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Driving programme puts offenders on The Right Track

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By Emily Moorhouse, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

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About 6400 people have completed a grieving dad’s programme designed to raise awareness about the consequences of driving dangerously, writes Emily Moorhouse.

When Phill Smith woke up one morning and found a massive dent in his car, he had no idea how it got there.

“I was freaking out for like two or three days thinking that I could’ve hit somebody.”

It turns out he had crashed into his mate’s fence while driving drunk – something he had been caught doing several times before.

But this time things were different and after participating in a driving programme he is a changed man who now realises the impact his actions can have on others.

“It doesn’t just affect the person that I crash into, it affects 30, 40, 50 other people that have to deal with the wreckage, the body, the clean-up and it scared the s… out of me.”

In 2021, 318 people died on our roads. The majority of the fatal crashes involved alcohol, drugs or speed and could have been prevented. More than half of the victims were behind the wheel.

Smith, not his real surname, is one of about 6400 people around the country who have now completed The Right Track (TRT) programme, which is designed to raise awareness about the consequences of driving dangerously. The hope is that it will prevent tragedy – and steer people away from a life behind bars.

And, according to the experts, it seems to be working with one judge who has been involved saying the people who complete the course rarely reappear before the courts for not only driving matters but any other offending.

“The change in the approach they take to their life generally means that they no longer are likely to commit offences, whether it be driving or otherwise,” Christchurch District Court Judge Mark Callaghan said.

The programme takes people who are appearing before the courts, mostly on driving offences, and runs through nine sessions over seven weeks, teaching them the impact of their decisions before they appear again for sentencing.

Late last year, an emotional graduation night was held for about 20 people who have completed the most recent programme in Christchurch, with one driver coming away from the experience saying she now has a new “will to live”.

The evening was packed with support people, eager to see their loved ones graduate, as well as volunteers involved in the programme such as St John, Canterbury Police, Fire and Emergency, Waka Kotahi, Christchurch District Court Judge Quentin Hix and Community Magistrate Sally O’Brien.

Like most of the graduates, Smith took part in the programme because he thought it would “look good” and help with the sentence he would receive.

“I would have gone to court, done my sentence, got my licence back, got back in the van and started driving, drink-driving,” he admitted.

But now he is adamant his ways have changed, after seeing just how many people are affected by what he called “stupid decisions”.

So, what is it about this programme that changes the way offenders think?

If you ask the graduates, they will say it is compassion.

And a man who could quite literally be the definition of compassion is Duncan Woods.

Woods was looking for purpose after a teen driver lost control of his modified car and mounted a footpath, killing his 4-year-old son, Nayan, in 2010.

While many people would react with anger and push for harsh consequences, Woods and his wife Emma offered the driver, Ashley Austin, forgiveness, even asking the judge not to impose a prison sentence.

Woods said he wanted to apply the skills he has from working in education to something he is passionate about like road safety, especially after his own tragic experience.

“You’re sort of wanting to do anything you can to stop them in the tracks of the events that contributed to our crash.”

Woods became involved with The Right Track in 2012, facilitating the programmes running across the South Island in the hope of preventing others from making the same mistakes that led to his son’s tragic death.

“I don’t see them [graduates] as bad people out there trying to create hurt or injury or death or anything like that, it’s tragic for anyone in a situation like this.”

He works closely with the graduates, helping them to realise the impacts their decisions could have.

“On the graduation night, it’s pretty emotional for them as they start to grapple with what they’ve done and the changes they need to make.”

Alanna, another graduate of the programme, lost her licence for demerit points and fines for speeding. She recalls driving around a corner to a police officer waiting for her before she ended up in court.

The 35-year-old was referred to TRT after asking the judge if there was a way she could learn about speeding enough to scare her into changing her behaviour.

She opened her graduation speech by saying she “never really had the will to live” but after completing the programme, that has changed and she wants to pass what she has learned on to her children.

Alanna, who didn’t want her surname used, described her habit of speeding as a “big stupid decision” and the thought of herself or kids getting into a car crash has helped her actively slow down.

“I never understood how my actions driving home so drunk that I don’t even remember driving not once but a lot, how that one-second stupid decision would impact not only myself but would impact so many more people … safe to say I do not drink anymore.”

When asked what was so special about the programme the graduates agreed it was the people involved, particularly John Finch, the founder.

Like Woods, Finch has a background in education and said he was the teacher that all the “naughty kids” would get sent to. It wasn’t long before he set up a business for alternative education aimed at helping kids with behavioural issues.

One day two police officers walked into his office.

“We’ve got a problem with idiots on the road doing stupid things and we want you to do something about it,” they told Finch.

Thinking it would be a good challenge, Finch began researching driver behaviour and speaking to young drivers. Shortly after, TRT was born.

He sold his business to fund the first four programmes and although they only took about 20 people, Finch could see that it was making a difference.

“After the first programme I went, ‘Oh s… this is good,’ because people were changing in front of me,” Finch recalls.

“As a teacher you live for the moments when the kids suddenly get it, when it’s a light-bulb moment, well that’s what was happening on this programme.”

Finch said TRT was ultimately an idea “fuelled by the frustration” of knowing nothing was being done to change drivers’ behaviours because it’s considered “too hard”.

“I absolutely know that the people doing our programme go off and save lives, they stop their mates from drink-driving, they stop their mates speeding.”

After the first two programmes, district court judges decided to get involved after noticing none of the people on the course who were deemed “high risk” had reoffended within the following six months.

Judge Callaghan said TRT gives offenders the chance to look at the way they approach their decision-making and their actions by considering the consequences of what they do.

He said the more people continue to offend, the greater the penalties become, which can eventually lead to full-time imprisonment. But, by referring them to TRT it helped ensure those people didn’t commit further offences.

Another graduate, Sean, who also didn’t want his surname used, had an “eye-opening” experience after being referred to the programme for his history of dangerous driving offences.

“To be honest with you all, I took my driving for granted before I started this programme and I didn’t comprehend the consequences my actions could have caused.”

Now, the 26-year-old says he understands the reality of the risks associated with dangerous driving, particularly with the ripple effect, which was a common theme across the course demonstrating just how many people are impacted by car crashes.

” have learned how precious life really is and how suddenly it can be taken away due to one bad decision.”

“Thanks to this programme I have been more aware on the road and of the decisions I make … this knowledge has changed me for the better and will stick with me for a lifetime.”

This story originally appeared in theNew Zealand Herald.

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