For those who get behind the wheel after drinking too much, the chances of being caught driving while intoxicated have increased dramatically over the past six months, especially in Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago. Public Interest Journalism Fund reporter Guy Williams explains why a team of impaired driving specialists began operating out of Queenstown and how police are stepping up roadside breathalyzer testing across the country.
Queenstown may be New Zealand’s tourist gem, but it also has the unenviable reputation of being one of the hotspots for drunk driving.
Judges often express surprise at the number of people appearing before them in resort court for drunk driving.
The issue became a topic of discussion in the community in 2017 when convictions at Queenstown District Court hit a high of 232, bucking a nationwide downward trend.
It was the year when Otago Daily Timessister diary mountain scene launched a two-year “name and shame” campaign in which the names of all court-convicted drunk drivers were listed on its front page.
The numbers have since fallen, with last year’s 169 convictions matching those in 2012.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly played a part in the improvement, with roadside breath screening suspended during Tier 3 and 4 lockdowns, no international tourists on the roads and restrictions on industry hotelier.
However, the trend may be short-lived.
International visitors return, as do the foreign workers who were so often on the lists of defendants for drunk driving.
But the biggest change is the decision by senior police officers last year to increase the number of roadside breath tests carried out across the country, reversing a downward trend since 2014.
This led to the formation last December of an impaired driving or ‘safer roads’ squad in Queenstown.
Comprised of a sergeant and five constables, its goal is to bring renewed attention to high-risk and impaired driving in the Otago Lakes Central Police Area, which stretches from Glenorchy and Makarora to Roxburgh and Ranfurly, and encompasses Queenstown, Wanaka, Cromwell and Alexandra.
The Southern Police District’s dedicated impaired driving teams were disbanded in early 2016. The Queenstown unit is one of two such teams operating in Otago and Southland so far, the other being in Dunedin.
Senior Sergeant Bruce Martin, acting director of Otago Lakes Central Region Traffic Police, said the new team, which aims to perform 5,000 breath tests a month, was getting ‘buy-in’ drivers she had arrested.
“People want to see us there,” Sgt Martin said.
“They don’t mind being stopped for 30 seconds or a minute because they know it makes our roads safer.
“We very rarely have grumpy people telling us we’re wasting our time.”
He hoped the disincentive factor of running more checkpoints and moving stops would encourage drivers to make better decisions.
However, with the removal of Covid-19 restrictions, the opening of borders and a return to normal life for most people, he expected that increased testing would put upward pressure on the number of drunk driving convictions.
“It will be interesting to go another two years forward and see what the stats look like then.”
The national road safety policy change comes after years of growing pressure on government and police to refocus on impaired driving.
Under the terms of a funding agreement with transport agency Waka Kotahi NZ, police are expected to carry out three million roadside breathalyzer tests a year.
Last year, they reached only half that number, continuing an eight-year trend.
An independent report on the effectiveness of public investments in road safety, commissioned by the Ministry of Transport, was published in January.
She revealed that senior police officers had a strong awareness of road safety, but at the operational level a culture of prioritizing other types of crime had persisted.
In response, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said police recognize the need to change their approach.
A new “Safe Roads Enforcement Strategy”, finalized in December, would ensure that “our prevention and enforcement activity is focused on what will have the most impact in reducing damage on the road”.
In Otago and Southland, the number of road tests has defied the national trend by increasing over the past five years.
Southern District Road Enforcement Director Inspector James Ure said it had been ‘probably one of the best districts’ during this period but road safety needed constant attention.
Its dedicated teams in Dunedin and Queenstown had a far greater capacity to enable the district to achieve Waka Kotahi’s goals.
These targets were based on the idea of trying to test every licensed driver in a particular area once a year on average, Inspector Ure said.
“Even if you don’t get them all, you might get two or three times, and the conversation between friends and family creates a chilling effect.”
Automobile Association road safety spokesman Dylan Thomsen said it was clear police were committed to “stepping up” road testing and expected the target of 3 m be reached next year.
“Frontline officers often struggle to do the traffic policing they want to do, but also meet other needs in their area,” Mr. Thomsen said.
“It’s a really tough job because they have a limited number of officers and resources, but from a road safety perspective we just need to bump up our alcohol screening numbers.
“Anyone who has been driving for over a decade will remember when they encountered more checkpoints and stops on the road, and they noticed in recent years that they didn’t see them as much, and they didn’t are not stopped.
“It impacts people’s behavior – we need drivers to know that these checkpoints are there.”