Sydney Morning Herald Friday 22 July 2005 - Drive


Policy backfire


Harsher penalties have led to an increase in unlicensed drivers who are, in turn, uninsured. Peter McKay reports on why we are swimming with sharks.

The presence of unauthorised drivers on Australian roads is an ongoing nightmare for authorities, with estimates that in some areas as many as one in 10 drivers or riders is unlicenced or disqualified from driving.


The numbers of unauthorised drivers and riders detected in New South Wales is on the rise - up 17 per cent from 44,865 in 2002, to 52,445 last year.


Senior police concede many unauthorised drivers and riders are not being caught and that the detection system for preventing and discouraging unlicenced driving is seriously flawed and in need of immediate review.


"Under the current legislation, unless an offence has been committed, police cannot pull over a motorist and ask to see his or her licence," says the NSW Traffic Services Commander, Acting Chief Superintendent John Lipman. "It's a grey area that needs to be addressed."


Safety experts have long been critical of the ease with which unlicensed drivers and riders escape detection. More than one third of unlicensed road users who took part in a recent Australian Transport Safety Board study conducted in Queensland reported being pulled over by the police while driving unlicensed and not having their licence checked. Researchers concluded that many offenders are not deterred by existing police enforcement practices or current penalties.


The study also revealed that current penalties were not considered particularly severe, while prior conviction for unlicensed driving did not appear to discourage the behaviour. In NSW, driving licences are not always checked during roadside random breath testing. "[Most] officers will check licences at RBT sites, but this depends on a number of factors, including traffic volumes."


Unlicensed motorists are often caught when it's too late. Research shows that in fatal crashes across Australia, more than 5 per cent of drivers involved, and 19 per cent of motorcycle riders, are not licensed.


The typical unlicensed driver is more likely male and young. But all age, gender and socio-economic groups are involved.


The term "unauthorised driver" generally refers to those who:


* have let their licence expire,


* have been disqualified from driving,


* hold an inappropriate licence for the class of vehicle they drive,


* driving outside special licence restrictions,


* don't currently hold a licence, or


* have never held a licence.


The prevalence of unlicensed drivers represents major problems for road safety in two ways. First, unlicensed driving nullifies the effectiveness of licence disqualification, normally a deterrent to illegal behaviour.


Second, researchers now increasingly link unlicensed driving to other high-risk conduct: drink driving and speeding.


In the latest study of unauthorised drivers, researchers found, worryingly, 36 per cent of the study participants claimed they were unaware, or at least unsure, that they were unlicensed at the time they were detected.


In addition, and highlighting an urgent need to review processes to deal with unlicensed drivers/riders, 49 per cent reported that they still carried their photo licence while driving unlicensed.


Police say that drivers notified by mail of their licence suspension simply ignore the request to return their licence to the RTA.


Police would like to see a process in place that, when a magistrate disqualifies a driver or rider in court, forces the offender to immediately hand back the licence.


Under the present system, a disqualified driver is "usually" required to surrender the licence to the court. If the driver does not have the licence with them at the time, the RTA will send a letter to the driver informing him/her the licence must be surrendered.


If a driver accumulates enough demerit points to have his/her licence suspended, the RTA will inform the driver by letter. The RTA also sends warning letters to people who accumulate eight or 11 demerit points, reminding them that they will lose their licence if they reach 12 demerit points.


The RTA advises that drivers suspended under the Demerit Points or Excess Speed Schemes are not required to surrender their licence to the RTA. The suspended licence is retained by the driver to enable them to resume driving once the suspension period has ended.


The ATSB researchers have called for more random checking of driver's licences (in RBT and specific licence-checking operations). There is also a push to adopt the latest technology so police can quickly verify licence status by the roadside.


Recommended too is a review of current penalties and punishment processes for unlicensed driving and other related behaviours and strategies to encourage drink-driving offenders (particularly those who need to drive for work) to participate in alcohol-related programs.


For the worst offenders, there is a call for continued development of electronic licence technology to prevent drivers without valid licences from operating vehicles.

© This work is copyright and is reproduced under licence from John Fairfax Holdings Limited


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