage fleeing driver events well…”

Police Minister Stuart Nash: “No need for wholesale changes to pursuit policy”

Police Minister Stuart Nash said the report showed there was no need for “wholesale changes” to police pursuit policy. Judith Collins and Mike Bush claim that when drivers flee, the police have no choice. They worry that if police don’t pursue, criminals will get away scot free and that more people will take off when apprehended.  Collins argues that the police cannot “give over the roads to criminals?”

But research by the FBI has found that…

“if the police refrain from chasing all offenders or terminate their pursuits, no significant increase in the number of suspects who flee would occur.”

All the police have to do is take down the car’s registration and then pay the driver a visit first thing in the morning when the adrenaline rush is over. Only a quarter of pursuits involve stolen cars, so most of those who flee would still be caught.

Clive Matthew-Wilson

Who’s the adult in the room?

These dubious death-denying justifications by those responsible for police policy ignore some fundamental realities – that nearly half of the dead are teenagers and according to US research, 42% are innocent bystanders.  Road safety campaigner, Clive Matthew-Wilson notes that it’s pointless expecting teenagers to behave sensibly when stopped by police.  He says:

“The simple fact is: the part of the brain that allows an adult to make rational decisions doesn’t form properly until the early twenties. That’s why teenagers tend to make impulsive decisions that often end badly. Given that teenagers aren’t going to stop and think, it’s up to the cops to stop and think, instead of letting adrenaline rule their decision-making process.”

Australian road safety campaigner, John Lambert, agrees. He characterises police chases as…

“basically the most hazardous activity you could possibly undertake on roads legally… It’s a total contradiction for police to be engaging in them when they’re supposed to be improving road safety. The fatality rate for pursuits is 3,500 times higher than for normal travel.”

Police pursuits banned in Australia

Doug Fryer
Doug Fryer: “fleeing drivers do not get away with it”.

In 2009, the Queensland state government banned all police pursuits unless there had been a murder or there was an imminent risk to life. Since this policy was introduced, not one person has died in a police pursuit. The Australian state of Victoria has a similar policy. The former head of road policing in Victoria, Doug Fryer, rejected the idea that the state’s cautious pursuit policy meant criminals ‘got away with it.’

“We would far prefer to drag an offender out of bed at six o’clock in the morning than try to drag them out of a car after a crash.”

If this policy had been in place in New Zealand, not one of the 79 people who have died since 2008 would have been pursued – because not one had committed a serious crime which justified the pursuit.  These were unnecessary and totally avoidable deaths.

So who’s responsible?

Writing in The Spinoff last year, Toby Manhire agreed that police chases are inherently dangerous but went on to argue that…

“a rush to assign blame for deaths in police chases can only distort the important discussion around a pursuit policy that should put human life first.”

This not only minimises, it completely ignores, the contribution of the police to this carnage on our roads.  We need to name, ‘blame’ and shame the police because it’s their policy that’s directly responsible for the pursuits that lead to these deaths.

The reality is that until the cause of the problem is correctly ‘named’, no one can be held to account.  If we don’t specify and identify the problem – police pursuit policy – inevitably there will be more phony reviews leading to more platitudinous recommendations about better police training and oversight.

It’s a shame it took a massacre before the Government was persuaded to take decisive action on semi-automatic weapons.  In the meantime, police pursue over 3,000 drivers a year – and 79 people have died. How big will this massacre be, and how long will it go on before the Government takes decisive action on that?

Prison population bounces back up to 10,000 – again

Kelvin Davis had a ‘cunning plan’ – that is no longer working

The prison population is still rising and is now over 10,000 – again.  In February last year, the muster hit an all-time high of 10,700.  Towards  the end of the year, it dropped to 9,700 but is now back up again.

At the peak, Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis announced that Labour wanted to cut the prison population by 30% in 15 years – otherwise we would need another prison

The media were all over the story. One NZ Herald headline read: Govt wants to axe new prison and lower prison muster. This was a reference to the new prison that the National government had been planning to build to cope with the blowout.   The Otago Daily Times trumpeted: Little lays out plan to cut prison population.   Stuff said: Government aims to cut prison population and fix ‘abnormal’ system.

Andrew little
Andrew Little – yet to pass any legislation to reduce the prison population

In an attempt to reduce the length of prison sentences, Andrew Little made an aborted attempt to repeal the onerous three strikes law. This was shot down by NZ First which refused to play along with its coalition partners. Then Kelvin Davis stepped into the breach. He offered temporary relief telling Corrections management to make administrative changes which would cut prison numbers without having to change the law. Writing in the Spinoff, Roger Brooking wrote: Kelvin Davis has a cunning plan to cut the prison population – and it’s working.

This helped a bit. In December last year the muster dropped to 9,700. Writing in Stuff, Laura Walters observed: Prison population drops by seven per cent in six months, system crisis averted. But administrative changes were never going to cut the mustard – or the muster. In order to reduce the prison population by 30%, the Government needs to make substantive legislative changes to reduce the revolving door that our prisons, and our justice system, have become. In another Spinoff article Brooking described How to cut the prison population by 50% in five years.

Government PR campaign

Embarrassed by his aborted effort to repeal the three strikes law, Andrew Little was in no mood for additional attempts at legal amendments. Instead, Labour launched a massive publicity campaign designed to win the hearts and minds of the public that the entire justice system needed to be reformed.

