OPINION - The road safety code that just doesn't add up
Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday 1 January 2002

The NSW penalty system for drivers is illogical and ineffective, writes Harold Scruby, and should be completely overhauled .

SIX years ago the NSW Government committed itself to the safest roads in the world by 2000, aiming to reduce the state's road toll to fewer than 500 deaths a year. While the 2001 total was down on the tragic 603 deaths of 2000, it will still exceed 530 deaths or about 8.5 deaths per 100,000 population, far worse than countries such as Britain (5.9), Sweden (6.6), Norway (6.8) and the Netherlands (6.9), where more dangerous road conditions frequently prevail.

After the terrible Christmas carnage of 2000, the RTA-controlled Road Safety Task Force was formed and in April produced a report which has resulted in little more than confirming double-demerit points in holiday periods for speeding and failing to wear seat belts. This report ignored all the other issues that had contributed to the slaughter.

The penalties, demerit points and enforcement system are a veritable minefield of contradictions, anomalies, irregularities, omissions, injustices and confusion. They fail to target the road user who deliberately offends, ignoring the risk that others may be killed or injured.

For example, during holiday periods, a driver will lose six demerit points for failing to fasten his or her seat belt, an offence where nobody else's safety is compromised.

Yet that same driver can drive unlicensed in an unregistered and uninsured vehicle, up a one-way street the wrong way, watching TV, using a mobile phone, with a radar detector, turn right against a no-right-turn sign, stop on a pedestrian crossing, drive along the footpath, drive negligently, towing a trailer full of (unbuckled) children and attract not one demerit point. But there are three demerit points for driving in a bus lane where nobody's safety is at risk.

Monetary penalties are a farce. Stop in a No Stopping zone: $141. But park a vehicle all day, blocking the entire footpath in George Street forcing all pedestrians onto the road: $63. Deface a pay and display ticket: $349. But only $115 for driving up a one-way street the wrong way, or using a handheld phone, an offence some experts say is as dangerous as drink driving. Playing loud music: $200. Using a vehicle with an obscured, defaced or illegible number plate and avoiding every speed and red-light camera in the state: $69 and no points.

These are just a few of the scores of ludicrous irregularities and anomalies in NSW.

While the Task Force was preoccupied with speeding and seat belts, it failed to mention that the same penalty of $115 and one demerit point applies to the offence of speeding at 61kmh as it does to 75kmh in a 60kmh zone. The highly respected National Health and Medical Research Council found that the risk of a crash doubles for every 5kmh a driver exceeds the speed limit. It follows that the driver clocked at 75kmh is almost eight times more likely to be involved in a crash than the driver at 61kmh, yet the penalties are identical.

It gets worse. It is now estimated that in NSW, up to 5 per cent of drivers are driving unlicensed and 10 per cent are driving uninsured/unregistered vehicles. A Federal Office of Road Safety study found that for unlicensed drivers, the risk of involvement as the driver at fault in a fatal crash was nearly four times that of fully licensed drivers.

Despite continuing police opposition, recent changes to legislation have resulted in suspended drivers retaining possession of their licences.

In New Zealand, police confiscate
the vehicles of motorists caught driving while unlicensed. It has resulted in a 38 per cent reduction in unlicensed driving offences.

Our legislators and judiciary must realise that a driver's licence is a privilege, not a right.

Real change will occur only if the NSW Government wholeheartedly embraces a consistent penalty and demerit point system. The current system favours the rich.

Demerit points treat all drivers equally and readily identify repeat offenders.

There are some simple solutions, but it will take politicians with guts:

An independent review of all penalties and fines.

Graduated demerit points for all offences where the driver compromises the safety of any other person.

Licence retesting for all drivers who have lost their licences.

Three drink-drive convictions within 10 years and the automatic loss of licence for life; mandatory jail for any person who drives thereafter and no discretion for the judiciary.

The confiscation of vehicles of motorists who drive drunk/inebriated, unlicensed, unregistered and uninsured.

The formation of an independent road safety task force which reports regularly and directly to all ministers concerned with road safety.

Harold Scruby is chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia.

OPINION - A slower and safer Easter

The Sydney Morning Herald - Thursday 27 March 1997  

By Harold Scruby

Harold Scruby is chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia Limited

It's only when speeding is regarded with the same disdain as drink driving that road deaths will fall.

The State Government deserves full credit for its initiative, "Double Points for Speeding Over Easter". The Pedestrian Council has been advocating this approach for a long time.

Increasing fines for speeding is not the answer. Fines are discriminatory. The rich are in a better position to pay them and they are soon forgotten. Demerit points are non-discriminatory and have a far greater impact on driver behaviour. But more needs to be done.

The demerit point system in NSW is utterly inconsistent and in urgent need of review. Drive up a one-way street the wrong way, change lanes without using an indicator, park in a pedestrian crossing or use a hand-held mobile phone while driving - no demerit points. Yet fail to fasten your seatbelt - three points. Exceed the speed limit by between 15 and 29 km/h (anywhere) - only one demerit point.

In September 1995, the Premier, Mr Carr, stated: "The RTA has set itself an ambitious, but, I am advised, an achievable goal - to make NSW roads the safest in the world by the year 2000."

The road toll in NSW for January was double that of January 1996. Each year about 2,000 people die on our roads. Apart from the grief and suffering, the costs of road trauma are estimated at $6 billion a year.

There are two major killers on our roads - alcohol and speed. There has been a dramatic cultural shift in the community's attitude to drink-driving over the past decade. It is now considered utterly irresponsible.

Speeding is culturally different but equally deadly. Now is the time to make it as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

We inhibit the police in their enforcement of speed laws by requiring them to obtain the permission of a tripartite committee on where they can use speed cameras. Then the RTA is required to erect signs stating "Speed cameras used in this area". This is as absurd as erecting signs stating "Speed cameras not used in this area".

In Victoria, police are left unfettered to operate their speed cameras where they wish. And there are no warning signs. Just as the random placement of the "booze bus" has dramatically reduced drink-driving offences, it is the element of surprise which will slow us down.

In Victoria, if one exceeds the speed limit by 30 km/h, there is automatic cancellation of licence. In NSW it's 45 km/h, or the equivalent of 105 km/h through a shopping centre.

It is vital that we accept that a driver's licence is a privilege, not a right. Those who continue to flout our laws deserve to lose their licences - perhaps for life.

Let's have the guts to adopt radical change. And let's return residential streets to pedestrians: 50 km/h and the pedestrian has right of way. Why not? We were here first.