A night on the booze-bus

BREATHE EASY: Bill Marino says 95 per cent of those stopped are really good but ‘‘the odd one is not too happy’’.
BREATHE EASY: Bill Marino says 95 per cent of those stopped are really good but ‘‘the odd one is not too happy’’.

Some general truths truths known to cops on the booze bus: women who skip dinner then drink wine are most susceptible to a surprise positive. If they stay off spirits, hardened drinkers, especially the bigger blokes, can imbibe a surprising amount of beer and still pass a breath test. Asian male drivers seem to have the lowest tolerance for alcohol, Polynesian men the highest. The proportion of women they catch is rising. Besuited men in flash cars are worth stopping in case they are disqualified drivers. In Auckland, the south and west are most productive, the North Shore the most sober. And when a driver says they've only had two drinks, they are usually lying.

Inside the 11-tonne, somewhat leaky Isuzu FFR truck known as the booze bus, is a mocked-up Tui billboard: "I've only had two drinks, officer".

But to earn a visit inside, thanks to our drink-drive limit of 400 micrograms per litre of breath, you've usually drunk a fair bit more. "One guy," says driver Dave Young, "said ‘two...three' and I said ‘and. . .' and we ended up with nine."

Bill Marino has been a policeman long enough to remember when you decided if someone was drunk by whether they fell off the kerb or not.

Falling and nose-touching have long been replaced by electronic gadgets and a four-page ‘Compulsory Impairment Test' to snare drugged drivers.

And these days, the drunk-catchers are specialists, part of the Traffic Alcohol Group, established in 1996. Senior Sergeant Marino, a cheerful and unflappable 66-year-old with 42 years' service, leads one of Auckland's four units.

"We know where there'll be lots of offenders," he says, as we prepare for a night on Auckland's streets. Usually, they choose their own spot but tonight they've been assigned Wellesley St, on the city fringe. "If we have a big hit rate here, we don't move," says Marino, as he sets out the cones at 8.40pm.

But he's expecting slim pickings, and it's a slow start. A young Indian man is under the limit, but doesn't have a New Zealand driving licence and hasn't got his Indian one with him. Senior constable Dean Thorne - a cop with only three years' less experience than Marino - checks his warrant, rego, record and immigration status. He's clean, but he can't drive.

He has to call a cousin to pick him up. The cousin says: "I'm not sure why he'd do that, that's stupid." But he hasn't realised his mate still can't drive, so it takes them an age to work out a convoluted way of getting the car home.

A moment of excitement when a car rounds the corner, the driver spots the bus, then reverses towards a motorway off-ramp. The Ukrainian driver is retrieved. He's polite, passes a breath test and immigration check, and so despite his strange story about taking the wrong exit, escapes with a warning. It proves the night's only action for the ‘chase car', usually positioned with a driver at the wheel for those who take off.

Marino says its so far from being a glamorous gig, the drivers rotate every half-hour to beat the boredom.

Mike Taylor, 46, five years in the TAG group, is standing roadside stopping cars with a cheery ‘good evening', before producing a small handheld unit that tests only for the presence of alcohol, not the amount - it can be triggered by perfume or even mouthwash.

A red light prompts a blow into the ‘straw', which returns one of four answers - no alcohol, under 250mg, over 250mg, and over 400mg. Get the latter, and you step inside the bus to breathe into a long pipe for an exact reading.

Drivers get two attempts, with the lowest number recorded. Then they are permitted to request a blood test, which earns an on-call nurse $100 a shot.

"When they say they have only had a couple," Taylor says, "BS, they can't have."

Just then, a car with a licence plate holder warning ‘I drive like you', rolls up. Sure enough, the 19-year-old driver says he's had one drink, which rises to two cans of pre-mix spirits by the time he's invited in. Josh* - tattoos, spreader earrings, baseball cap - is polite, rather sheepish.

He had his last drink half an hour ago before bringing his mates into town for a night out. Under-20s have a reduced limit of 150mg, but if they blow over 400mg, they are treated as adults in terms of sentence. Josh blows 516. He declines a blood test, telling Taylor: "That's not gonna help me. I'm just disappointed in myself."

Taylor's bedside manner is comforting. "Keep it in perspective, you're not going to do it again," he offers. Josh agrees. "I'm co-operative, I understand I've done something wrong," he tells me. "I've never done this before, and I definitely won't do it again."

His passenger then blows entirely clear, allowing him to drive them on into town, leaving Taylor shaking his head: "Why wouldn't he just drive? It's a Kiwi thing, eh. My car, so I drive."

The booze-bus has that bigger-on-the-inside thing - four processing booths, a phonebox for calling lawyers, a blood-test booth, a little kitchen with a bar fridge covered in Elvis stickers, and a mini-oven, and up front, Dave Young, who retired after 30 years in the police, but returned eight years ago as a non-sworn officer ("you miss the guys").

He's permanently stationed at a laptop, surrounded by a scanner (for mugshots), racks of batteries, dial-a-driver cards, a list of lawyers - and a cellphone for drivers to call them on. He even has a portable BBQ for long days at remote locations. Young checks every driver's ID and record, saving the team time, and is adept at spotting anything unusual.

"We can pick up people easier than regular patrols because we have more time to check," he says. He calls it a "net' - they get all sorts of offenders, including last week a red-handed burglar.

There is a lot of strictly-observed procedure, with the most time-consuming element a compulsory 10-minute period for drivers to consider whether they want a blood test. Marino has heard a rumour that may soon be abbreviated. But when they aren't processing offenders, it's quick.