Chester Borrows – implementing a impressive PR performance on behalf of the Labour Party

It began with a criminal justice summit held in Porirua in August last year which the government called “the start of a conversation.” This was followed by the appointment of a panel led by former National MP, Chester Borrows. The panel held a series of meetings up and down the country, to which the public were invited to give their opinions on how New Zealand could develop a Safe and Effective justice system. Andrew Little subsequently made remarks in the media that New Zealand’s entire justice system was broken. I beg to differ. It’s not the Justice system that’s broken – it’s the political system. In the last 30 years, political parties of both persuasions have competed with each other to pass tough on crime laws which are directly responsible for the dramatic increase in the prison population.

One of those laws was the Bail Amendment Act passed in response to the murder of Christie Marceau in 2011.  See How the murder of Christie Marceau led to 1,500 more people in prison. This piece of legislation more than doubled the number of Kiwis being held in prison on remand.

Now that prison population is over 10,000 again, the number on remand is at an all-time high. In response to an OIA, Corrections advises that on 28 February this year, the prison population was 10,015 of which 3,421 were on remand.  That’s 34% of the total. In other words, 34% of prisoners in New Zealand have yet to be convicted of a crime.

Innocent3What happened to the fundamental legal principle:  Innocent until proven guilty? Perhaps Andrew Little is right – our justice system is broken – we lock up way too many people who have yet to be convicted of a crime. Isn’t that what third-world dictators, communist countries and authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes do?

More people killed by drink drivers under the limit than over it

Julie Anne Genter wants a zero road toll but says it will take decades to reduce it

In 2017, 378 people died on New Zealand roads. In June last year, the Automobile Association followed up with a media release claiming “We now have more crash deaths where people test positive for a drug than (test positive for) alcohol”.

This statement was simply not true. In fact, twice as many deaths were caused by drink drivers than drivers under the influence of (other) drugs.

The AA got its figures by making an OIA request to the New Zealand Transport Authority. NZTA’s response stated that in 2017, out of 378 deaths, 79 people died in drug-related accidents and 70 people were killed by drink drivers who were over the legal limit (or who refused to supply a sample). The point to note here is that the AA didn’t ask NZTA how many people were killed by drivers under the influence of alcohol; they asked how many were killed by drivers over the legal limit.

Based on this response, AA mistakenly concluded that drugged-up drivers were killing more people than drink-drivers.

Fake news

The media bought this erroneous conclusion hook, line and sinker. Stuff headlined the story: Drug-impaired drivers now involved in more fatal crashes than drink-drivers. The Herald said: Automobile Association study finds drugs cause more fatal crashes than alcohol. The misinformation even made it to an international audience after the Guardian agreed: New Zealand drug-driving deaths surpass drink-driving toll for first time. None of these media did any fact checking.

All of these stories were, in Trumpian vernacular, ‘fake news’ – because the AA forgot to ask how many people were killed by drink drivers who were under the legal limit in addition to those who were over it. So I asked NZTA the question. They then disclosed that, in fact, 154 people were killed by drink drivers in 2017. This is almost double the number killed in drug-related accidents. See the NZTA’s response to one of my questions below:

Question 10
Answer by NZTA to OIA question: how many people were killed by drink drivers who were under the legal limit in 2017?

The AA used their dodgy data about drug deaths to argue that police should be given saliva testing kits to tackle what they called this ‘silent killer’. A spokesperson for the AA, was quoted as saying:

“The AA has called drugged driving a silent killer on our roads for years and these latest figures confirm how prevalent drugs are in fatal crashes.”

There is no doubt that the number of deaths on the road related to drug use is rising. However, it is still nowhere near the number killed by drink-drivers.

Remarkably, the figures also show that slightly more people were killed by drink drivers under the legal limit (80) than were killed by drivers over the limit (74). What this suggests is that the decision to lower the legal limit from 400 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath to 250 micrograms in 2014 has had no impact on the road toll – which, in fact, has been going up for the last six years (see chart).

Road deaths
Alcohol & drug use contributes to over half of all road deaths

In 2017, 154 alcohol related deaths plus 79 drug related deaths suggests a total of 233 people were killed by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Deducting 21 cases where the driver was under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, that’s 212 or 56% of all road deaths that year. Because the AA has been misinterpreting the data for years, it mistakenly claims on its website that alcohol and drugs contribute to only one third of deaths on New Zealand roads.

A zero solution

This leads to an obvious, but politically unpalatable, policy recommendation. If we want to cut the road toll, we need to cut the legal limit for adults to zero – just as we did for teenagers in 2011. This might seem radical but the idea is even supported by those who make a habit of drink driving. At the Make A Plan (MAP) programme for repeat drink drivers in Wellington, participants are asked why they chose to drive after they had been drinking. Often they say: “I thought I was alright to drive”.

In other words, although they had been drinking, they didn’t feel drunk; they were unable to judge whether or not their drinking may have put them over the limit. Participants generally agree that if the limit was zero, the situation would be crystal clear and it would be much easier to make the decision – one drink and they would not be allowed to drive.

Obviously, this would not stop everyone. There are plenty of ‘bloody idiots’ who just don’t care. But for the generally law-abiding citizens among us, legal clarity is helpful. If you intend to go drinking, don’t drive. Such a move would demonstrate the Government was serious about the audacious target of zero deaths on New Zealand roads set by Julie Anne Genter in April 2018. Remarkably, in January 2019 Ms Genter changed tack 180 degrees and said it would be many decades before the road toll would be significantly reduced. It seems like she’s given up.

I know something that might help. Reduce the legal limit to zero. Any road safety strategy with a higher than zero alcohol limit has zero hope of achieving zero road deaths.