We've taken our eye off the ball with drink driving and dropped it. During lockdown many of us have drunk more alcohol because we're either bored or have more time to do it.
The danger of that is that, because there are fewer cars on the road, we think we will be safer to take that risky drive. We will speed up, drive like hoons and, in our inebriated state, we will be more likely to have a crash.
Last year in the first month of lockdown with 95 per cent fewer cars on our roads, four Northlanders lost their lives in road crashes, and all involved alcohol.
In New Zealand during the 33 days of level 4 lockdown, we had 12 fatal crashes. Last year the annual national road toll was the same as the previous year with a whole lot less driver kilometres travelled.
We are not alone in having horror road-crash statistics despite the lack of vehicles during lockdown. The United States reported last year the highest number of traffic deaths in 13 years with 4.5 per cent more fatalities, despite there being 13 per cent fewer vehicle kilometres travelled.
The Netherlands reported more road deaths despite a sharp drop in vehicles, as did Spain and the Czech Republic. Australia had a 30 per cent drop in traffic volume with only an 8 per cent drop in fatalities.
The international research indicates various explanations about the change in driver behaviour during lockdown. These include increased stress, more idle time, greater opportunity for reckless driving with a perceived reduction in enforcement activities, and increased consumption of drugs and alcohol.
It's the change in drinking behaviour that is of most concern. Late last year, The Global Drug Survey ran a study with more than 40,000 respondents across the world, including 3000 from New Zealand. Of the Kiwi respondents, 20.7 per cent reported drinking a lot more during lockdown, with a further 30.2 per cent drinking a bit more than usual.
This was the biggest increase of all the countries surveyed with the global average of people drinking a lot more, being 13.5 per cent. We also recorded very high numbers of people increasing instances of binge drinking, well over the global average.
Leaving aside the effects of lockdown over the past 18 months, New Zealand's current drink driving statistics make for very sorry reading.
A recent AA study reported that for five straight years from 2014 to 2019, the number of deaths where a driver was over the limit has increased every year. In 2014, the year the legal blood alcohol limit to drink and drive was lowered to 0.05 per cent, there were 48 alcohol related road deaths.
In 2019, this number was 87 deaths involving a driver above the new limit. This increase was not because of more drink drivers at the lower limit. 30 per cent of drunk drivers are more than three times the legal limit and these high BAC (blood alcohol level) and recidivist drunks, are the ones who are killing themselves and others.
There's been a lot of activity in the alcohol legislation space since 2013. The legal BAC level has been lowered, a zero driving alcohol limit for under 20 year olds imposed and alcohol interlocks have been mandated for specific levels of offending.
This requires, though, that these laws are rigidly enforced and the appropriate sentences imposed, but this just has not happened.
Despite the significant increase in alcohol-related crashes, the number of alcohol breath tests being done by police has dropped hugely to about half what it was five years ago.
It's not surprising the number of detected drink drivers has dropped, there's just not enough testing. As well as that, only half the drivers who meet the criteria for an interlock have been given that sentence, despite it being mandated in law.
Covid-19 has taught us the more you test the more likelihood you have of catching and containing the virus. The last time police did more than three million breath tests was in 2013-14. They do only half that number now, despite recent commitments to get back to that level of testing.
The lockdown process has meant that some vulnerable drivers are back on the booze - and potentially deadly. It's time to pick up the ball and get serious again about drink driving.
• 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.