Any lingering doubt that Australian governments are exclusively PR driven were put to rest last Friday in Victoria when Tim Holding, Minister for the Transport Accident Commission, announced tough new laws to sell or crush the cars driven by so-called ‘hoon’ drivers.
It’s an election year in Victoria, and public policy is being crafted around conservative sentiment. At these times, in politics, ‘Are there any votes in it?’ is a far more important question than ‘How many lives will it save?’. Law and order agendas – press releases that kick off with the words ‘get tough on…’ – are vote-winners with middle Australia. They’re easy to distill to a sound bite, and made for prime-time news. Which is why the Victorian opposition fell all over itself to echo the Government’s anti-hoon sentiment. It’s a potential vote-winner for both sides, because nobody likes ‘hoons’ (not even me).
The Victorian Government’s proposed three-step anti-hoon agenda is this: For a first offence, the so-called hoon’s car is impounded for 30 days. A second bout of ‘hoonerism’ sees the vehicle sent up the river for three months. And a third offence will see the recidivist hoon’s car sold at auction, with the proceeds purportedly used in some governmentally administered but as yet nonspecific way to benefit the victims of crime or road trauma. Occasionally, a hoon’s car would be crushed, with press conference invitations to all the major news networks – and, presumably a front-row seat reserved for the soon-to-be-carless hoon himself.
The official line is that crushing cars would be done sparingly, in cases “where we see a demonstrable opportunity to send a powerful message to the community and to set a powerful example for a young person who has repeatedly breached our road laws in Victoria,” Mr Holding said.
Crushing cars across the board would be impractical, according to Mr Holding, since many cars driven by those of a ‘hoonish’ persuasion are in fact owned by innocent parties (a fact admirably demonstrated in WA last month when a Lamborghini Gallardo, driven at an alleged 160km/h by a mechanic commissioned to service it, was impounded even though it was owned by an innocent doctor, whose pleas for its early release fell on the Police Minister’s deaf ears until the doc threatened a compensation claim, after which the minister’s hard line promptly turned to water). Many more hoons’ cars would presumably be subject to finance agreements – and there’s no way the banks would cop a public policy that legalised the large-scale destruction of loan security assets.
So, in a nutshell, car crushing would be reserved for an occasional law and order PR stunt; the 21st Century equivalent of public flogging.
Due process – having the matter adjudicated by a court, basically – wasn’t discussed by the minister. Nor was the exact definition of ‘hoon’ – because keeping this term loose makes selective interpretation by the regulators very convenient. What constitutes a hoon, precisely which driving behaviours are hoonish (the five-year-old Victorian girl whose parentally supervised mini-bike was confiscated in Victoria last year under anti-hoon laws springs to mind), and the legal process surrounding the whole issue – not discussed, which is typical of public policy on the fly. The sound bite is always more important than the substance there.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an apologist for hoons. (Even if there’s no exact legal definition of the word.) And I’m not a hoon myself. Even if I knew what one was – precisely – I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t qualify. Nor is this a case of sour grapes. I’ve got a clean driving record; all my points are intact.
If a hoon is a person who, for example, drives a car at 160km/h in a 60 zone, then I reckon that person should go to jail. Same as if you were to crank up a chainsaw in a crowded shopping mall and start waving it about. If said hoon kills or maims someone in the process, well, they should probably remain there for a rather long time. In fact, I don’t even think we need the term ‘hoon’ in the legal lexicon. There are more than enough offences – starting with dangerous driving – available to the regulators, should they wish to start belting anti-social fools over the head. I also think that the sum total of a dangerous or culpable driver’s assets should be up for grabs to compensate the victims of their actions – in cases where the victims are, for example, unable to work ever again, or are substantially disabled, and they or their families are placed well behind the financial eight-ball as a result of some idiot’s decision to drive irresponsibly.
However no amount of anti-hoon rhetoric uttered by useless politicians will be capable of kicking a big goal for road safety – or any other type of goal except maybe the ‘own’ kind. And we do need rather a large goal to be kicked here, because road trauma is personally horrific and, collectively, prohibitively expensive. It’s a major health problem and a significant financial impost on the community.
To put this last point in perspective, the Australian Crime Commission recently pegged the cost to the community of organized crime in Australia at $10 billion. The official estimate for road trauma is closer to $20 billion. It makes you think – about regulatory policies and the allocation of resources.
