Teen drink-drive numbers falling

By Amelia Wade

Young people now cite the Transport Agency's 'ghost chips' television advertisement when they are trying to stop peers drinking and driving, says a safety campaigner. Photo / Supplied
Young people now cite the Transport Agency's 'ghost chips' television advertisement when they are trying to stop peers drinking and driving, says a safety campaigner. Photo / Supplied

The number of teenagers caught drink-driving has halved in the past five years - but some of those who are stopped are showing levels far above the adult limit.

Police figures released to the Herald show a dramatic drop in the number of under-17s caught drink-driving, from 630 in 2007 to 305 last year.

The figures follow law and policy changes - including a zero limit for drivers under 20, increasing the driving age to 16 and making the restricted licence test harder - aimed at reducing the road toll.

The national road policing manager, Superintendent Rob Morgan, said the statistics were encouraging and reflected efforts by the Government and police to stop teens driving drunk.

"All those road safety conversations are what we believe is having an impact," he said.

While the number of teenagers caught drunk behind the wheel was small compared to the number who had licences, Mr Morgan said police were still trying to reduce it further.

"It's something we would like to see at zero, that's what we're working towards."

The chief executive of Students Against Drink Driving (Sadd) , Anna Braidwood, said the figures were "really pleasing" and the reduction was significant.

"But it's still a major issue, especially for our young drivers, so it's a case of not really taking our foot off the pedal. We really want to keep up that momentum so we can keep that trend going down."

The charitable organisation's aim is to reduce road deaths and injuries from drink-driving by promoting positive behaviour change in 13- to 17-year-olds.

People under 17 are legally considered to be youths and their cases are managed by the Youth Court unless their crime is serious enough to warrant being charged as an adult.

Sadd's education programme runs in 66 per cent of secondary schools, and has been active for about 26 years.

The organisation was working towards a "perfect world vision" where no New Zealanders are caught drink-driving, Ms Braidwood said.

She believed several factors - including the Government's Safer Journeys campaign - were behind the reduction in the number of young drink-drivers caught by police.

Safer Journeys is a strategy to guide improvements in road safety.

Ms Braidwood said the hugely popular "ghost chips" anti drink-driving commercial, which started screening in November as part of the Transport Agency's Legend campaign, had also had a positive effect.

"It just took off and it really seemed to resonate with young people ... it's not going to be a silver bullet, it's not going to cure all, but it's been one of those key messages put out there and young people have retained the information.

"Ghost chips became one of the strategies they would apply if they wanted to stop their mate drink-driving."

One of the main problems was that young drivers knew the risks of driving under the influence of alcohol, but still made the decision to drive after having a few drinks.

"The majority of young people don't start the night thinking they're going to make a bad decision at the end of the night, whether that's driving drunk themselves or hopping in the car with a drunk driver.

"But what we're finding is that there's a series of bad decisions that happen after people have started drinking."

Sadd's "Plan B4 U Party" campaign was trying to get young people to make smart decisions before they start drinking so the temptation to get behind the wheel was removed.

These include arranging a designated driver who wouldn't drink, pre-arranging to be collected, or taking a taxi or other form of public transport.

BUT BINGING IS STILL A PROBELM...

Although the number of teenagers under 17 caught driving drunk is falling, the alarmingly high amount of alcohol they consume before getting behind the wheel is causing concern.

Of the 2300 teenagers caught since 2007, 12 have had more than 1000ml of alcohol in their blood - more than 12 times the legal adult limit.

The heavy-drinking teens include a 14-year-old girl who had a reading of 946ml and a 16-year-old who killed his mate.

Tina Nilson, mother of the teenager killed by the 16-year-old, says more needs to be done to stop people so young driving so drunk.

Levi Elliott, now 17, was sentenced in November to three years' jail for the manslaughter of Shaun Nilson after crashing into a tree in Hamilton and killing him.

Elliott was more than five times over the limit at the time.

"I find it horrifying, absolutely horrifying that children of that age can get behind the wheel with alcohol in their system," Mrs Elliott said.

New Zealanders aged from 15- to 17-year-olds have the highest road-death rate in the OECD, and 18- to 20-year-olds have the fourth highest.

The Automobile Association's general manager of motoring affairs, Mike Noon, said that was completely unacceptable.

"It's alarming to see how much some of these teens are blowing ... it is very dangerous to be mixing alcohol with youths because they are more impaired and are less experienced drivers," he said.

The national road policing manager, Superintendent Rob Morgan, said the high blood-alcohol figures were a reflection of New Zealand's well-documented binge-drinking culture.

"This is just more evidence of that occurring, but in these cases these people have been caught driving after binge drinking," he said.

"They're now becoming a danger to other people. When they binge drink they become a danger to themselves, but once they get behind the wheel they become a danger to not only themselves, but to their passengers and the other people on the road."

For Mrs Nilson and her family, the anniversary of Shaun's death is near, which she said brought up all the pain they felt after he died.

"For us, as a family, it's absolutely devastated us and torn us right apart."

It was time to get tough on teenagers who got behind the wheel drunk, she said.

"Shaun had a variety of mates, from all walks of life. You could tell the ones that had respect for themselves and what they wanted to do - they would never drink and drive.

"But you get the other side of life who get demerit points and think, 'Yeah, we're going to get a fine but we can pay that off, five bucks a week'."

Mrs Nilson said zero tolerance should mean that if someone was caught drink-driving their car should be taken from them instead of them being given a fine or a slap on the wrist.

"Then they'd learn straight away, as would everyone else. People would think twice."

Parents and other family members needed to be more aware of what their children were doing.

"They need to stop being their friends so much and start being parents again. That's a societal thing that needs to change."

Mrs Nilson and her family have started a petition to raise the drinking age to 20, which she believes would help curb youth drink-drivers.

"Look what the 18-year-olds are doing now compared to what 18-year-olds were doing ten or fifteen years ago, it's just out of control.

You let them have drugs off the shelf in a dairy, we let them have all this alcohol that they don't respect - they think it's their God-given right because they are 18."

Mr Noon agreed that agencies needed to continue the push to ensure the numbers of teenage drink-drivers continued to drop.

"I don't think we've solved the problem, just like we haven't solved the problem for drivers over 17. The number of drunk drivers being apprehended each year is far too high."

WORST TEEN DRIVERS 2011

Male, 16, Southland - 1118
Female, 16, Gisborne - 1097
Female, 16, Whangarei - 1020

Drink-drive limits

* 0 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood for people under 20.
* 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood for people over 20.

Penalties for under 20s

Up to three months' jail, fines of up to $2250, licence cancelled for up to three months.

- NZ Herald

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