The front line for policing on our roads, booze buses help keep our roads safe, but as Jane Hammond reports, not everyone is getting the “don’t drink and drive” message.

It’s 8pm on a Friday night in inner-city Perth and members of the Breath and Drug Operations team are just warming up for a long night ahead. The crew of 15 WA police officers has set up a random inside a WA booze bus on patrol in Perth suburbsbreath testing (RBT) unit on Victoria Park Drive in Burswood and members of the public are being waved into bays marked by orange witches’ hats to undergo testing.

A man in his late 40s is pacing around and swearing, with his hands on the back of his head. He has been asked to get out of his car while his details are checked and he isn’t happy. He tells police without prompting that he has just been released from prison for driving offences. He seems to be expecting sympathy. Caught behind the wheel of a car while under suspension, his car will be seized for 28 days. His 1970s-model Mercedes Benz is about to be towed away while he is arrested to appear in court at a later date.

He is angry and tells police they are targeting him unfairly. He starts screaming expletives and saying he only just bought his car and he won’t be able to pay the cost of impounding. “You’re going to get me divorced,” he yells at one ofthe officers.

This is front-line policing on Perth’s streets, a typical night on duty for police officers attached to the Breath and Drug Operations unit or BaD. This BaD team will spend the next five to six hours standing on the roadside while they test close to 1000 drivers. Teams like these work on a rotating roster. Day or night, rain, hail or shine, you will find them on the road attempting to keep our streets safe from dangerous drivers.

Anytime, anywhere

The officer in charge of BaD Operations, Senior Sergeant Brendon Newton, borrowing from a recent road-safety advertising campaign, says drivers can expect to be stopped “any time, anywhere” and required to undergo an RBT.

His colleague, Senior Constable Rod Endall, describes how recently the team had stopped a man in his 60s at an RBT who was so drunk he had urinated in his pants and on his car seat. It was just after 10am in one of Perth’s
south-eastern suburbs and the man had been drinking all night. Snr Sgt Newton shakes his head in disbelief that anyone could drive in such a condition, especially given the publicity about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Data from the WA Office of Road Safety  shows that consuming alcohol prior to driving increases your crash risk. When compared to drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of zero, drivers are twice as likely to crash with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05; seven times more likely to crash with a BAC of 0.08; and 25 times more likely to crash with a BAC of 0.15. There is a body of evidence that shows even the first drink of alcohol begins the deterioration of important driving skills. Young, inexperienced drivers are at an even greater risk.

The impact of the introduction of RBT has been heavily researched in all Australian states. There is clear evidence that RBT has led to a reduction in crashes in all states. In Western Australia, the initial impact of RBT has been a 28 per cent reduction in fatal crashes, a 26 per cent reduction in single vehicle- night-time crashes and overall a 13 per cent reduction in all crashes of a serious nature.

RAC External Engagement Manager Liz Carey says while more than 883,000 RBT tests were carried out in WA in the 2011/12 financial year the State could be doing better. She says there were 1.8 million licensed drivers in WA and the test rate represents less than half a test per driver per year. Ms Carey says the RAC is pushing for a doubling of the test rate so that on average there is one test per driver per year.

wa booze bus in operation in perth

Volume and visibility

A recent survey of RAC members found 33 per cent believed they were unlikely to be stopped by an RBT when driving home from a night out at dinner or the pub.“Compared to other states we
have a relatively low rate (of RBT). Queensland has a rate of one test per driver per year,” Ms Carey says.

“The situation (in WA) has improved in the past 12 months and we applaud that, but we are still not at that best practice point. You really need not just the volume of testing, but the visibility of the testing process to be higher. A high visibility random breath testing operation sends a message to anyone who might be having a drink or two and then thinking of driving not to push it too hard because there is a fair chance they will be pulled over.”

“The community strongly supports random breath testing and would like to see more of it done,” Ms Carey says.

wa police officer signally to pull over a carLast year 15 per cent of road fatalities were put down to alcohol with another 8 per cent attributed to a combination of alcohol and speed and an additional 1 per cent to a combination of alcohol and drugs. In 2010 one in every five drivers killed on our roads had a BAC above the legal limit of 0.05 and more than one in ten had a BAC three times the legal limit or more than 0.15.

 

Meet the ‘turners’

While the Burswood bus team is busy pulling over drivers, across the city another two units are working from booze buses in Mandurah and Thornlie. As the night progresses so does the frequency and intensity of the Impact of RBT in WA on road accidentsoffences the police officers will come across. Minutes after the suspended driver is dealt with in Burswood the officers spot what they term a “turner”.

