A driving programme helping to steer offenders in the right direction is gaining traction with 116 Northlanders legally back on the road.

Former prisoners and offenders have been given a second chance with a new driving programme in Whangarei which aims to help people off the pathway to prison.

The Howard League unlicensed offenders' driving programme gives second offenders the tools and access to obtain their driver licence and avoid a third offence resulting in prison time.

It was launched in Whangarei in June as a result of a donation by The Lighthouse Foundation and Goldman NZ chief executive Andrew Barclay.

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Offenders are referred to the course by probation officers and since it started 116 people have got their licence and are back on track with their lives. Only four have failed the test.

Speaking at the official launch at Whangarei Community Probation office yesterday was one of the programme's success stories father-of-two Rayvaun Tetevano.

A series of stops by police resulted in fines and an accumulation of demerit points which saw the 29-year-old Whangarei man lose his licence. Further police stops saw him come to the attention of authorities again. But a chance to take part in the programme was the break he needed.

"It's been a game changer for me. It's been a bit of a confidence booster."

He has since got a new job and a new vehicle and he reckons his future is looking much better.

But what made the difference was finding someone - Amy Clark - willing to teach him after a few knock-backs.

"She really made a difference. I would tell anyone in this situation get on the course. Don't be afraid to try something new."

His employer Brian Cutforth, director of Alpha Construction Services, praised his employee's motivation to change.

Another to gain his licence was Patrick Wiremu Tiari Hakaraia who thanked those who had given him the tools to move forward in his life.

"I am honoured to be standing here and be proof of change in a generation of Maori."

Greg Silvester, owner of Natural Insulation, said Mr Hakaraia was a welcome addition to the team and it was excellent to see someone wanting to achieve.

Statistics show 65 per cent of Maori offenders have a driving offence as part of their initial jail sentence and about 5 per cent of jail sentences are for driving without a licence.

A driving force behind the Whangarei programme is driver training co-ordinator Ms Clark.

She said gaining a licence meant freedom, achievement and employment for these people.

"It's about building confidence and building lives. It's more than a plastic card sitting in a wallet. It's a massive achievement and milestone in their lives."

For many it was the first time they had passed any test and it was a special moment. The word had been spreading and already she had another 100 people ready to start the course.

Visits to Wellsford, Dargaville and Kaikohe all revealed a need for the programme in those communities.

"I was swamped in Kaikohe for requests for help. This has the potential to have a massive effect on offending in Northland."

Changes over the years had meant driving tests had become difficult to pass but in the six months only four people on the programme had failed.

"These people have driving experience, but I'm tweaking some things and bad habits to get them through the test."

Mike Williams, chief executive of NZ Howard League for Penal Reform, said the programme had many benefits including safer driving and more legal drivers.

The programme also promoted a new start after prison and could lead the participants into jobs.

He said it cost the taxpayer about $2000 per week to house a prisoner but setting them up with a licence is a one-off cost of about $1000.

There were several reasons why second offenders did not get their licence.

Literacy was one problem and also other barriers such as financial cost, access to a legal car or not having the acceptable identification like a birth certificate.

The programme runs from four to eight weeks depending on the needs of the driver.

"However, we believe that in terms of bang for buck a New Zealand-wide programme should be a high priority for government spending," Mr Williams said, appealing to Labour MPs Shane Jones and Willow-Jean Prime who attended the launch.