They're a menace on our roads and they put lives at risk. But the number of drink-drivers caught on Western Bay roads is rising despite road safety campaigns to stop people getting behind the wheel drunk. Sandra Conchie uncovers alarming new figures and investigates who is behind the increase. She speaks to experts to find out what the answers might be – and talks to a Tauranga woman who has spoken out about the dangers of drink-driving after her brother made a ''tragic mistake''.


The death of her younger brother six years ago was like a stab in Deborah Wood's
heart.

Wood says she's constantly reminded "someone really important" is missing from her life.

She hopes that by sharing her younger brother Patrick's drink-driving story, she can help prevent others from repeating his tragic mistake as figures reveal the number of drink- drivers on Bay roads jumped nearly 20 per cent in one year.

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Wood, a Pāpāmoa mother-of-four, lost her 28-year-old brother Patrick O'Connor on December 9, 2012.

"Patrick was drunk when he crashed his motorbike into a power pole near Shannon, instantly killing himself and injuring his passenger," she told the Bay of Plenty Times .

"My brother was a risk taker but his decision wasn't anything ill-intended. It was just a silly last-minute decision which had massive ramifications.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about Patrick and also think about the what-ifs and the if-onlys. I still get a lump in my throat when I talk about the mistake he made.''

Wood said learning her brother had killed himself was like a stab in the heart.

"It's been devastating not only for us but for his partner and the two sons he left behind and the two people who tried to stop him.

"Patrick, who had been drinking at a party, loved big motorbikes and made the stupid decision to show an acquaintance how awesome his bike was.

"Talking about it is a lot easier today but I don't think you ever get over the grief, you just learn to live with it. But you're reminded that someone really important is missing from your life, constantly," she said.

Wood said she hoped Patrick's story reminded others how precious life is.

"The reason I agreed to do this story was that I feel it means my brother's death wasn't for nothing."

Wood said she had an "absolute zero tolerance" for drink-driving.

"I am very forthcoming about telling people to put the keys down, it's just not worth it.

"My message is that as friends and family it's our responsibility to make sure those who haven't quite got that in their head yet, it's okay to take the keys off them.

"It's far better to fight with them at the time or somehow take the keys without them knowing than having to deal with the aftermath."

Wood's plea comes as police figures show 1444 people were caught drink-driving on Western Bay roads last year, compared to 1207 people caught in 2017 - a 19.6 per cent increase in drink-drivers caught in one year.

Police say they have been conducting more random and compulsory stops in the Bay, particularly targeting drivers they suspected were alcohol-impaired.

Stricter drink-driving laws have also been introduced in the last decade, impacting numbers of people caught under the influence.

In December 2014, a new lower drink-driving limit of 250mcg (50mg) was introduced, seeing more drivers caught at lower levels of intoxication. This followed a zero-alcohol tolerance for drivers under 20 that came into force in 2011.

In 2015, the year after the alcohol limit was lowered, the number of drink-drivers caught in the Western Bay increased from 826 to 1248 - a rise of 51 per cent.

About 30 per cent of those 1248 drivers would have passed under the old limit.

The proportion of drivers caught below the old limit has remained between 25 and 35 per cent in the years since the law change.

Last year, about 60 per cent (864 people) of drink-drivers in the Western Bay had readings above the old limit of 400mcg (80mg), and 34 per cent were caught above the new limit.

Police breath testing a motorist at a roadside checkpont. Photo /file
Police breath testing a motorist at a roadside checkpont. Photo /file

Ninety-eight of the drink-drivers caught last year were under 20 - about the same number as four years ago.

In 2018, about 0.79 per cent of Tauranga and Western Bay's estimated population of 180,600 were caught drink-driving, compared to 0.72 per cent of the 171,400 estimated population in 2015.

Senior Sergeant Mark Pakes, head of Western Bay road policing, said he was disturbed some people had not got the message drink-driving was "not smart or okay".

Alcohol and/or drugs were a factor in about a third of all fatal crashes, he said.

Pakes said some of the increased numbers of people being caught in the Bay was because police were conducting more random and compulsory stops, particularly drivers they suspected were driving alcohol-impaired.

The net had been widened to enforce the drink-driving laws, he said.

Pakes urged people to also stop friends and family getting behind the wheel after drinking.

"Decisions you make as a driver affect not only you and those in your vehicle but everyone else on the road," Pakes said.

 Senior Sergeant Mark Pakes says people can expect to be stopped and breath tested at any time. Photo/file
Senior Sergeant Mark Pakes says people can expect to be stopped and breath tested at any time. Photo/file

"People should drive with the clear expectation they could be stopped and breath-tested at any time. We want to make Western Bay of Plenty safe for all drivers.

"I make no apologies that police are taking a hard line on enforcing our road safety rules.

"This really is about saving lives, the last thing police want to be doing is knocking on someone's door to deliver terrible news of a loved one dying in a crash."

Hanmer Clinic's clinical co-ordinator Jill Knowler said the new figures were "disappointing".

Despite the consequences of drink-driving there had been no significant changes in the number of people seeking counselling from her clinic, including young people, she said.

"We see people from across the board ... Alcohol dependency touches people from all walks of life, including professional people," Knowler said.

"Some of our clients have told us they have driven after drinking numerous times before, but it was just the first time they were caught," she said.

"That tells us we need have earlier inventions for drink-drivers, especially for young people, otherwise most are likely to do it again."

Hanmer Clinic Tauranga clinical coordinator Jill Knowler says repeat drink drivers need intensive counselling. Photo / George Novak.
Hanmer Clinic Tauranga clinical coordinator Jill Knowler says repeat drink drivers need intensive counselling. Photo / George Novak.

Knowler said she would like to see recidivist drink-drivers, particularly younger people, be required to attend a mandatory two-year intensive rehabilitation programme.

"Research shows that is far more effective in changing people's attitudes to drink-driving than sending recidivist drink-drivers to prison or giving them home detention," she said.

Harry Wilson, NZ Transport Agency's Director of Safety and Environment, said police were working hard to keep roads safe.

"Drink-driving inflicts a huge amount of pain and suffering on New Zealand families and communities, and it's incredibly disappointing that so many people continue to put themselves and others at risk by driving while impaired," he said.

"The message is very simple - If you're going to drink don't drive - no excuses."

Caroline Perry, Brake's NZ director, said it was concerning to see so many people continuing to flout our drink-drive laws.

"Research shows even small amounts of alcohol impair your driving, so the only safe amount of alcohol to have if you're getting behind the wheel is none," she said.

"For recidivist drink-drivers, use of alcohol interlocks are important to prevent re-offending. But we also need to look at addiction support services and rehabilitation that can help address the underlying issues, and ensure they are funded and available."

By the numbers

Total number of drivers caught drink-driving on Western Bay roads:

2018: 1444

2017: 1207

2016: 1284

2015: 1248

2014: 826 *

Drivers fined in the adult lowered 250mcg/50mg blood limit:

2018: 492

2017: 337

2016: 389

2015: 385

2014: 30*

* (the new lowered alcohol limit of 250mcg/50mg came into force December 1, 2014)

Source: NZ Police