Their hand-held units log how many checks they've made, and by the time we leave Wellesley St, Marino has done 99. Last weekend, they conducted 3200 tests in a night, and caught 13 drunks. Their target last year was 390,000 checks, and despite diversion on to other duties during the Rugby World Cup, they still managed 377,000.

In one lull, I ask for their record scores - 1200 for Taylor, 1400 for Thorne, and 1600 to Constable Matt Timmins. The stories flow, a woman who blew 1000 having had a nip of schnapps every morning and evening since she was 10; the man who blew 1000 at 10am despite not having had a drink since midnight.

Their feeling is the generation who routinely drank and drove have been hardest to educate, which explains why older men are caught: "some have learned, an awful lot haven't," they say.

By 10.30pm, amid an atmosphere of resignation, all four booths are occupied. A South African man blows 585, has his keys confiscated, and walks to town for another drink.

The towies are coming for the car belonging to a Goth kid who never actually had a licence, deciding not to bother after failing twice.

Unlucky Rob blows 588. He has a previous conviction from three years ago, and loses his licence immediately for 28 days. His (sober) girlfriend was driving his brother's temperamental car, and kept stalling it. Eventually, a kilometre from home, he decided to drive the last bit, and stalled right before the checkpoint.

Marino is sympathetic: "I actually feel quite sorry for him. He's telling the truth, I believe him." Typical of their friendly approach, constable John Whitefield, a trained mechanic, gets out the jumper cables to get the car going.

Rob isn't complaining: "They're nice guys, they're reasonable, you'd have to be drunk to not think that. They are doing a good job. I don't want drunk dudes driving around, so it's fair enough."

Marino had already told me before we set off: "95 per cent of them are really good. The odd one is not too happy." The nearest we get to dissent is a smartly-dressed Samoan business student who falls asleep as he's being booked.

Midnight on the notorious Karangahape Rd. A bitterly cold wind whips along the street. Not long before we have another full house. "I've never seen a cop-stop here before," says the Kiwi-Japanese student who admits to drinking three glasses of wine and who has just blown 640. "But you'd catch a lot of people here." She's cheerful, but wants to know if she's going to jail (she isn't).

We also have a guy in a black singlet, the sleeping Samoan, a big scruffy Korean man and a chirpy African. Singlet's licence was reinstated after suspension just 32 minutes ago - it's now 12.32am. "I think you should go and buy a Lotto ticket," advises Constable Rosa Wallace. "You're very lucky." He's still on an learner licence, so she advises him to at least go and get his restricted.

The Samoan guy is simply exhausted. Constable Rowan McCarthy was on his way to the checkpoint when he spotted him race away from a traffic light. He knows he's over, blew 650, is insistent on a blood test, but is yawning rapidly. McCarthy, kind not cruel, tells him he can sleep soon.

A half-pissed bloke bowls up. "Can . . ." he says. "No you can't," says Young. Every night, punters ask if they can do a test to see if they can drive. It causes too much trouble to let them.

The African, who has blown 509, says: "I never thought it would happen to me, but that's everyone's opinion. I thought I knew my limits. I thought I was under . . . even though it is slightly over, it's still over." He's going to give his car keys to his ex-girlfriend. "No temptations, no complications."

It's getting colder, and Marino's team still has two hours on shift. He's past retirement age, but is thinking about staying on one more year. He likes the work, likes his team.

He surveys the scene and smiles: "I guess it can be quite entertaining."

The Japanese girl, her fears of jail alleviated, leaves. A moment later, Thorne returns. "She told the whole street she loved me. Made my night."

Taylor glances up from his paperwork with a smile, and asks: "How much had she drunk?"

* Drivers' names have been changed.


Hardcore repeat drink drivers who found themselves in the dock this week faced a possible new sentence - alcohol ignition locks in cars that act as a breathalyser.

Automobile Association 2010-11 figures showed that in 6702 cases, police were laying charges for at least the third time against hardcore repeat offenders. For every 100 alcohol or drug-impaired drivers killed, 54 passengers and 23 sober road users suffered the same fate.

To limit that carnage, judges have been given the power to force drivers to install the device - called interlocks - once they have served a disqualification period.

Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges said the device is part of a "concerted effort to tackle the serious harm caused by drink-driving".

"The reckless actions of those who drink too much and get behind the wheel remain a cause of many road deaths and injuries in New Zealand. The interlock is among a raft of measures that will help make the roads safer for everyone."

The alcohol interlock is connected to the vehicle's starting system and drivers must provide a breath sample through a mouthpiece.

If alcohol is detected, the car won't start.

Once on the road, the machine sends out a short beep at random times notifying the driver that he or she has five minutes to complete another breath test.

To track compliance, drivers are required to take the cars for monthly servicing where data recorded on the interlock, including vehicle use, alcohol readings and violations, is downloaded.

If drivers did not take their cars for regular servicing, the interlock device will prevent the vehicle from starting until the device is serviced.

Bridges explained that the devices have "anti-circumvention measures" built into them and that attempts to tamper with the interlocks will attract "hefty fines".

But, like any device, alcohol interlocks are not fool-proof, with some suggesting to the AA that drink drivers could store air in balloons, shops could stock cans of air or children could blow on the device.

"No system is ever going to be 100 per cent perfect, but the reality is these interlocks are 100 times better than what we've been doing up until now, which is taking away people's licences," said spokesman Dylan Thomsen.

Although the AA supports the sentencing option, it believes the interlocks need to be installed immediately and coupled with rehabilitation.

"A lot of the people who are drunk driving can often have alcohol dependency issues," said Thomsen.

"They're not wanting to drive drunk, but once they start drinking they lose control of themselves."

Thomsen said the alcohol interlocks were already used in Australia, Europe and the US.

Sunday Star Times