New Zealand's drink driving stats do not measure up well against Australia's.

Drunker than Australia: our damning drink-driving statistics


Comparing our drink driving toll with Australia’s shows that we should be doing a lot better.

In 2022, there were 124 drunk driving deaths on our roads – the worst year in a decade. The same year, 65 people died in similar circumstances in Queensland, and 36 in New South Wales. When we consider the differences in our population size, these numbers are even more alarming: New Zealand’s drunk driving deaths per capita were twice as many as Queensland, and six times that of New South Wales. 

Cop-stops and interlocks 

Drink driving researcher Gerald Waters says there’s no conclusive reason as to why New Zealand’s death rate should be higher than Australia’s. On the surface, the two countries share social and cultural similarities. But there are differences in the way authorities on each side of the Tasman approach drink driving. 

He believes missed roadside breath alcohol testing (RBT) targets and the patchy use of alcohol interlock convictions are contributing factors to New Zealand’s tragic drink driving record. 

Drunker than Australia driver INP

Roadside breath testing is a critical deterrent for drink driving.

Many road safety advocates, including the AA, see RBTs as a crucial anti-drink driving measure. It is a visible deterrent to would-be drink drivers and also a final line of defence to catch those over the limit in the act.  Although Police aim to test three million Kiwi drivers for alcohol each year, 2023 was the first time in eight years that was achieved.  

Gerald believes low levels of testing since the mid-2010s have contributed to a culture of people thinking they can get away with drinking and driving. For RBTs to be an effective deterrent, he says, drivers need to encounter them frequently. 

“Knowing there’s a high chance you’ll get caught and that the consequences will have a big impact on you is part of the deterrent.” 

New Zealand also needs to be making better use of alcohol interlocks - electronic devices linked to a vehicle’s engine that won’t allow it to start if alcohol is detected on a user’s breath. They are fitted to the vehicles of people who have been convicted of drink driving and have been in use in Australia since the early 2000s and in New Zealand since 2012. 

While both jurisdictions impose interlock sentences for serious drink driving convictions and on recidivist offenders, many Australian states require first time offenders to install an interlock while New Zealand does not and has more avenues for avoiding one. 

A study, funded by the AA Research Foundation, found there was significant variation in the way courts in different regions impose interlock sentences. 

“We looked at interlock convictions in New Zealand (in 2018) and found that 50% of people eligible for an interlock weren’t getting them,” Gerald says. “Health reasons, not having a New Zealand driver’s license and not owning a vehicle were all reasons they were not being handed down.”

Tougher penalties across the ditch 

Dimitra Vlahomitros is an Australian road safety expert with the National Roads and Motorists' Association (NRMA) which advocates for road users in New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory. 

She is concerned the RBT numbers have fallen away significantly following the Covid-19 pandemic but says New South Wales uses other measures to strike a balance between deterrence and education. The state’s approach to those caught drink driving is tougher. 

“We’re trying to really establish a separation between drinking and driving as opposed to ‘you can have ‘x’ amount of drinks per hour’ – because that’s a bit of a guessing game.” 

Drunker than Australia beer INP

Australia is trying to create a strong separation between drinking and driving.

For those who get behind the wheel after drinking, New South Wales imposes more severe penalties than New Zealand. Both New Zealand and New South Wales have low-level drink driving offences that don't go to court and higher level that result in criminal charges. A low-level drink driving offence in New South Wales starts with a fine of $603 and an automatic three-month loss of licence; a similar level of offending in New Zealand would see a $200 fine and a deduction of 50 demerit points – the loss of 100 demerit points will result in the loss of a licence.  

There’s always more to do 

Dimitra says while drink driving has been socially unacceptable for a long time in New South Wales, alcohol is a factor in about 17% of road fatalities in the state. In New Zealand it’s higher, with 20-30% of road deaths involving a driver over the legal alcohol limit. 

While she says there is no silver bullet to curb drink driving, it’s necessary for authorities to continue evolving policies and practices to keep shrinking the number of drink drivers.   

“We’re still having this conversation about drink driving. It seems crazy that [roadside breath testing] was first introduced in the 1980s and yet we’re still fighting the same fight of making sure people know they’ll be caught drink driving. 

“We’ve got to keep looking at what is best practice – what does the evidence tell us? How can we make a difference?” 

Drunker than Australia spill INP

New Zealand has work to do to reduce our drink driving problem.

The AA Says: 

AA road safety spokesperson Dylan Thomsen says the fact New Zealand has more drink driving deaths than New South Wales or Queensland shows we still have a culture problem around drink driving in our country. Authorities need to set the tone with an approach combining education, deterrence, and punishment. More people need to feel they are likely to be caught if they drink and drive to stop them risking it in the first place.We also need to look at the penalties when people are caught, and support those with alcohol problems to break those habits. 

Drink driving deaths are much higher than they were in New Zealand 10 years ago and it is clear the current policy and enforcement measures aren’t doing enough, he says. 

He was pleased to see Police once again hitting their roadside breath testing targets but said that that was only a part of the puzzle. 

“It’s a good foundation and we need police to continue hitting their targets, but to turn the tide on drink driving we also need look at what happens after a person is caught to stop them from making the same mistakes.  

“We need penalties that are going to change people’s behaviour and interventions like alcohol interlocks, specialist alcohol courts and rehabilitation treatment all have a role to play in stopping people drinking then driving and putting so many lives at risk.” 


Story by Matt Tso or the Winter 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Matt Tso is a Communications Advisor in the AA's Motoring Policy team.

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