Data showing more people are illegally drink-driving prompted one NZ First MP to propose higher blood and breath alcohol limits. Gerald Waters, whose research has contributed to significant developments in drink-driving laws, labelled the proposal as ‘crazy’ – favouring evidence-based policy instead. Teuila Fuatai reports. 

It’s not every day you meet a man from South Wales known around the world as New Zealand’s drink-driving expert. A former music producer turned full-time researcher and consultant, Gerald Waters explains the confronting start to his current occupation.

“Back in 2010, a family friend was killed by a drink driver,” he says.

“She had just dropped her son off to daycare. She was killed minutes later, leaving her son an orphan because she was a single mum raising him.”

“It was terrible,” Waters says. “The judge gave [the driver] the maximum sentence – which at the time was five years for death by excess breath alcohol. After sentencing, she read out his previous offending – he had 17 previous convictions for drink-driving and he’d only been out of jail a couple of days before he killed our friend.”

He had 20-years-plus of offending, which included 200 offences, 100 drug and alcohol-related offences, 17 previous drink driving convictions

Of particular note was the driver’s appearance, Waters says,

“I came from an area in South Wales in the UK with very low socio-economics, a lot of crime, a lot of alcoholism and drugs. When I saw the guy in the dock, I’d seen that guy, that face before.

“I immediately thought, well this guy didn’t set out to kill our friend. God knows what’s going on with him – it doesn’t look like he knows what’s going on with him.”

With the man’s permission from prison, Waters obtained his records and background information. 

“He was in his 50s. He had 20 years plus of offending, which included 200 offences, 100 drug and alcohol-related offences, 17 previous drink-driving convictions,” he says. 

“Honestly, reading through the probation reports and sentencing notes, this guy had the most unenviable lifestyle. The longest time he’d been out of jail was four months, the shortest time was just a couple of days. He was just in and out, in and out.”

In one of his case sentencing notes, the judge had said it was just a game of odds until he killed himself or someone else. Another probation report showed he consumed nine litres of wine each day.

For Waters, the screeds of information from various government departments on this man showed how ineffective prison was. It was about this point that his research turned a corner. 

“I typed into a search engine ‘drink-driving’ and started looking through research papers. I’d write down the authors names, and track them down and start contacting them. I’d explain to them what I was doing and I found that they were only too willing to speak to me and share the latest in what was happening with drink-driving. It was international.”

One of the first things he did was put together a submission for proposed changes to the Land Transport Act in 2010. Waters says his submission and further related research around the effectiveness of alcohol and drug courts, rehabilitation programmes specific to drink-drivers, and alcohol interlock devices for cars, has helped inform changes to drink-driving laws, as well as policy on criminal behaviour interventions.

Notably, Waters points to the international research and best practice evaluations around alcohol and drug courts, which first began in Florida in the 1980s. The courts are probably the most effective in stopping recidivist offenders like the drink-driver who killed his friend, he says. Participants in the courts must undergo intense rehabilitative programmes, alongside community work, to address substance addiction and the related criminal behaviour – thereby interrupting the cycle of addiction-driven offending.

Currently, New Zealand has two alcohol and other drug courts – operating in the Auckland and Waitakere district courts one day a week. Each court has space for 50 participants, who are referred through a lawyer or judge. To enter the courts – which have been operating as a pilot since 2012 – an individual must meet strict criteria, which includes an assessment that identifies their offending to be driven by addiction. Those who are charged with offences with a prison sentence of more than three years are not eligible. 

“It looks at the underlying causes, not just punishing people,” Water says of alcohol and drug courts. “It is non-adversarial, so you have defence and prosecution working together – for the betterment of those who would perhaps react positively to treatment.”

While the New Zealand courts are yet to undergo an impact evaluation, international experience has provided favourable financial outcomes, he says.

“Basically, for every dollar you spend, you’d get at least $5 to $10 back in lessened reoffending.”

Waters, who continually reiterates the importance of “scientific, evidence-based research” to address criminal offending, advises various Government departments on health and justice policy and interventions. He is also the head of Researching Impaired Driving in New Zealand. 

“I’ve also looked at all offending in New Zealand – 80 percent of crime is alcohol and drug related,” he says. “It’s obvious that you shouldn’t be having drug court once a week – you should be having it six days a week with one day for normal crime.”

Looking back, Waters – in true research style – analyses how his research years have gone so far. 

“I don’t know if I’d have been able to do this if it had been my father, mother, wife or child because of the emotions. I was able to view what was happening and the heartache, with a step of removal.

“If you’ve got the ability or opportunity to do that … and to look at the evidence logically, then the response gives you clarity.”

As the death of his friend shows, “prison isn’t the answer to anything”, Waters adds. 

The driver who killed her returned to prison for another drink-driving offence not long after he was released from serving the sentence in her case.

“Yes, it serves a utility function for people who are definitely going to commit terrible acts in the community in all likelihood … but the less people that go to prison the better. Youngsters shouldn’t be in prison at all because that’s just creating a problem,” he says. 

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