Impact on Road Safety, Crime Control and Homeland Security


Problem Analysis:
There are an increasing number of unidentifiable vehicles being driven in our community creating a road safety, crime control and public order risk. This has developed through both deliberate and careless obscurity of number plates.

Road Safety Aim:
To reduce the incidence, severity and cost of road trauma in our society

Crime Control Aim:
To provide a safe, secure and orderly society with a focus on crime control and public order

Enforcement of false or misleading vehicle identification must be undertaken by both general and specific deterrence with strong media publicity to achieve community support. Voluntary compliance is not universally achievable. To be effective, enforcement activity must be fair, consistent, meaningful and applied across the high risk sectors of the community.

Legal Framework – Victoria:
The vehicle registration number must be clearly visible and readable from a distance of 20 metres at any point within the space produced by a horizontal arc of 90 degrees and a vertical arc of 45 degrees. Any cover must be clear, clean, untinted and flat over its entire surface. The following offences apply:

  • Obscured number plate – On the spot infringement @ $110 fine plus 3 Demerit points. (No guilty mind or intent required to be proven).
  • Fraudulently altering a number plate - $1,000 fine or imprisonment for 2 months
  • Sell, use or possess an anti-speed measuring device - $2, 000 fine.

Legal Framework – NSW:

Essentially as above, except on 1 July 2005, the on the spot penalty for Obscured/Obstructed/Defaced/Missing number plate became $300 fine plus 3 Demerit points. (No guilty mind or intent required to be proven).

Offence context: Obscuring or altering number plates may be deliberate or careless, permanent or temporary – the results are the same. The reasons may be to avoid detection and prosecution for speed, bus-lane or parking enforcement or to avoid toll-way charges, congestion charging and subsequent penalties. Deliberate actions are more frequently undertaken by serial or recidivist traffic and criminal offenders. Traffic offenders include disqualified, suspended, unlicensed or expired licence drivers or drivers with unregistered and/or uninsured vehicles. The more sinister and serious public order/safety offences include a range of criminal activity from theft to armed robbery, homicide and terrorism.

Deliberate and pre-meditated actions include:

  •  Fraudulently altering the letters or numbers on the plates to represent an alternate identification using e.g. paint, toothpaste, gum, ridges and indentations
  • Using stolen, duplicate or “cloned” number plates
  • Using Perspex, plastic, multi-layer or similar covers to distort or obscure the identification at certain angles
  • The quite entrenched, unethical and irresponsible international business in products disguising vehicle identification. Examples include using “anti-flash” spray paint and other hyper-reflective treatments to theoretically create a wash or flash-back to counteract safety/speed cameras. Products include “Phantom plate”, “Safe plate”, “Ghost plates” and “Photo blocker”.
  • More technologically sophisticated products such as Priva-Plate – using an LED switch to instantaneously “switch off” or frost over your number plate making it theoretically impossible to either digitally or conventionally photograph. (With the above two dot points, most companies promote them as being totally effective to avoid vehicle identification, however also add a disclaimer – just in case the purchaser receives a speeding infringement)
  • The use of tow bars, tow balls, “P” plates, “L” plates, bicycle carriers, caddy wheels, carry racks, accessories on all types of vehicles and specifically wheel carriers and jerry cans on four wheel drive vehicles or crudely covering the plates with mud
  • Motor cyclists placing their registration label hinged across the rear number plate to obscure part or all of the plate or alternatively a right angled bracket for their label to avoid side angled enforcement techniques.
  • Lightly spraying white paint over the plate to disguise the identification
  • Bending, damaging, covering or removing one or both number plates.

Careless actions include

  • Faded, damaged, dirty plates
  • Failing to remove a tow ball, bike rack etc. after using the item for a legitimate reason
  • The vehicle load obscuring the rear plate
  • Failing to replace a blown number plate globe
  • Towing without a legitimate trailer number or prime vehicle registration number on the rear.
  • Road Traffic Authorities failing to retrieve number plates from expired registrations and wrecked vehicles. This corporate carelessness leaves a proliferation of seemingly ‘legitimate’ looking number plates at large in the community as a temptation for the normally law abiding citizen as well as the real criminal.

Motor cycles – rear number plate only

  • The international trend in recent years to allow motor cycles to be manufactured and registered with only a rear plate creates a road safety risk. Speeding motor cyclists are difficult to intercept by traditional enforcement methods and often take flight following an attempted interception.
  • The limited identification provides a sense of impunity among some motor cyclists creating a risk to their own safety as well as the safety of others
  • The general catch cry is that a front number plate is a “razor” to the rider if involved in a collision. This is not a proven road safety risk factor – in any event many trials have been undertaken with “stick on” identification on the front sector of the motor cycle eliminating any perceived risks
  • Victoria has proposed the above concept and rationale as a change in the Australian Design Rules.

Enforcement problems associated with obscured, unidentifiable number plates:

  • Inability for both the police and witnesses to properly identify traffic and criminal offenders at the scene or time of offence commission.
  • A greater propensity for offenders unintentionally involved in incidents or crashes who then consciously “fail to stop” or “take flight” due to a belief that they are untraceable/anonymous, thus exacerbating the original problem.
  • Those speeders and traffic offenders who escape detection and prosecution continue as a high risk to road safety. Effectively they are flowing against the tide of attitudinal, behavioural and cultural change in our community. They believe they are beyond the reach of the law.
  • Low percentage prosecution through Safety Camera Sites brought about by poorly identified number plates reduces the system integrity of “strategic speed control measures”.
  • Inability to use automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) or optical character recognition (OCR) as a technological tool for enforcement, intelligence or homeland security.
  • Known criminals move about the community with relevant impunity under false or misleading identification
  • From a security and strategic perspective, the greater the number of “unidentifiable” vehicles moving about in the community, the greater the problem and the higher the security risks involved in recognizing, identifying and tracking/tracing those with real criminal or terrorist intent

Current Innovations

  • Electronic number plates and electronic readers – being trialled in UK
  • Coordinated enforcement using the intelligence from Automatic Number Plate Recognition sites to target particular vehicles of interest – in use in the UK

Sophisticated and reliable vehicle, driver and passenger identification must be given high priority in road safety, crime control and public order. Prevention must take a much higher profile. It is incumbent upon all governments, law enforcement officers, road safety and security agencies, to fully appreciate the seriousness, prevalence and real consequences of what are sometimes perceived to be trivial offences and take the required remedial and pro-active anti-terrorist, general crime prevention and road safety action without delay.

Ray Shuey

Former Assistant Commissioner - Victoria Police

Director – Pedestrian Council of Australia

Sunday 10 July 2005