Opinion: No end to excuses for drinking and driving

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YOURWORD by Tanya Surrey – a Queenstown lawyer with Mactodd Lawyers

When you drive past Queenstown District Court on Monday mornings before 9am, you’re likely to see a line of people waiting outside the court.

Several will be facing a drink-driving charge. Like many people appearing in court, most are full of remorse and regretting choosing beer when orange juice was an option.

The majority of people I’ve represented for drink-driving are first-time offenders who have never been in a courtroom before, let alone in the dock.

There is a range of ages, genders and nationalities.

The excuses are varied. One of the most common is people wanting to move their cars so they don’t get parking tickets. Instead they get a hefty fine and six months or more without driving, and a parking ticket starts to look appealing.

I’ve heard people say they drove because the sober driver let them down, they had work the next day, they were the most sober amongst their group of friends, they lived just around the corner, they had a date, they went to pick up a distraught mate, they had an argument with their husband or wife, they’d only had a couple of drinks and my particular favourite, they had to get home to feed the family dog.

There are others under immense amounts of personal pressure with relationships, money or work who are simply not thinking clearly and subsequently making the wrong decisions. Some are recidivist offenders who can’t seem to stop either drinking or stop driving after drinking.

Now and again someone admits they knew they were over but drove anyway. Most claim to have had no idea and thought they’d be fine. In a nutshell it comes down to poor decision-making. People make mistakes. We are all guilty of that. But a mistake when driving can be a mistake with major consequences.

I’d like to see the offending reduced substantially. I think higher fines and longer periods of disqualification could have an impact. The sentencing process requires deterrence and denunciation. People are likely to be deterred by heavy penalties. But it’s not the only answer. Education is key. One suggestion I’ve heard is for a huge billboard to be erected at the airport with the “don’t drink-drive” message staring visitors in the face when they land in Queenstown. It would certainly help.

Rental car companies could also get the message out to tourists. I sometimes wonder if people let their guard down on holiday and do things they wouldn’t do at home. Or they make the mistake of thinking our police are soft.

Anyone entering the country, whether it’s for a holiday or work, should know we take drink-driving seriously and as a nation we are committed to reducing the road toll. Some will learn the hard way when Immigration NZ seeks to revoke their work visas.

It’s not just foreign nationals at fault. There are plenty of Kiwis convicted too.

Some people are deterred by the prospect of having their name in the paper. In that way, the Mountain Scene’s ‘name and shame’ campaign has been effective.

While there are plenty of people apprehended for drink-driving, potentially there could be more without the fear of negative publicity.

Between June 2017 and June 2018 there were 53,000 alcohol-related offences on New Zealand roads. Sadly in 2018 there were 380 deaths in road accidents. Undoubtedly a number of those deaths wouldn’t have occurred if the drivers were sober.

I firmly believe that everyone makes mistakes and most offenders that I’ve met in my work learn a valuable lesson from the incident and move on with their lives. Fortunately most don’t kill or injure others. But they could have.

Friends in the police have told me how hard it is to knock on someone’s door and tell them someone they love won’t be coming home. Not that night, not ever. Even the most hardened cops find it tough. It is almost always done in person. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Death is final. It reverberates through families for generations. If the thought of that isn’t enough to stop people from drink-driving, I don’t know what is.