22 Jun 2022

Police prosecuting one-in-5000 restricted licence breaches, data reveals

9:00 am on 22 June 2022

Data has revealed police caught 5000 drivers breaking their restricted licence by carrying passengers when they shouldn't last year - and prosecuted just one of them.

A police car parked on the street.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

An OIA response shows they issued written warnings to 10.

It shows almost 42,000 infringements in five years and 18 prosecutions, but that the number caught has plunged recently - as have the number of written warnings issued, from about 300 per year, to 10.

The same marked drops have occurred around driving with no licence or the wrong licence.

Police say they try not to take a "purely punitive approach".

In the last five years they had not done any operations targeting restricted licence drivers carrying passengers, Superintendent Steve Greally, director of national road policing, said in the OIA response.

RNZ sought the figures from police after a ute hit a truck in Invercargill in April killing four teenagers - it remains unclear what type of licence the driver was on.

Car crashes are a leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 19, though the rate has fallen a lot since 2002. Road deaths caused by young drivers rose between 2012 and 2017.

Recent cases of young drivers not fully licensed in major crashes include:

Other figures show a halving in the number of teenagers being caught breaching either their restricted or learner licences for any type of offence.

These plunged from 51,000 in 2016 to 22,000 in 2020. It remains unclear why.

This includes where a notice was waived because a driver progressed to the next licence stage within eight weeks.

Greally told RNZ police had not addressed the issue of restricted drivers with passengers as a discrete issue in any road safety reports in last two years.

The number of deaths of car occupants peaks at age 18 for both boys and girls, with males three times more likely to die, and Māori with the highest rate by ethnic group.

The Government is making it cheaper to get a driver's licence, saying that will boost young people's economic chances.

"Removing the barriers to driver licence training not only helps to prevent fines, court and the risk of criminal penalties, but may also save lives and reduce the devastating impact a serious crash can have on communities," Transport Minister Michael Wood said of extra funding in the Budget.

Parallel to the plunge in restricted licence passenger-carrying infringements from 13,600 in 2017 (a non-Covid year) to 5000 last year, the number of drivers of all ages caught by police driving with no licence or the wrong one has dropped from 20,000 five years ago, to just 13,000.

RNZ has asked why.

For restricted licence offenders, police handed out 1252 written warnings since 2017 - three out of 100 drivers getting one.

Police made in total six referrals to a Te Pae Oranga iwi panel and eight youth referrals (each under 0.02 percent).

The penalty that usually applies for driving passengers when you shouldn't is a $100 fine (dropped from $400 more than a decade ago) or 35 demerit points on your licence. However, it is not known what applied in last year's 5000 cases.

Licence infringements statistics 2017-2021

Licence infringements statistics 2017-2021 Photo: Supplied / Police

"Police encourages the appropriate application of supported resolutions or written traffic warnings in appropriate circumstances," Greally said.

The police declined an interview. Yesterday afternoon at 2.30pm they said a "subject matter expert" was looking at RNZ's questions - shortly after they said it was unlikely they would make a response in time.

Police have been well behind on other road safety targets in recent years.

They did only half as much breath-testing, and deployed mobile speed cameras for only 60 percent of the hours they promised, last year. These targets are agreed in return for road policing getting more than $300m a year.

Restricted drivers are only allowed to take a passenger who is their spouse or partner.

Greally released the figures for offences by people of any age, driving without a licence or with the wrong one, without being asked as a "useful" comparison.

These infringements totalled 78,000 from 2017-21 - with 226 prosecutions (0.3 percent), and 772 written warnings (1 percent).

Restricted licence infringement statistics relating to carrying passengers 2017-2021

Restricted licence infringement statistics relating to carrying passengers between 2017-2021. Photo: Supplied / Police

Yet last year a mere three written warnings were issued.

From a high point of 20,000 total infringements like this five years ago, last year hit 13,000, though more drivers are on the road.

Of the 13,000, 41 were prosecuted.

Police went into much more detail about not going hard on these no-or-wrong-licence offenders - that they often refer them to a driver licensing programme, which keeps them out of the justice system and gets them a licence - than they did in regards to the restricted licence drivers with passengers, about which police said little.

University of Otago senior lecturer Dr Rebecca McLean said "there has not been a lot of active research on GDL [graduated driver licensing] in New Zealand in recent years".

She contributed to the last major research by the now-defunct New Zealand Drivers Study, around 2012.

Drivers not sticking to licence restrictions "is associated with crashes as a restricted driver and also once fully licensed", McLean said.

A Ministry of Transport evaluation of the system three years ago relied a lot on overseas research.

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