'Incontrovertible evidence': Coroner's plea to Govt to change legal drinking age

A Dunedin Coroner has made a forceful argument to four Government ministers to raise the legal drinking age.

It follows the death of a teenager in Marlborough last year, and is the second such recommendation in as many days.

George Holland, 19, was killed last year after getting behind the wheel following a night of drinking. His ute collided with a lorry, bursting into flames.

Coroner David Robinson says it's a major problem, and no teenagers should be drinking at all.

In his findings released on Wednesday, he sent a clear message to the Government.

"In the absence of individuals making responsible decisions around alcohol use and adhering to restrictions imposed to protect them and their communities, it is incumbent on the State to further restrict access to alcohol," he said.

"There appears to be incontrovertible evidence of a direct link between the lowering of the alcohol purchasing age in 1999 and an increase in the incidence of injury and fatal accidents involving alcohol impaired drivers aged 15-19 years."

Alcohol Action NZ spokeswoman, Professor Jennie Connor, says the drinking age should never have been lowered from 20.

"At the time the age was lowered, we had evidence from overseas that it would be bad for young drivers and for everyone else on the road, but we went ahead and lowered it anyway," says Prof Connor.

There is a zero legal alcohol limit for drivers under 20, but the Coroner says that hasn't stopped an increase in accidents involving teen drink-drivers.

He notes the total crashes affecting 15 to 19-year-olds where alcohol was a factor increased from 102 in the 2014 to 134 in 2015, and from 101 in 2016 to 142 in 2017.

And he says the zero-level isn't being enforced nearly enough.  More than 3 million breath tests were performed in 2013, a figure that's expected to almost halve to 1.8 million by next year.

The Coroner has sent a strong recommendation to raise the age back to 20 to the Ministers of Police, Justice, Transport and Health. It comes after similar calls from mental health services on Tuesday.

But there are no promises from the Government.

"The Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction recommended a stricter regulatory approach to the sale and supply of alcohol. The Government is considering its response," says Health Minister David Clark.

The Coroner says the evidence is clear: don't do it, and there'll be more deaths on the roads.