Alcohol has long been a political football. Politicians know that they will upset a good proportion of their constituents whether they tighten or loosen alcohol regulations.
On the one hand we have a social lubricant which lightens conversation, increases confidence and which can be an important part of a school fundraising quiz night or a vibrant city nightlife. On the other hand, it creates overconfidence, reduces reason, wrecks families, is a Group 1 carcinogen and has no place in a driver behind the wheel.
At least on the last aspect, most of us will agree that alcohol adds nothing to the driver and is the single most measurable factor in our road accident statistics. Drink-driving accounts for around $500 million in social cost relating to death and serious injuries on our roads every year.
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In legislation though, we have made great progress in the past few years. The blood alcohol limit for legal driving has been reduced. We have increased penalties for blood alcohol driving offences. There is zero alcohol tolerance for under 20-year-old drivers and in July last year, we introduced mandatory alcohol interlock sentences for recidivist and high blood alcohol level drivers.
The mandatory sentence means an alcohol interlock must be wired into the offender's car ignition system. The car will refuse to start unless the offender blows into the device with absolutely no alcohol on the driver's breath.
There are some exclusions such as not owning a vehicle, not holding a valid NZ driver's licence, an identified medical condition and living more than 70km from an interlock service centre.
Drink-driving convictions over the past few years have almost halved from 31,500 in 2010 to 17,100 last year.
Northland has 5.4 per cent of this number which, with 3.6 per cent of the population, means we have an inordinate drink-driving problem. Our conviction rate is increasing against the trend and many of the offenders are recidivists.
The AA Research Foundation has recently analysed the first year court data for the mandatory interlock sentence for repeat and high blood alcohol driving offenders.
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This showed that almost 3800 drivers were eligible for an interlock sentence but that only 52 per cent were sentenced to one.
Eleven per cent of drink drivers under 20 received an interlock sentence and there was considerable differences between courts regarding the proportion of drink drivers receiving an interlock sentence.
There have been 193 interlock eligible drivers in Northland with 135 of these being in Whangārei.
The sentence imposing rate in Whangārei is around the national average of 50 per cent. Kaikohe and Kaitaia have an interlock imposing rate of 20 per cent, where there is a lack of interlock servicing agent. This is an obvious gap to be filled.
The interlock sentence is not a silver bullet. It is something of a pain to use and requires the driver to continually use and service the device until eligible for removal after 12 months.
It is, though, a continual reminder of the link between sobriety and driving and prevents the possibility of the offender drink-driving with potential fatal consequences.
As well, the driver needs to use the interlock year to have back up counselling or attend a Drive Soba course to fix the drink-driving issue. Failure to address the background issue, could mean the driver is in no better shape once the device is removed.
No doubt sentencing judges have all relevant information in front of them and the mandating interlock sentence is only in its second year.
On the surface 52 per cent compliance is not a bad start. That's about 2000 drivers needing to blow before they go, but there is scope to continue to develop the best solutions to our drink-driving problem.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.