ALISON LAI: Serious drink-driving offenders are not required to have any education or treatment.
LAST week we heard the heartbroken plea from the family and friends of Tasmanian Brianna Waddington, a teenage girl killed by a drunk learner driver, for others to learn from their tragedy.
It’s a situation that no one ever wants to imagine themselves in, and a story that every journalist wishes they didn’t have to write.
Yet Brianna’s story highlights the issues of drink-driving and the harm it causes our community, which for her family has resulted in a situation where they feel that pleading is the only way that they can enact change in others.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
There is more that we can do and we must because the simple hard truth is that Tasmanians are drinkers.
We consume alcohol at levels above the national average, particularly our youth.
The most recent statistics indicate that 76.2 per cent of Tasmanians between the age of 18 and 24 are drinking at levels that exceed national guidelines for safe drinking.
And in 2015, of the deaths on our roads, one in five involved alcohol, not including another further 44 serious injuries that were caused by driving while drinking.
These are statistics that send a shiver through our community.
Despite the strong messaging of anti-drink-driving campaigns like those of the most recent “real mates don’t let mates drink and drive” and “nobody cheers for drink-drivers”, the risk remains.
I have no doubt that these campaigns have kept many drinkers off our roads, and successfully saved lives.
Yet the risks remain, which is why we have Tasmania Police administering random breath tests and increasing the use of booze buses on key roads at times of the year when Tasmanians may be more likely to have consumed alcohol.
And with 2300 Tasmanians charged with drink-driving offences during 2015-16, Tasmania Police did an outstanding job of successfully keeping these drivers off our roads.
It’s what happens to those thousands of Tasmanians charged with drink-driving offences, where there is opportunity to further reduce the risks associated with drink-drivers on our roads.
Currently, because of the options available to the magistrates in our courts, the outcome for those charged will be limited to a fine, losing their licence or time in jail.
There are no options currently available for courts to request the offender to seek support or treatment for their alcohol use.
This is a critical gap in our system, particularly when we know that repeat drink-drivers are responsible for a significant portion of drink-driving crashes on Tasmanian roads. A court-mandated diversion program for Tasmanians charged with drink-driving offences could fill this gap.
This is not a radical idea, because we already have a court-mandated diversion program available for Tasmanians charged with illicit drug offences. The illicit drug court-mandated diversion program, allows magistrates the option of instructing people to participate in drug-treatment programs, with the aim of addressing the person’s issues with drug use, rather than simply throwing them behind bars.
It’s an approach that has proven to be highly successful, in both reducing offending and drug use and improving people’s health and well being.
It makes sense that it should be extended to those charged with drink-driving offences.
While it’s not an approach that would be appropriate for offenders like Jaye Sward, the teenage learner driver whose actions resulted in the loss of Brianna Waddington’s life, it would be a highly suitable response to address the drinking issues of many other drink-driving offenders.
For those whose actions result in a jail sentence, access to education and treatment should also be provided.
In the scenario of Jaye Sward, it’s most likely that when he is released after serving his three and a half year sentence he will be eligible to regain his licence.
Yet during his time in jail our current system would not require him or others convicted of serious offences related to alcohol to undertake any education or treatment.
This needs to change, because to do otherwise will result in Tasmania relying on an approach that doesn’t address the whole picture of why people drink and drive.
That is, whilst fines and particularly revoking of someone’s driving privileges will remove the risk of the person driving on our roads, it does nothing to address the issue of excessive drinking.
Whilst this gap exists the risk remains, and knowing that we already have an approach in place that is working for illicit drugs we must also consider it for alcohol.