Points Failure

The Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday 7 August 1999
The demerit points system – full of inconsistencies and anomalies – is ready for an overhaul, writes Peter McKay.

FAILURE to fasten your seatbelt (unless you're a cabbie) is an offence attracting a fine and the loss of three demerit points. A motorcyclist not wearing a helmet is up for the same points penalties.

So how many points would be lost if a driver is caught at the wheel of an unregistered and/or uninsured vehicle?  Answer: none.

What if someone was caught driving along a footpath?  No points lost.

Driving up a street the wrong way?  You guessed it; no points lost.

Stopping a vehicle in a pedestrian zone? No points lost. Yet a motorist will lose three demerit points if convicted of crossing, or driving on, the off-side of an unbroken separation line.

We're certainly not suggesting that not wearing a belt, or helmet (if you're a motor-cyclist) is smart. But, unlike the other situations listed above, in each case, the offender is clearly risking only his or her own life or limb.

The system of applying demerit points for driving offences is excellent in theory, being a major deterrent for rich and poor who consistently break the laws. But there are some glaring inconsistencies and anomalies in this system, with some life-threatening offences escaping an appropriately heavy loss of points.

Here's  another questionable one. Driving without headlights switched on - an obvious safety issue which puts lives at risk - means the loss of just one point. Yet failing to keep left on a multi-laned road, annoying to other drivers but not a great safety issue, will cost a driver three points. Inconsistent? You bet.

The Pedestrian Council of Australia's -Harold Scruby believes the  enforcement culture in NSW is very selective and inconsistent in the way it punishes law breakers.

He's been heavying the Roads and Traffic Authority for a review of all penalty points. "We'd like to see an independent review of penalties so the punishment fits the crime," says Scruby. "It's all out of kilter, and it's time for the authorities to remove the contradictions."

"How can there be no penalty points for driving the wrong way up a one-way street and yet an offender rightly loses three points should he drive into a roundabout the wrong way?" asks Scruby. "The two offences are essentially one and the same.

"Here's an absurd scenario legitimised by the present system: someone driving an unregistered and uninsured car against the traffic in a one-way street (or even on a footpath) would escape without loss of points.

The RTA argues that police have discretion in how they proceed against an offending motorist. Obviously, such errant behaviour could fall under the category of driving in a manner dangerous to the public, meriting a trip to court. If convicted, the penalty would be the loss of licence for 12 months, a fine, and even prison.

Became "on-the-spot fines were introduced in order to reduce the huge court backlog, Scruby argues that a magistrate would probably question the police-officer as to why he or she didn't charge the offender under the relevant section of the Traffic Act rather than bringing it to court.

Scruby says the system should concentrate more on demerit points for any conviction of driving that compromises the safety of any person. He insists that the demerit points have shown to be the best method of changing unlawful driver behaviour. But inconsistencies in the system extend beyond the application of demerit points.

Just why taxi drivers have an exemption from wearing seatbelts is difficult to justify.

The official reason is that the belt could be used by a rear-seat passenger to choke a driver. Yet try extending a retractable seatbelt quickly. It's impossible. But even if there is a justification for cabbies not wearing belts when carrying dodgy passengers, there is no reason why they can't belt up when running with a "vacant" sign illuminated.

Armoured vehicle drivers can apparently park indiscriminately with little fear of being fined. Routinely, they will prop at "no stopping" areas, disabled zones, or on footpaths.

At Balmoral Beach last week, one parked in a handy disabled parking spot. Its two occupants then strolled to a nearby restaurant to discuss security business with the management. Adding to the confusion, the RTA's own Road Users' Handbook (available to all motorists from L-platers onwards) appears to contradict the road rule which says all occupants, including the driver, must not have their arms (or any other part of their bodies) outside the vehicle? On page 103 are illustrations showing how to use hand signals ...

Motorists contribute enormously to the coffers of this State.  It shouldn't be much to ask that our politicians and bureaucrats try harder to be more even-handed and consistent as they increase their efforts to relieve us of our cash and drivers' licences.