Why New Zealand allows drink-drivers back on the road

Disqualified motorists are allowed to drive again legally using a special licence

Disqualified or suspended drivers in New Zealand can apply for a limited licence if a driving ban causes ‘extreme hardship’. Photograph: Getty Images

New Zealand as a country struggles with driving under the influence. Between 2014 and 2016 alcohol or drugs played a role in 29 per cent of all fatal crashes (lower than the 38 per cent found in Ireland). Despite the level of such fatalities, some New Zealanders who have been disqualified from driving due to drink-driving are able to drive again legally in certain circumstances.

Disqualified or suspended drivers can apply for a limited licence if a driving ban causes “extreme hardship”, such as for getting to work, or in cases where someone else would suffer “undue hardship”, like a child unable to get to school.

Between January 2016 and December 2018, 5,281 limited licences were granted to convicted drink-drivers. Nearly 3,000 more were given to those convicted of dangerous driving, or other such offences.

If the person granted the limited licence does abuse the privilege then they lose the licence

Disqualified or suspended drivers must apply to district courts for such licences, explaining in a detailed letter to the judge the reasons why they believe they should qualify.


However, a judge must be satisfied that a driver will behave afterwards. Even where extreme or undue hardship is argued, police may oppose the application on “public safety” grounds, according to Brent Johnston of New Zealand’s ministry of transport.

If the person granted the limited licence does abuse the privilege then they lose the licence, though it appears that the conditions imposed by courts for such licences are usually met, Johnston told The Irish Times.

“While it is difficult to know how much unrecorded offending is happening, on face value, figures suggest that relatively few drivers are apprehended for reoffending once they have been issued with limited licences.”

Lawyers, in the main, support the concessions, saying they help people already in trouble to stay in work, and they avoid situations where people would simply defy a driving ban and drive anyway.

Rural population

In some cities public transport may be an adequate alternative for drivers, but a significant proportion of New Zealand's population live in rural areas where a car is the only viable method of transport, similar to Ireland.

Wellington-based lawyer Graeme Edgeler backs the concession, saying that it is good that there are rules where people can get to work. "We know the consequences if someone's brush with the criminal justice system causes them to lose their job," he says.

However, not everyone agrees. Caroline Perry, New Zealand director for road safety charity Brake, says that having a driving licence means having a responsibility to keep other road users safe.

“Drink-driving puts lives at risk and can have devastating consequences. Where drivers have lost their licence because they have broken the law and put people at risk there should not be a get-out clause for hardship,” she said.

“There’s a simple way to keep your licence – don’t break the law.”

Johnston acknowledges that letting people drive when they have broken the law could be said to undermine the “principles of general deterrence” and be seen to do “little to deter further offending or promote road safety”.

The New Zealand Transport Agency can refuse to issue the limited licence, but the governing Act allows the offender the right to appeal to the court if the authority disputes the decision, Johnston says, adding that zero-alcohol limits can be set for limited licences, but not always are.

“Applying zero-alcohol limits to limited licences that arise from drunk-driving would reinforce public safety without having a detrimental impact on people’s mobility.”

Repeat drink-drivers have to follow zero-alcohol rules. Once they have served their ban they are required to have a device fitted to their car which means that it will not start until they breathe into it and pass a breathalyser test.

I think Ireland would also be quite similar to us in some ways, in that it's quite rural in a lot of areas

“After you have been on that without problem for a while, you can move to a zero-alcohol licence. It allows you to drive like normal, but means you can’t drive with any alcohol in your system, even amounts below the drink-driving limit,” says Johnston.

Saving jobs

One New Zealander who had used a limited licence several years ago told The Irish Times it saved her job: “There’s no way I could keep my job without it. I was only a few months out of uni and in my first ‘proper’ job.”

“If I’d have lost that job I’m not sure I would have been able to progress. I was really shaken after getting my conviction and needed something to focus on to give me some stability and a sense of purpose,” the driver remembered.

Following her conviction, she was off the road completely for a month. Then, she applied for a limited licence through a lawyer; her employer vouched for her that she needed it. Everything was notarised by a justice of the peace.

She was allowed to drive between 8am and 6pm, Monday to Friday.

“I had to buy a logbook and fill it out each time I drove, with the address I was driving from, where I was driving to, what time it was and what my odometer reading was at the start and end of the journey. If I was stopped by police at any time . . . I had to produce it for inspection.

“I think Ireland would also be quite similar to us in some ways, in that it’s quite rural in a lot of areas and there wouldn’t necessarily be public transport that people could use to get to their jobs.”

It comes down to whether people see justice as a system of punishment or of rehabilitation, she argued. “Some people who lean towards the punishment side of things might say that I did the crime and should be punished to the fullest extent – losing my licence and my job.

“I prefer to think of things in terms of how they benefit our wider society – it’s not good for society to have people unemployed and disconnected.”