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.

Alcoholic with 20 convictions for drink driving keeps getting his licence back

PrisonIn February 2014, I was asked to interview Brian Hart, a 58 year old chronic alcoholic on his 20th conviction for drink driving. My job was to figure out how bad his drinking problem was and what treatment he needed. I discovered that as a child he had been physically abused and eventually abandoned by his parents. As a result he had long-standing personality problems. He started drinking at age 16 and by the time I met him, he had been in and out of court for 40 years. In addition to 20 convictions for drink driving, he had over 200 other convictions for a variety of offences and had been sent to prison 33 times.

It was blatantly obvious that Mr Hart had a drinking problem but despite 40 years of court appearances, not one judge had told him to go to rehab.  They just sent him to prison and disqualified him from driving. His offences were all relatively minor so his prison sentences (and his disqualifications) were always quite short – usually 12 months or less. Even in prison he had never been given any help.

When I interviewed him it was very clear that if he was ever going to stop drinking or stop reoffending, he needed to attend a long-term residential treatment programme. I recommended he should go to Moana House for a minimum of 12 months.

Indefinite disqualification

Mr Hart has had a hard life. But the justice system has not only failed to help him, it has also allowed him to continue driving, which affects the rest of us. Because his prison sentences were roughly the same length as his period of disqualification (usually one year), by the time he got out of prison, his disqualification was already over and he was allowed to drive again.  That’s because his disqualification always started the same day he went to prison – not after he got out.

Drunk carAnd that’s not the only loophole in the law.  Currently, the legislation allows drink drivers given a fixed period of disqualification to automatically get their licence back at the end of the disqualification – without being assessed by an alcohol and drug counsellor.  See Legal loophole in drink driving laws. That’s why so many drink drivers – about 10,000 a year – reoffend.

As the law currently stands, the only time a drink driver has to see a clinician to be assessed is if the judge mandates him into treatment or gives him an ‘indefinite’ disqualification.  Mr Hart was disqualified indefinitely for the first time in 2002 – on his 16th conviction for drink-driving. A year or so later (after serving time in prison) he approached an approved alcohol and drug assessment centre hoping to get his licence reinstated.

Mr Hart was required to attend group therapy twice a week and individual counselling once a week to help him stop drinking.  After only four weeks, his clinicians told the NZTA that Mr Hart had completed his ‘treatment’ and should get his driver’s licence back. Bizarre as it seems, the Agency agreed.  They ignored the fact that Mr Hart was an alcoholic with a long history of offending  – and it should be no surprise that he relapsed a few weeks later. Mr Hart has now incurred another four convictions for drink-driving. It’s amazing he hasn’t killed anyone.

Incompetent assessors

drink driving signNew Zealand allows these offenders back on the road far too easily.  The vast majority of the 30,000 Kiwis convicted of drink driving every year are disqualified for a finite period – usually between six and 12 months. They get their licence back at the end of their disqualification with no questions asked – even if they spent the entire time in prison. The only ones that have to undergo an assessment (and treatment if required) to get their licence back are the 1,500 drivers disqualified indefinitely each year. These guys are by definition, high-risk recidivist offenders.

After his indefinite disqualification, Mr Hart was assessed by a doctor and a psychologist – both of whom had an interest in addiction but may have had only limited qualifications and experience in the assessment and treatment of alcoholics.  The fact that they recommended Mr Hart should get his licence back after 16 convictions for drink-driving and a one-month intervention is bewildering. But this kind of incompetence is standard practice. More than half of the 100 clinicians who have been approved to conduct these assessments for NZTA up and down the country are not registered as competent alcohol and drug clinicians. For more on this subject, see Government agencies use ‘incompetent’ counsellors to assess recidivist drink drivers.

The definition of insanity

So what happened to Mr Hart when he appeared in court on his 20th conviction?  Did the judge send him to rehab?  Of course not – he was sent to prison again – for the 34th time.  This is an expensive strategy. As a lifetime offender, Mr Hart has already cost the taxpayer about $3 million. Sending him to prison doesn’t help Mr Hart and, since he keeps getting his licence back, it doesn’t protect society either.