A four-wheel drive is reversing up Victoria Park Drive away from the booze bus. It takes seconds before police in a vehicle nearby have their sirens wailing and are in pursuit. The driver, a 61-year-old man, stops and is then led back to the booze bus for testing. Head bowed he boards the bus for a random breath test and an interview. His test reveals he is under the limit and he is released with a caution. Apologising, and clearly embarrassed, he drives away.

Turners are a common sight for booze bus crews but Snr Constable Endall says they seldom get away. Police cars, sometimes unmarked, are usually secreted in nearby streets waiting to catch those who think they can slip away to avoid an RBT.

Later, while most of the officers enjoy a short meal break or “crib”, a car does a rapid U-turn in sight of the bus and the chase car is deployed. The driver’s erratic and suspicious behaviour leads to more serious charges, including drinkdriving, after he is apprehended nearby while trying to lose police in the busy Burswood parking area.

In the past 12 to 18 months the role of booze buses has been expanded to include a greater emphasis on intelligence gathering and the apprehension of offenders. Snr Sgt Newton explains that most criminals use vehicles so it makes sense to deploy RBTs to areas of high crime and make use of the resource to combat not only drink driving but also other offences from stealing to drug dealing.

“If we are throwing out a net we are fairly likely to catch other offenders as well,” he says. “We always did that (caught criminals at RBTs) but now the locations of the buses are very intelligence based. They are based
on drink and driving data and intelligence indicating crime trends.

For instance if there has been a spate of burglaries in the Kensington area then we will deploy there. We are always looking for crooks.”

Part of Snr Const Endall’s job is to crunch the numbers, analyse the intelligence and work out the best place to put the booze buses each day. Sr Sgt Newton said technology was driving the change in the
additional use of RBTs as mobile crime detection units.

BaD news

BaD has at its disposal a fleet of smart cars, vehicles equipped with rooftop cameras and high-tech computer systems, that scan the traffic checking number plates. The smart cars, or advanced traffic management vehicles, alert police to cars whose owners have been flagged for a range of criminal activities or who might be driving under suspension or have a drug history.

By the close of tonight’s shift at Burswood more than 930 drivers will have had their alcohol levels tested, three will have been charged with a BAC in excess of 0.08 and another three in excess of 0.05.

wa smart police cars

Three drivers will be picked up for driving while under suspension and seven will be issued with traffic infringement notices. A further 37 will be cautioned for minor traffic offences, three people and one vehicle will be searched and two cars will be seized after their owners are found driving under suspension. The 14 random drug tests the officers will conduct will all come back negative.

The officers will also be involved in a number of pursuits including a high-speed chase that will take them as far as Karrinyup. Two police cars are involved in the chase that begins when the vehicle refuses to stop for
the RBT and ends when the car is abandoned and its three occupants flee on foot. The driver is caught and charged with a number of offences including reckless driving, evading police, providing false particulars to
police and driving under suspension.

No excuse

The officers attached to the BaD unit have heard every excuse in the book but say that these days most people just accept they have been caught and take the consequences.What is a standard drink

“We do get told a lot that its our fault,” says one young officer. “Try working that one out? At the end of the day if you drink and drive chances are you will get caught.”

BaD officers can now issue on the spot driving suspensions for anyone caught with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. This means that when someone is charged they can have their licence suspended immediately for up to two months. If they drive during that time their car will be seized. Snr Sgt Newton says this change, introduced last year, surprised some drivers although most accepted the penalty without complaint.

Once someone blows over the limit in the initial roadside test they are required to sit in the booze bus for 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes has elapsed the driver is required to do an evidentiary test. If they fail this they are charged and processed on site. If no one can drive the vehicle home it is left overnight in an area near the booze bus.

“You see a cross section of people sitting in the booze bus, they come from every walk of life,” Snr Sgt Newton says. He says mums and dads coming home after a few drinks at a social event are often picked up by the RBT and say they had no idea they had drunk enough to push them over the limit. But Snr Sgt Newton says no one has any excuse to drink and drive these days and everyone should know their limit.

Ms Carey says it is a simple matter of, if in doubt don’t drink and drive. “At the RAC we try to convey the message that if you are going to be drinking at all then seriously think about leaving your car at home. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they will only have one drink but then they have a second or their wine glass gets topped up and they lose track of how much they have consumed. It is impossible for motorists to determine their blood alcohol level accurately so our message is don’t take the chance, leave your car at home, get someone who isn’t drinking to drive or be prepared to leave your car at the hotel or at the restaurant.”

 

WA Police officers interviewing a drunk driver