Bert van Heuckelum: Drink-drivers getting away with bloody murder

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On Sunday September 28 last year, while on her way to work at Tauranga Hospital, my wife Netty lost her life in a car accident near Katikati, caused by a drunken driver.

Losing her in this unnecessary but too common way has devastated us. I regret not expressing my views on drink-driving earlier - it could have made such a difference to us.

The common response by officials is: "The message is not getting through." But the same message is continued - checkpoints, advertising and talking, rather than considering these drivers as potential killers.

Someone is responsible for this impasse which keeps costing lives. Driving with excess alcohol levels is an offence and consequences vary depending on the seriousness and repeat offending. The following comparisons make you think.

- You walk through town with a firearm. The armed offenders squad will be called in. Anything other than a quick response to orders has serious consequences, possibly fatal, so no risks are taken. The court deals with it severely and the firearm is confiscated. The state protects its citizens by removing the offender from society for a period. The penalty reflects the concern for human life.

- If fishery officers find someone with an excess or under-sized catch, boat and vehicle can be seized. Also a fine and in serious cases even a jail term may result. Seafood stocks are protected from overfishing and penalties reflect the concern.

- Driving a vehicle with excess alcohol results in a fine and temporary loss of a driver's licence. Only serious repeat offenders may end up in jail.

Fines often accumulate without the ability or even the intention to pay by the offender. These fines are then converted into community service. The hourly rate, usually more than $100 an hour, makes it attractive to default.

Conclusion: A drink-driver is considered a lesser threat to society than someone toting a firearm or taking excess or undersize seafood.

Our lawmakers made that judgment and also gave the judges the ability to apply minimal penalties to drink-driving offenders.

Our prisons are full. But society should not have to live with people in their midst who have not only disregard for their own lives but also for those of others.

I allege that our state does not provide its citizens with the protection from drunken drivers they are entitled to as tax-paying and law-abiding citizens.

The current penalties: fines, community service, home detention, impounding vehicles for 28 days (occasionally forfeiture), and loss of driver's licence. Jail for multiple repeat offenders only.

This does not stop drink-driving. Fines are not paid, community service and home detention are costly for society and you can drive without a licence.

It therefore makes good sense to change the consequences to make clear we have had enough of the carnage and suffering caused by these irresponsible drivers.

Any driver of a vehicle who is over the alcohol limit should lose that vehicle immediately, with the vehicle crushed (preferably on the spot for impact). And the driver's licence is cancelled for a year.

Ownership, value, finance, rental or whether it is needed for work doesn't matter. The penalty is the same. Human life must rate higher than a job or material value.

Many cannot afford the expense of acquiring another vehicle, friends will not lend theirs, rental companies will have new policies and finance companies will be more careful.

This would be a real penalty and a strong deterrent.

The number of offenders will decline sharply, as it hits where it hurts most.

There are other benefits. It keeps most cases out of court, no uncollectable fines, no expensive community service or monitoring of home detention. The costs fall on the offender, not on society - but there is also no stigma of a term in jail for the offender.

If we are really serious about drink- driving, we need to value human life above our society, financial considerations, or any concern for the offender.

A drunken driver causing an accident is a potential killer, a criminal. A fatal accident is manslaughter.

Look at countries like Sweden, the Netherlands or France. In comparison our alcohol limits are generous. We need to be resolute. We only destroy a potential deadly weapon - the car.

Great efforts are made looking for lost sailors or trampers. If human life has a dollar value, publicise it and apply it equally to every citizen and visitor.

Listen to the silent majority who are sick of it, but will not speak out until it happens to them. I was one of them.

I ask decision-makers to urgently review the drink-driving laws. They are partially liable for the death of my wife as they are negligent by not providing adequate protection for her as a road user and not enacting effective penalties.

A referendum would tell how New Zealanders think about it. Does it first need the spouse or partner of one of our political leaders or a notable New Zealander to lose their life before it is given real attention and stronger measures are taken?

* Bert van Heuckelum lives near Katikati.

- NZ Herald

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