As a repeat drink driver, the worst that might be said about Mr Hart is that he is a ‘bloody idiot’. But it’s not all his fault.  The legislation that allows him – and hundreds of other repeat offenders – to get their licences back so easily is full of loopholes.  Here’s another example: Serious drink-drivers slip through legal loophole. These loopholes need to be blocked.

InsanityBut it’s equally important that judges realise they’ve been perpetuating the problem for years by consistently failing to mandate repeat drink drivers into rehab. Einstein described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.  Mr Hart might be a bloody idiot.  But the judges who keep sending him to prison thinking that will change his behaviour must surely be insane.

Government agencies use ‘incompetent’ counsellors to assess recidivist drink drivers

ImageMore than half the alcohol and drug counsellors used by the Ministry of Health and the New Zealand Transport Authority are not registered as competent with their professional body.

For instance, Steven Brady, is an alcohol and drug counsellor in Christchurch, and has been authorised by the Ministry of Health to conduct alcohol and drug assessments on behalf of the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) for the last 13 years.  The NZTA requires these assessments under section 100 of the Land Transport Act which allows repeat drink drivers who have been disqualified indefinitely to regain their driver’s licence – provided the assessment shows they have their drinking problem under control. If still drinking excessively, the offender may be required to attend treatment before the counsellor will recommend their licence should be reinstated.

Risk assessment

This process goes a step further than what is normally expected of alcohol and drug agencies. As well as diagnosis and treatment, it involves an assessment of the drink driver’s potential risk of relapse; if the risk is low, this will lead to a recommendation to NZTA that the offender’s drinking problem is now ‘cured’ and therefore he should be allowed to drive again.

Assessing the risk posed by recidivist drink drivers is not easy. It takes skill and years of experience – and is akin to the parole board deciding that a prisoner no longer poses an ‘undue risk’ to the community.  Because of the added responsibility involved, only a select number of experienced AOD counsellors are authorised to conduct these assessments; and those who do them are supposed to be vetted by the Ministry of Health (on behalf of the NZTA).

The Ministry has a set of guidelines which establishes the minimum qualifications and requirements to be approved as an assessor for the NZTA. The guidelines were updated in 2007 at which time all assessors had to be registered as ‘competent practitioners’ with their professional body, the Drug & Alcohol Practitioners Association (DAPAANZ).  Registration lasts for 12 months and counsellors have to meet certain performance standards to be reconfirmed as competent each year.

Unregistered assessors

Back to Mr Brady.  It turns out that when the guidelines were updated, he never applied to be registered as a competent practitioner.  Theoretically, from that point on, he was no longer eligible to conduct these assessments.  But he continued doing so because the Ministry of Health never bothered to check whether he had been approved by DAPAANZ or had the necessary qualifications.

Steven Brady is not the only AOD counsellor doing these assessments who is not competent. In resonse to an OIA, the MOH sent me a list of all alcohol and drug counsellors who are currently authorised to do these assessments.  It contained  90 names.  More than half of those on the list are not registered with DAPAANZ as competent practitioners. (DAPAANZ has a list of all alcohol and drug counsellors who are currently registered as competent on its website.)  As a result of my inquiries, the Ministry is now reviewing the guidelines and conducting an audit of all 90 counsellors.

Millions wasted

I also wrote to the NZTA asking how long Mr Brady had been conducting these assessments and how many he had done since he began. In their reply, NZTA said he “was approved by the Ministry of Health as an alcohol and drug assessor in 2000” and that he had been paid for doing 755 assessments since 15 December 2000.

The NZTA pays alcohol and drug counsellors $726 per assessment. If Mr Brady received this for all 755 assessments he conducted, he would have received $548,130 in the last 13 years. That’s a lot of taxpayer funding for someone who does not have the necessary qualifications and is not ‘competent’.  NZTA also advised that Mr Brady was not only conducting assessments in Christchurch where he lived, he was also doing them in Auckland, Nelson, Blenheim, Greymouth, Dunedin and Invercargill.  He seems to have been travelling around the country making a full time living out of this.

Mr Brady probably did more than anyone else but if the other 50 unregistered/incompetent counsellors did 500 assessments each during this 13 years, that’s more than $18 million which has been wasted – all because the MOH failed to vet their skills and qualifications.

