Drink drivers continue to appear before Tasmanian magistrates daily.
The dangerous behaviour is not a new phenomenon, and according to a former chief magistrate, the reason why some offenders choose to drink and drive also hasn’t changed.
But one thing that has changed is how the state is addressing the issue, and how society is responding.
Michael Hill spent nearly three decades on the bench.
During that time he sentenced thousands of drink drivers, and for the most part, the same offenders over and over. It was before mandatory disqualifications when the most common punishment for drink driving was a fine.
And it was a time when drivers were blowing “extraordinarily” high numbers.
“Back in the 70s before we had RBT there needed to be a reason to be pulled over, you had to be doing something wrong or have been in an accident before you could be breath tested,” Mr Hill recalled.
“There were regularly enormous readings around the 0.3 mark.
“It was also not uncommon for fatal crashes to involve an alcohol component, quite regularly that would occur, the person would leave the Magistrate’s Court to go to the Supreme Court on more serious charges.”
Favouring a more therapeutic approach to justice, Mr Hill dealt with recidivist offenders by digging deeper into their history and investigating why they continued to commit crimes.
When it came to drink driving, he said the majority of repeat offenders had an issue with alcohol abuse.
But in the earlier days of his career, there was little focus on that potential abuse or addiction, and it would have taken a number of offences for a driver to be red flagged and investigated further.
“In my experience, most repeat drink driving offenders would not admit to you they have an alcohol problem,” Mr Hill said.
“It was something they would put down to bad luck, that they were just driving down the wrong street at the wrong time. The repercussions of their behaviour never seemed to be a factor in their thinking, and that is one of the problems with what I call the traditional methods of sentencing for drink driving. It was pretty rare back then for attention to be directed at the offenders drinking habits.
“Sometimes the court was alerted if the offender was young, and had accumulated two or three convictions, but if you had a normal offender, say a male in his 40s, who had a couple of offences some years ago, and a gap in time, then he was generally treated fairly traditionally without much examination.”
That was something that had since changed within the judicial system in Tasmania, as well as across the broader community.
The type of offenders had also changed as a result of an evolving view of drink driving.
With the introduction of random breath testing in the 80s, followed later by minimum mandatory sentencing, as well as numerous public awareness campaigns, Mr Hill said drink driving had become “more socially unacceptable”.
“It is frowned upon, so now you’re getting to the hardcore of offenders now, those with addiction problems,” he said.
While he acknowledged changes had been made within the system to address drink, and now drug driving, Mr Hill said Tasmania still had more work to do in the way of therapeutic sentencing.
“Imprisonment will stop someone offending for a particular period of time, but in the case of recidivist drink drivers, it doesn’t seem to be stopping them.
“Short of cutting their heads off, what else do you do? In my view, sentencing should be an individual exercise, so you should be able to sentence someone addressing those issues relevant to the offending.
“We are little here in Tassie, we can do things other states can’t because we don’t have the numbers to deal with. We can be innovative and blaze the trail.”
Complete this survey to have your say:
A 2017 report by the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute found the more recent approach to repeat drink driving was “not adequate”.
The law reform body worked with the Magistrate’s Court, community corrections and Tasmania Police to create a profile of repeat drink drivers in the state.
TLRI research fellow Dr Rebecca Bradfield said the research found the majority of repeat offenders were men and had a history of alcohol abuse, problematic drug use and or mental health issues.
And nearly 70 per cent of those drivers were unlicensed or drove while suspended or disqualified at the time of their latest offence.
“The TLRI report concluded that a specialist response was necessary given the substantial risk posed to public safety by recidivist drink drivers and the enormous social and economic costs that arise from road trauma involving repeat drink drivers,” Dr Bradfield said.
“Just responding with a response directed solely at drink driving was unlikely to be effective for these individuals.”
IN OTHER NEWS:
The report noted a reduction in the blood alcohol level or an increase in penalties would not be effective.
Rather, it suggested a specialist drink driving order, similar to the court’s drug treatment order.
“The order would involve (as with the current drug treatment order) a period of imprisonment that was not activated and the imposition of conditions to address the needs of the offender,” Dr Bradfield said.
“This would be complemented by other sentencing options such as a community based sanction to provide a hierarchy of sentencing options for the magistrate.”
The report also found evidence to support a driving while intoxicated court as a “promising alternative to traditional sentencing approaches”.
Attorney-General Elise Archer confirmed the government’s current policy to phase out suspended sentences would include expanding the Court Mandated Diversion program, targeted at drug-addicted offenders, to include alcohol-related offending.
“Community Corrections currently provides the Sober Driver Program which addresses issues such as the consequences of drink driving, effects of alcohol on driving, managing drinking situations, alternatives to drinking and driving, relapse prevention and stress management,” Ms Archer said.
The Examiner spoke with Michael Hill and TLRI as part of its Stop.Think.Drive road safety campaign.
What do you think? Send us a letter to the editor: