Prior to December 2014, the maximum allowable level of alcohol (the legal limit) while driving was 400 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath or 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100ml of blood.
The new legal limit (.05)
As from 1 December 2014, the legal limit was reduced to 250 (for breath) and 50 (for blood). Driving with excess breath or excess blood levels of alcohol above the old limits remains a criminal offence.
The legal limit for those under the age of 20 is zero.
Penalties for driving over the new limit
For adults, driving with alcohol levels between the new and the old levels incurs 50 demerit points and a $200 fine.
Penalties for driving over the old limit
Those convicted of drink driving over the old limits face mandatory disqualification from driving, mostly for fixed periods of time. However, under certain conditions, the judge has to disqualify the offender indefinitely (see below). In addition to disqualification, judges may also impose a fine or imprisonment, although prison is rarely imposed unless there are aggravating circumstances.
First & second offences
For a first or second offence, the mandatory period of disqualification is a minimum of six months, although for a second offence, the drink driver is likely to be disqualified for nine months or a year.
Third and subsequent offences
For those convicted for a third or subsequent offence, judges must disqualify them for more than one year. In such cases, judges usually impose a disqualification of one year and one day – which means they have to resit their licence.
The judge also has the option of sending the offender to prison for up to two years. Whether drink drivers are sent to prison largely depends on where they live. Judges in large cities are less likely to send drink drivers to prison than judges in the provinces. This lack of consistency in sentencing is remarkable: academics at Victoria University have found that in areas like Hawkes Bay, drink drivers are up to 12 times more likely to be sent to prison than in metropolitan areas.
Judges are required to disqualify the offender indefinitely if they incur three convictions for drink driving within five years; or, if they have two convictions within five years and, for one of those convictions, the drink driver was more than twice the legal limit (over 1000 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath to be precise).
Alcohol interlocks were introduced in New Zealand as a new penalty for drink drivers in September 2012. An interlock is a breath operated device that can be installed in a drink driver’s vehicle to prevent them starting the car if they have alcohol on their breath.
It is not mandatory. The judge has the option of sentencing an offender to have an interlock installed if they have two convictions within five years and, for one of those convictions, the drink driver was twice the legal limit.
1) Before the interlock is installed, the drink driver has to be disqualified from driving for three months first.
2) The device then remains on the vehicle for a minimum of 12 months – but allows the offender to drive provided there is no alcohol on their breath when they start the car.
3) The device records data for every attempted start the offender makes – revealing whether or not the offender has been attempting to start the car while under the influence of alcohol. In order to have the interlock removed (after a minimum of 12 months), the offender has to have at least six months worth of clean data, i.e. data showing no attempts have been made to start the car with alcohol on the breath.
4) Once the interlock is removed the drink driver is subject to a zero alcohol licence for three years.
Zero alcohol licence
A zero licence means the offender is allowed to drive, but not with any alcohol in their system – for three years. In effect, a zero licence for adults temporarily imposes the same legal limit as that which permanently applies to all teenagers – zero.
The judge must impose a zero licence when a person is convicted of drink driving twice within five years. The three years begins once the offender has completed their period of disqualification (stemming from their second conviction).