Young drivers off drink

AARON LEAMAN
Last updated 05:00 04/01/2013
Tina Nilson's son Shaun, inset, died in 2011, when the car he was a passenger in crashed in Hamilton's Heaphy Tce
Fairfax NZ
ROAD DEATH: Tina Nilson's son Shaun, inset, died in 2011, when the car he was a passenger in crashed in Hamilton's Heaphy Tce. The driver had been drinking and smoking legal highs.

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Fewer young people are hitting the booze and getting behind the wheel under the new zero-tolerance drink-drive law, with a major holiday blitz catching just one young driver in the Waikato.

But alcohol reform advocates say even greater road-safety gains could be made if the zero-alcohol law were extended to all drivers.

Nationwide, almost 20 per cent of all drink-drivers in crashes are aged 15 to 19; a further 24 per cent are aged 20 to 24.

In August 2011 a zero-alcohol limit for drivers aged under 20 was introduced to help reduce that.

Statistics provided to the Waikato Times under the Official Information Act show that since then 580 Waikato drivers aged under 20 have been charged with driving with an excess breath- or blood-alcohol level.

The figures reflect a downward trend, with 617 young drivers charged in 2010 and 762 in 2009.

Waikato road policing manager Inspector Marcus Lynam said the zero-tolerance drink-drive law was having a positive impact on young people's attitudes to drink-driving.

"The zero-limit law sent a strong message to youth that drinking and driving is not acceptable," he said.

"Young people have grown up with the understanding that they can't drink anything when they drive and I think that will have a long-term benefit for society."

Between December 28 and January 1 this year police breath-tested 3733 motorists at check-points across the Coromandel and picked up only two positive results.

One was a 17-year-old driver.

Mr Lynam said the Coromandel results were "hugely positive" and reflected changing attitudes in the community around drinking and driving.

Alcohol Healthwatch director Rebecca Williams said the zero-tolerance drink-drive law for young drivers was a "fantastic step" but the Government sent mixed messages by not reducing the adult alcohol level - 400 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath.

"Trying to maintain a low drink-drive level for young people is a real challenge when you've got adult drinkers not taking responsibility for their drinking.

"We've tried to fix our drinking culture by fixing young people, when it's the whole population that needs to be challenged.

"For us to maintain the progress we've made, we need to start to think about getting alcohol out of the roading environment.

The police message has consistently been [that] alcohol and driving don't mix. If that means we work toward a zero-alcohol limit for all drivers, then so be it."

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Hamilton-based Labour MP Sue Moroney said overseas research showed reducing the blood alcohol level for adults would bring an "immediate and prolonged" reduction in drink-driving related injuries and deaths.

MOTHER CALLS FOR TOUGHER PENALTIES

It's the small things that catch Tina Nilson off guard; something familiar or incidental that trigger memories of her son, Shaun.

"You think you're doing fine and then one day you see someone doing something that Shaun would do and it's another kick in the guts."

Shaun died on May 28, 2011, when the car he was a passenger in crashed in Hamilton's Heaphy Tce.

The car's driver, Levi Elliott, had spent the night drinking and smoking legal highs. He later produced a blood alcohol reading of about 150 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood - five times the youth limit at the time of 30mg.

He was sentenced to three years' jail after pleading guilty to manslaughter.

Mrs Nilson said the zero-alcohol level for young drivers was a positive initiative but further law reforms were needed.

"The fact that the number of young people caught drink-driving is decreasing is good news but the Government could have gone further and raised the drinking age to 20."

Mrs Nilson said extending the zero-alcohol level to all drivers had strong merit but she also believed harsher penalties were needed for those caught drink-driving.

Drivers under 20 caught with 150mcg of alcohol per litre of breath or below are issued 50 driver demerit points and a fine. A reading over 150mcg can result in disqualification from driving, a fine or imprisonment

"The penalties need to be stiffer for all age groups. Giving someone demerit points is like a slap on the wrist, it becomes a competition to see who can get the most demerits," she said.

"For families the consequences [of drink-driving] are devastating, through and through. We've just been through another Christmas and New Year without our son . . . Shaun would have been 20 this July and the effects on his sister and everyone around us are ongoing."

BY THE NUMBERS

Waikato drivers aged under 20 charged with having excess breath or blood alcohol levels:

2009: 762

2010: 617

2011: 333 (up to August 7)

From August 7, 2011, to November 30, 2012: 580

Fatal or serious-injury-related crashes in 2008-2010: Nationwide, one in five (19 per cent) of all drink-drivers in crashes are aged 15 to 19; 24 per cent are aged 20 to 24.

- Waikato Times

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