The impact of tougher penalties on drink -driving

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Release date: 7 June 2004
Tougher penalties for drink-driving offences have led to a small reduction in reoffending in NSW country and regional areas but no reduction in Sydney, according to new research released today by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

The research examined the effect of changes to NSW laws that doubled the statutory penalties for almost all drink-driving offences in 1998.

The legislative changes led to a 19 per cent increase in the average gaol term (for the small percentage who were gaoled), a 47 per cent increase in the average fine and a 16 per cent increase in the average licence disqualification period for people convicted in NSW of a drink-driving offence.

To evaluate the effect of the new penalties, the Bureau followed up two groups of drink-drivers; one group (numbering 18,017) convicted in the year before the penalties were raised and the other group (numbering 20,759) convicted in the year after.

For drink drivers residing in country and regional areas of NSW, those sentenced after the penalty changes were found to be less likely to reappear for a new drink-driving offence than those sentenced before the penalties were increased. These drink drivers who did reappear also took longer, on average, to reappear for a new offence after the penalty changes than before.

These effects held up even after controls were introduced for other factors likely to affect the risk of re-offending (e.g. age, gender, prior criminal record). In absolute terms, however, the changes were fairly small.

The probability of reoffending in a three year follow up period for example, fell from 14 per cent before the penalty change to 11 per cent after the change, a fall of just three percentage points.

Commenting on the findings, the Director of the Bureau, Dr Don Weatherburn highlighted two possible explanations for the failure of tougher penalties to exert a substantial effect on re-offending amongst drink drivers.

'Firstly, the deterrent impact of the 1998 legislation may have been eroded by the large percentage of drink-drivers who managed to avoid licence disqualification as a result of being dealt with under section 10 of the NSW Crimes Act. This section permits a magistrate to find a person guilty of an offence without proceeding to a conviction'.

'Secondly, past studies have shown that tougher penalties do not exert much deterrent effect unless the perceived risk of apprehension for offending is reasonably high. Rightly or wrongly, those who drink and drive may not believe they stand a significant chance of apprehension'.

Further enquiries:
Dr Don Weatherburn (02) 9231 9190 (wk) / 0419 494 408 (mob)