On the road again

This has potentially serious consequences. Drink drivers who are disqualified indefinitely are repeat high-risk offenders – the ones with the worst drinking problems and the most likely to end up killing someone.  If alcohol and drug assessments were being done by experienced and suitably qualified professionals, these offenders should re-offend at a much lower rate than those who do not need to be assessed. (Not all drink drivers are disqualified indefinitely. The vast majority are disqualified for a finite period, usually six months to a year and get their licence back at the end of the disqualification with no questions asked.) Image

In fact those who have an assessment (and treatment) re-offend at a higher rate than those who do not. Gerald Waters had a friend killed by Warren John Jenkins (right), a recidivist drink driver with 17 previous convictions. Mr Water’s research  shows that within four years, 32% of assessed/treated drink drivers re-offend while only 28% of unassessed drink drivers re-offend.

What this means is that assessments by unregistered incompetent alcohol and drug counsellors are enabling recidivist drink drivers back on the road to re-offend at a greater rate than drink drivers who receive no assessment or treatment.  By failing to audit the counsellors doing these assessments, the Ministry of Health and the NZTA have wasted millions on a process that fails to keep recidivist offenders off the road and fails to protect the public. Who’s the bloody idiot now?

Where is circuit 8? Regional rates of imprisonment suppressed by VUW academics

A fascinating, but somewhat mysterious, piece of research has recently been published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology. It describes huge variations in the imprisonment of drink drivers between one region of New Zealand and another.

Russil DurrantWayne GoodallPhD student, Wayne Goodall (left) and Dr Russil Durrant (right) of Victoria University divided the country into 17 areas (or judicial ‘circuits’). They found that in one circuit (number 8), repeat drink drivers are twelve times more likely to be sent to prison than drink drivers in other areas. In three other circuits, offenders were ten times more likely to end up in prison. But the circuits are not identified. The researchers refuse to disclose which regions are sending the most people to prison. All they would say is that “judges in the provinces were more likely to incarcerate drink drivers than judges in metropolitan areas”.

The need for consistent sentencing

This lack of clarity is problematic on a number of counts.  First, judges need to be consistent in the way they punish a particular offence.  This obligation is laid down in section 8(e) of the Sentencing Act 2002 which says judges ‘must take into account the general desirability of consistency with appropriate sentencing levels… in respect of similar offenders committing similar offences’.  In short, judges should be handing out roughly the same punishment for the same crime – but we now know that when it comes to repeat drink drivers, they’re not.  Goodall and Durrant acknowledge that this inconsistency may extend to other crimes as well – but more research is needed.

They also say the reason for the inconsistency is that New Zealand has no sentencing guidelines – and so judges in the district courts are left to their own devices.  Goodall says local area judges form “personal constructs about offenders” which vary from one region to another and this has led to “systematically different approaches” from different regions.   In some areas, judges incarcerate people for quite minor offending – such as tagging.  In 2007 the Government was so concerned with the growing number of low level offenders in prison, it announced the establishment of a Sentencing Council. It agreed with the Law Commission recommendation that judges need sentencing guide- lines. Unfortunately,  National scrapped the plan when it came to power in November 2008.

Where is circuit 8?

With all due respect to the judges concerned, this research shows that leaving the judiciary to their own devices was a big mistake. Let’s not make another one by suppressing the details and failing to get to the heart of the matter. We need to know – where is circuit 8?

Tony AdeaneMy guess is Hawkes Bay where Judge Tony Adeane (right) is in charge – and doesn’t like the writing on the wall.   In April 2008, Adeane sent an 18 year old tagger to prison and declared the sentence was “a signal to you and your friends that the penalty for graffiti in Hawke’s Bay will be imprisonment until such time as there is some sign this self-indulgent egocentric behaviour is abating”. The following month he sentenced nine drink-drivers to prison in two days.

These are not isolated cases. Goodall and Durrant examined drink driving offences in New Zealand over a two year period (2008-09). Altogether, 9039 repeat drink drivers were involved in the study of which 2429 (more than a quarter) were sent to prison – with the highest percentage of incarcerations (by an absolutely massive margin) in circuit 8.

