Drink drivers still refuse to listen

By Jamie Morton

Rita Marks at the roadside memorial to her daughter Stevie-Rae Marks, who was killed by a drunk driver in Matata. Photo / Alan Gibson
Rita Marks at the roadside memorial to her daughter Stevie-Rae Marks, who was killed by a drunk driver in Matata. Photo / Alan Gibson

With its endless ribbons of white beach and a climate consistently ranked among New Zealand's warmest, there's much to boast of in the Bay of Plenty's sun-kissed eastern reaches.

Yet this patch of coastal paradise, where parking meters are as rare as spaghetti junctions, also harbours an ugly shame.

The Eastern Bay of Plenty, as one police sergeant boldly put it this week, is home to an "endemic culture" of drink driving.

Last month, the Weekend Herald revealed how police had resorted to door-knocking the district's worst recidivist drink drivers at their own homes.

Police say the hard-line approach is working, despite a recent campaign seeing 32 driver's licences suspended as a result of previous drink driving convictions or high breath test results.

The most shocking cases included a 30-year-old Opotiki woman was three months' pregnant when she was processed at 1296mgs per litre of breath - the legal limit is 400mgs - and another driver whose car veered across the centre line a number of times before he gave a reading at three times over the legal limit.

On a typically sunny winter Wednesday in Whakatane, Lucy Takirua Himiona takes her turn in the dock at the local courthouse.

Like the other drink drivers appearing before Judge Watson today, she's facing her third and subsequent drink driving charge after guzzling 12 bottles of beer and then driving two other people to the dairy.

Caught with a reading of 848mgs of alcohol per litre of breath, Himiona is banned from possessing alcohol and entering hotels or licensed premises.

The judge tells her she's "a real danger to society".

Hikato Maaka, another recidivist drink driver, admits to drinking enough after-work beers to reach 716mgs before getting behind the wheel.

A police dog found him after he fled his vehicle.

Last month, 51-year-old Charles McRoy, labelled a "potential time bomb" as he drove blind drunk through Whakatane at more than four times over the legal limit, escaped jail despite being charged for the seventh time.

Rita Marks' eyes brim with tears when she hears about these cases.

The volunteer firefighter's bubbly, petite 15-year-old daughter, Stevie-Rae, was killed instantly when a boozed Karma Jasmine McIvor drove on to a grass verge and slammed into her one winter's night in 2007 in the seaside settlement of Matata, about 30km east of Whakatane.

"It just makes me cringe. And it's only just happened over the last few years. Why? They just keep getting caught, they have that addiction to get in their car. Drinking, cigarettes, marijuana... for them, it's drink driving. Just who do they think they are?"

On April 15, 2009, third-generation Opotiki identity Jessie Maxwell, 81, was struck by repeat drink driver Sally Tai while she was crossing the road.

Mrs Maxwell was rushed to hospital with horrific injuries but never regained consciousness.

"For myself and my family, I couldn't begin to describe what it was like - it was awful, she had cuts and bruises, there was blood everywhere," daughter Margaret Batchelar told the Weekend Herald.

The tragedy left her feeling cheated: "I'd lost a person who had a number of years left alive... and she's not there for some of the milestones with my own children."

At this point last June, nine people in the Eastern Bay of Plenty had died as a result of drink driving since the start of the year - however that figure stands at two for the same time this year.

Senior Sergeant Stuart Nightingale, the Bay of Plenty's acting district road policing manager, said the 549 drink drivers caught in the Eastern Bay last year was a "huge amount".

The Eastern Bay also stood out for its high number of repeat drink drivers - 52 received a third or subsequent charge to May 31 this year, compared with 315 across the entire Bay of Plenty.

District road safety co-ordinator Maurice Tooke, who works with the district's worst repeat drink drivers in a monthly Probation-run programme, said most of the offenders were Maori males.

Asked why the Eastern Bay rated so badly, Mr Tooke cited geography issues, a lack of public transport and a culture of "acceptance of alcohol".

"At any given time, the police could catch someone - they could go out tonight and they'd probably get eight people."

Whakatane was no different to any other town in New Zealand and was a healthy a community in many respects, Mayor Tony Bonne said.

Whakatane had more people within the low income bracket, and Mr Bonne questioned whether that could be a factor.

Eastern Bay of Plenty Area Commander, Inspector Sandra Venables, said of drink driving in the district: "I don't know that it's any different [from other areas] but certainly what we've found here is that the historic messages we've been delivering obviously haven't been heeded."

The get-tough Operation De-Clutch, which actively targets the worst offenders, had been positively received, Ms Venables said.

Mr Nightingale was pleased with the efforts police are making in the Eastern Bay and said he was confident the "tide is starting to turn", especially concerning alcohol-related fatalities.

"The numbers are disappointing, but each one caught is a job well done. The challenge is to keep the momentum up in terms of deterring drink driving."

BY THE NUMBERS

* 110 - people caught in a recent drink driving campaign over three weekends in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

* 549 - the number caught in the district last year, compared with 32,603 nationally and 3576 in Bay of Plenty, the second worst region for the crime.

* 52 - the number of people caught on their third and subsequent offence in the year to May 31 in the district.

* 2 - the number of alcohol-related road deaths in the Eastern Bay this year.

* 1296 - the level of milligrams of alcohol per litre of breath that a pregnant Opotiki motorist was recently recorded with.

- NZ Herald

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