In Northland we had four fatals during lockdown. At a time when motorways were empty and many of us took the opportunity to walk our local roads, we had four fatal crashes on them. Three of these involved alcohol and the driver was not restrained.
Our police were out in force making sure we were all keeping safe and doing the right thing. But they can't be everywhere and it seems that some Northland drivers have some sort of death wish or are just plain stupid.
There is a sense of frustration in the message of Acting Northland road policing manager Steve Dickson to the recent Regional Transport Committee that; "We are still breath testing - if a driver looks, smells, sounds, behaves, admits or is driving like they are impaired, we will carry out breath and drug impairment tests."
The question then arises as to what more can we do in the drink driving space and are we tough enough on those who drink and drive?
On December 1, 2014 New Zealand's blood alcohol limit for driving changed from 80mg/litre of blood to 50mg/l , but the two levels remained relevant.
Previously, if you had more than 80mg/l BAC (blood alcohol content) you were convicted, fined, had licence cancellation and you gained a criminal record. The record goes with you into various employment, travel, insurance, tenancy, credit and contract issues.
Repeat convictions have progressively more serious and onerous consequences including potential jail time.
With the legal limit changing to 50mg/l, if you recorded between 50mg/l and 80mg/l you incurred an excess alcohol infringement immediate roadside fine of $200 and 50 demerit points but, importantly in this context, you are not convicted and do not gain a criminal record. Effectively, drink driving is decriminalised at this level.
The issue of decriminalising drink driving is gaining traction in some Canadian states where police officers are given the power to file criminal charges or incur administrative sanctions for first-time drink-driver offenders.
In Alberta it was reported this month, that a new "immediate roadside sanctions" system means that instead of charging drivers, police will hand out $1000 fines, confiscate licences for three months and seize vehicles for 30 days.
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Offenders also have to attend training programmes for a year. Those are comparatively jaw-dropping sanctions. Only those who reoffend or cause harm or death will face criminal charges including jail time.
The key outcome appears to be a sharp, immediate, painful lesson for first-time offenders who avoid a criminal conviction. Some states claim that drink driving incidents have fallen by a third and fatals have halved using the decriminalisation approach.
The question about police officers acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, though, is an open one.
The whole issue of taking a different approach to currently criminal behaviour is central to this year's cannabis reform referendum. The referendum question is a simple yes/no, to a comprehensive legal framework which controls the growing and sale of cannabis for recreational use.
The progression from an illegal activity to a legal one would often follow a decriminalising trail where a criminal conviction is avoided and where civil penalties might apply. That is not the referendum proposal but, if cannabis is legalised, it would still be illegal to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs.
The question then becomes; How do you determine cannabis impairment? At what blood concentration of THC, the main intoxicant of cannabis, is a driver impaired? Some states in the US have set an arbitrary level of 5ug/litre of blood.
A study at the US National Institute of Drug Abuse in 2015, found that 13ug/l of blood (more than twice the arbitrary level) had a similar level of driving impairment behaviour as the 0.8mg/legal alcohol limit.
The study involved occasional cannabis smokers in a driving simulator. The study also found significantly impaired driver behaviour when alcohol and cannabis are used together, even when the blood THC and alcohol concentrations taken on their own, were below the threshold for impairment. The alcohol and pot combination is lethal for driving even at low levels.
The thing is, that the referendum is about the potential legalising of cannabis and a potential law change to effect that.
You just can't legalise a substance that impairs driving and not have a coherent policy for controlling driving under the influence of that substance.
The leap from illegal to legal is a big step. We should all reflect on that when in the voting booth.
• 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.