This is an aberration of justice. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Garth McVicar, founder of the so-called Sensible Sentencing Trust, lives in Hawkes Bay. For years he’s encouraged judges to put more people in prison – except those who stab young taggers to death. McVicar has had a significant impact on the growth of the prison population so one is inevitably led to the conclusion that circuit 8 is probably in Hawkes Bay.

However, the region in which you are sentenced is not the only factor affecting sentencing.  In New Zealand, Maori are seven times more likely to be given a custodial sentence than pakeha and men are three times more likely to go to prison than women.  Even being physically unattractive can increase your chance of imprisonment.  There is very little research on the impact of geography on sentencing, even internationally – but this ground breaking research at Victoria University suggests it may have an even greater impact than race or any other factor.

The need for transparency

We need to know where these hidden biases in our justice system are.  If the judges in Hawkes Bay are out of line with their colleagues, they certainly need to know.  Policy makers also need to know so they can figure out how judicial biases operate and how to overcome them.   So it is essential that the VUW researchers tell us which region of New Zealand is circuit 8 – and which other provincial areas send ten times as many people to prison as metropolitan areas. This information should provide unequivocal evidence that New Zealand needs a Sentencing Council after all.

I asked Dr Durrant to tell me which circuit represents which area. He refused saying: “For reasons that you can probably imagine the identities of the circuits cannot be disclosed.”  Frankly, I cannot imagine a single reason for keeping this information secret.  This is not a national security issue and Victoria University is not the NSA – or the GCSB. This is about the New Zealand justice system which needs to be open and transparent.

I have had to write to the Ombudsman to try and get the information made public.  But that shouldn’t be necessary. VUW should take pride in an excellent piece of research which has uncovered a substantial bias in the administration of justice.  They need to give us the details – not cover them up. And then they need to do more research to see if it applies to other kinds of crime.  In the meantime, a smart defence lawyer might argue that if his client is a male, Maori and lives in the provinces, there is convincing evidence he is unlikely to get a fair hearing.

Legal loophole in drink driving laws

The case of 16 year old Levi Elliot who killed another teenager in a drink driving accident illustrates a significant failing in New Zealand’s drink driving laws.


On May 28, 2011 Mr Elliot and 17 year old Shaun Nilson were drinking at a gathering at a friend’s home in Hamilton.  At 1.00am they went for a drive with Mr Elliot driving – even though he was still on a restricted licence and should not have had a passenger in the car.  Mr Nilson was killed when he was flung from the car after Elliott tried to overtake another car at speed and crashed into a power pole.

Mr Elliot was found to be five times over the legal alcohol limit (0.03) for his age. This is almost double the legal limit (at 0.08) for an adult.  The Government subsequently reduced the legal blood alcohol limit for those under the age of 20 to zero.

On November 17, Justice Ellis sentenced Elliott to three years in prison and disqualified him from driving for four years from his release.

Finite vs indefinite disqualifications

This death was caused by drink driving – and immaturity.  Although it is unclear from the available information whether or not Mr Elliot has a drinking problem, this is clearly a death where binge drinking is a significant factor.

Mr Elliot will be eligible for parole after one year.  He may or may not be released at that point. But before he gets his driver’s licence back – in fact before any drink driver gets their licence back – they should have to attend an assessment to see if they have a drinking problem and need education, counselling or treatment.

However, the only drink-drivers 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 for this offence every 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.

Mr Elliot was disqualified for four years.  This is a finite sentence, not an indefinite one – so he will be able to get his driver’s licence back at the end of that period simply by resitting the test. He will not be required to attend an assessment to see if he has a drinking problem – nor will he be required to attend an alcohol education programme.

This scenario is not uncommon. In September 2009, 71-year-old Alison Downer 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.  In March 2010, Frances Stubbs was fleeing a police alcohol checkpoint in Blenheim when she crashed and killed a mother of five children. Ms Stubbs was given eight months home detention and disqualified for 3½ years. There are many other cases where someone has been killed by a drink driver and the offender has been given a lengthy disqualification but not been disqualified indefinitely.

How long is indefinite?

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.

For a detailed analysis of how New Zealand’s drink driving laws encourage repeat drink driving see Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct