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Drug of Choice and Driving: Drink Drive Programs in Victorian Prisons

Pete Marshall

Grampians Community Health Centre, 40-44 Wimmera Street, Stawell 3380, Australia

This research was part of a project set up by the Correctional Services Division of the Department of Justice, Victoria, to examine the implementation of drink drive programs in Victorian prisons. The project was funded by the National Drug Strategy Victorian Law Enforcement Grants Program.


Drink drive convictions may pose particular problems for prisoners. By accessing conviction records for a sample of reception prisoners, this study examined two major issues in this regard - the extent of the problem, and the effectiveness of interventions. The study found that 80% of the sample were currently unlicenced, and that 37% had outstanding drink drive convictions. Specific drink drive and vehicle theft groups were identified, and there was an association between vehicle theft and illegal drug use. Vehicle theft charges for younger offenders are a potential marker for the later development of a chaotic lifestyle, drug abuse and recidivism. Those undertaking a prison based drink drive program were moderately successful in gaining a valid licence post-release compared to a matched control group. Drink drive programs were more effective for prisoners with a more stable lifestyle, however the greatest potential benefit is with those prisoners who are less stable and are at a greater risk of recidivism.


The prison system contains a 'high risk' category of convicted drink drivers who are prone to re-offend, and individuals whose lifestyle includes patterns of drink driving. While describing drink drive offences as relatively minor in terms of overall offences for many prisoners, their significance is more pronounced in terms of release. This group are highly motivated to drive, and large numbers of prisoners are leaving the system with issues regarding their driver's licence unresolved, and immediately, by driving, are breaking the law. This becomes a significant step in terms of re-offending, and once again surrounding themselves in turmoil.

Under the Victorian legislation, many of those with drink drive convictions have to undertake compulsory steps to regain (or attain) their licence, including an assessment of alcohol usage which must occur at least 12 months before applying to the court for an order for licence restoration. Prison provides an opportunity to give a particular target group these assessments, and potential insight into dysfunctional behaviour. It is often a time of contemplation, and free from some of the turmoil that they surround themselves with on the outside.


By accessing driving conviction records, the first part of this study examined the extent of driving conviction issues for a sample of newly sentenced prisoners. The first finding regarding this group is that imprisonment is associated with not holding a current driver's licence. Table 1 shows that the majority of newly sentenced prisoners do not have a current licence, including two-thirds of those that have not been imprisoned before, and rising to 95% of those who have been imprisoned 5 or more times. This is not a result of being imprisoned for driving charges, as the rates of driving related Most Serious Offence (MSO) are reasonably even across levels of terms of imprisonment.

Table 1
Imprisonment and Licence Details

Previous Terms of Imprisonment No. Currently licenced Number and % Driving MSO* Number and % Average Age
No Previous Terms (32) 10 (31.3%) 10 (31.3%) 31.3
1 Previous (24) 5 (20.8%) 7 (29.7%) 24.7
2 - 4 Previous Terms (28) 4 (14.3%) 9 (32.1%) 28.1
5 or more Previous Terms (21) 1 (4.8%) 8 (38.1%) 31.9
TOTAL 105 20 34 29.1
* MSO - Most Serious Offence

While imprisonment represents a disruption to lifestyle, it is likely that a lack of life management and coping skills are the primary factors in both imprisonment and lack of licence. Going through the requirements to gain a licence will be some indication of a readiness to take control, and in this way, the licence represents more than just the ability to drive legally, it also represents taking responsibility for behaving legally.

Table 2 shows that nearly two-thirds of newly sentenced prisoners have had an unlicenced or drive while disqualified (DWD) conviction, with an average of over 4 convictions each. Theft of a motor car (47.6%) and drink driving (44.8%) tend to be associated with distinct groups of offenders (see Table 3), and also tend to have an unlicenced or DWD charge associated with them, which accounts for the high incidence of unlicenced or DWD charges.

Table 2
Basic Statistics for Driving Conviction Types

Driving Conviction No. % Mean Min Max
Unlicenced or drive while disqualified 68 64.8 4.35 1 32
Fail to state name/obey directions/false name 55 52.4 2.42 1 16
Vehicle theft related charges 50 47.6 3.72 1 18
Speeding 48 45.7 2.23 1 11
Drink drive 47 44.8 2.43 1 6
Unregistered vehicle 41 39.0 2.00 1 7
Careless driving 26 24.8 1.38 1 3
Dangerous driving 12 11.4 1.33 1 3
Fail to stop/render assist 8 7.6 1.00 1 1

Table 3
Comparison of Prisoners with Drink Drive Conviction and Theft Conviction

Convictions Age Chaos* Minimum Sentence
D/D Yes, Theft Yes (24) 28.7 4.5 5.1
D/D No, Theft Yes (26) 24.7 5.5 9.7
D/D Yes, Theft No (23) 29.8 1.5 3.0
D/D No, Theft No (32) 32.4 2.2 8.3
TOTAL (105) 29.1 3.4 6.7
* Chaos is a constructed variable which measures the average number of prior convictions of all types per year of offending history.

Altogether, 37% of the sample had outstanding drink drive convictions. While there was an overlap between the drink drive and theft groups, the averages presented in Table 3 illustrate their more distinctive features. There was a significant difference across groups by age (F {3,101}= 3.91, p < .05), by the chaos factor (F {3,101}= 3.52, p < .05), and by sentence length (F {3,101}= 2.80, p < .05). In summary, although those with theft convictions and those with drink drive convictions had accumulated a similar number of driving charges, drink drivers were significantly older, were serving significantly shorter sentences and had significantly less chaos in their lives. One way of viewing this difference is that it is a reflection of the drug of choice.

Drink drivers, particularly those requiring an assessment, have problems associated with the use of alcohol. Because alcohol is a legal drug, these people do not (generally) have to engage in criminal activity for the supply of their drug, will not have convictions related to the supply of their drug, and generally will begin to acquire the criminal consequences of their drug use at a later age.


Both anecdotal evidence and the high levels of chaos would point towards an association of illegal drug use with generally younger prisoners who have vehicle theft as a part of their conviction history. This hypothesised association is worthy of further investigation. Table 4 gives a breakdown of drug convictions and vehicle theft convictions in the study population. Drug convictions take into account such convictions that occur in either the general community or the prison. There is a greater likelihood (X2=10.20, p<=.01) that those prisoners who have had a theft conviction will also have had a drug conviction.

Table 4
Drug Convictions and Vehicle Theft

  Theft Conviction No Theft Conviction Drug Conviction Total
Drug Conviction 31 (64.6%) 17 (35.4%) 48
No Drug Conviction 19 (33.3%) 38 (66.7%) 57
Theft Total and Percentage 50 (47.6%) 55 (52.4%) Combined 105 (100.0%)

The evidence presented for an association of vehicle theft, chaotic lifestyle and illegal drug use is fairly tenuous, even though it reflects 'conventional wisdom' about the issues. It cannot be said from this that thefts are being carried out, or that driving is occurring, while under the influence of drugs. However, it gives good reason to suspect that this is the case in many instances.

As yet, the detection of illegal substances in drivers in Victoria is not a common procedure. Even if the arresting police did suspect the presence of drugs, the problems of proving this would provide a barrier to laying charges. This can be compared with the relative ease of testing for alcohol. There is a current review in Victoria into the effects of drugs on road safety, and there is the likelihood that drug related driving charges will increase in the future with changes in legislation.


In the second part of this study, a group of 33 prisoners were identified who had participated in a prison based drink drive program, and had been released from prison for at least 6 months (giving them time to carry through the process of regaining their licence). Another group of 21 prisoners were identified who provided the control group, as they were potentially identical to the experimental (those that participated in the program) group in all aspects apart from the ability to attend to the preliminary drink drive requirements while in prison. An examination of pre-assessment convictions indicated nothing to suggest that prisoners from either group were more likely to regain their licence at baseline.

An examination of VicRoads data showed that 30% (10 of 33) of those prisoners that were involved in a drink drive program while in prison went on to regain their licence, while none of the control group went on to regain their licence after release. This raises the issue of what is regarded as success. Compared to the control group, the intervention of providing a drink drive program proved to be a resounding success. On the other hand, 70% of those who undertook the program failed to carry through to achieve the ultimate goal of the program, which was to regain their licence.

There is value in attempting to determine reasons for the respective success and failure of prisoners who undertook the program. Table 5 indicates that the major difference between those that regained their licence and those that did not, was the number of theft convictions pre-assessment. Taking away the difference in the theft charges shows that the average of pre-assessment convictions would be almost exactly the same for the non licence restoration group (9.0) as for the licence restoration group (8.8).

Table 5
Licence Restoration and Non Licence Restoration Sub-groups of the Experimental Group by Major Offence Categories Pre- and Post-Assessment.

Offence Category Licence Restoration (10) Non Licence Restoration (23)
Pre-assess Conv. Ave. Post-assess Conv. Pre-assess Conv. Ave. Post-assess Conv.
1. Unlic. 25 2.50 1 69 3.00 (20%^) 16
2. Theft 7 0.70 - 58 2.52 (260%^) 12
3. D/Drive 20 2.00 - 49 2.13 (7%^) 5
4. Major 14 1.40 (22%^) - 25 1.09 4
5. Minor 29 2.90 (4%^) 3 64 2.78 4
TOTAL 95 9.50 4 265 11.52 (21%^) 41
Average post-assess convictions 0.40     1.78

It was shown earlier that the theft group was younger, serving longer sentences, and had more chaos in their lives. Given the link established earlier between theft and illegal drug use, it may be that there are elements in the culture of car theft and drug use which inhibit the person's ability to get their life and their driving activities into order. The combined findings of these studies point towards the theft/drug use/chaos group being especially vulnerable to prison recidivism, and resistant to intervention.

This in turn has implications for treatment 'success'. Holder et al., (1991) defined success of such programs as a combination of three factors - 'effectiveness', 'benefit' and 'cost'. One approach to the provision of drink drive services in prison would focus on those who were perceived as most likely to carry through to regain their licence. In general, these would be prisoners who had spent less time in prison, were better educated, and had a more stable lifestyle, probably including good work prospects upon release. This would be a way of maximising the effectiveness returns on the investment in program provision.

The much harder option is to operate a drink drive program which both includes, and takes account of the needs of the 'less successful' group. This would require a more comprehensive approach to the issues of re-integration into society, of which the drink drive program would only be a part. This type of program, if successful, would maximise the benefit returns on the investment in program provision, as this is the group that are more likely to cost the society in terms of further crime and recidivism if they do not put their life in order.


Holder, H., Longabaugh, R., Miller, W.R., & Rubonis, A.V. (1991). The cost effectiveness of treatment for alcoholism: A first approximation. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 52, 517-540.