The reason why anti-hoon rhetoric is easy to utter is because real solutions are hard. They would require regulatory resolve – and the admission that there are some glaring problems with the way offenders are dealt with under the current legal system. And the best way to describe that process is ‘broken’.
How about you take your best guess at the number of unlicensed drivers around you in the traffic, on an average day in Australia, on an average Aussie road. It’s a staggering 10 per cent. The number of unregistered vehicles is about the same. It’s mind-bending. And these are the official estimates, usually buried in some obscure link, on some obscure page of an obscure government website. Politicians don’t want to ‘get tough’ on unlicensed drivers or unregistered vehicles because that announcement would be a de facto admission of the size of the problem – and a potential goal-kicking opportunity for their respective political oppositions. And that’s the last thing you’d want in an election year – handing the opposition a gilt-edged opportunity to take a swipe at the way you’ve run the ship.
However, that’s exactly what we need – fessing up about entrenched problems, and the steely resolve to cop the flack and get on with the job of fixing them. Have a listen to a few radio news broadcasts – all too often there’s the traffic story highlighting the textbook moron we desperately need off our roads. You know the bloke I’m talking about – he’s speeding, unlicensed, drunk and driving an unregistered car. He’s ticked all the boxes marked ‘scumbag’. And often he kills an innocent party (or parties) and walks away unscathed. What we need is a real, serious, ‘get tough on scumbags’ policy – not just the soundbite that sexes it up. We don’t need a new label for these people, because we already have one: they’re called dangerous drivers.
The reason the roads have degenerated to the extent that one in 10 drivers qualifies as a potential scumbag is because the courts in every state have the limp-est of limp-wristed attitude to unlicensed driving. It’s pathetic.
Let’s say thousands of people lose their licenses every year, which they do. Most of those people respect the law. They refrain from driving, go through the process, do their time (maybe even drop a few kilos seeing as they walk a fair bit more than before), get their licenses back and start driving again. But a proportion – a significant proportion – are scumbags. They lose their licenses and drive anyway.
If they get pinged by the cops, you know what happens? They go before the court. The magistrate tells them they’ve been very, very naughty. He disqualifies them for a longer period. Often, in this situation, they drive home from court. (A reporter I know on A Current Affair, Ben Fordham, once famously citizen’s-arrested one such scumbag for national TV – a great story. Pity it didn’t catalyze a wave of regulatory reform.)
This process often repeats itself. Again and again. And let’s face it – if you’ve been disqualified from driving for 10 years because you’ve driven, and been caught, again and again, how much of an impact on you will it really make on your driving if a magistrate ups the ante to 15 years next time? Or 20? Another contact of mine, a traffic specialist solicitor, claims there is a growing number of drivers he refers to as the “long-term unlicensed”. It’s a significant social problem.
We don’t need to start confiscating cars and, occasionally, crushing them because it’s the court system that’s broken. The cops catch plenty of dangerous drivers, who go before magistrates and are disqualified from driving. The system is broken because many of these people simply ignore their disqualification and keep driving. It’s not until they kill or maim somebody that they’re likely to see the inside of a jail cell – and that’s a bit late to start fixing the problem in my view. The damage has already been done.
Driving unlicensed is the kind of thing the regulators would focus on if they weren’t blindsided by what the former deputy Prime Minister and devout car enthusiast, John Anderson, once told me was a “singular obsession with speed”. In my view, Mr Anderson was – and is – one of the very few good ones. Maybe that’s why he got out of it.
As I understand it, you might be committing an act of hoon driving if you simply accelerate a little harder than you intended when the traffic lights go green. A small degree of wheelspin – and I’m not talking a burnout or a donut here – and you might be up for having your car confiscated. There’s no due process. I mean, you’re presumed innocent of murder right up to the point where the court convicts you, but as a practical matter you’re charged, convicted and penalised as a hoon right at the roadside. And, while you’re being booked a couple of dozen unlicensed drivers will probably drive right past you. So, while they’re stomping on you for a minor offence, the long-term unlicensed get a virtual free kick. It’s unconscionable.
Society would benefit more if the cops carried out large-scale random license checking, and if the people convicted of dangerous driving went inside for contempt of court if they ignored the court’s orders to refrain from driving for whatever period.
If any government minister thinks targeting hoons – whatever they really are, officially – and holding the odd press conference in front of the compactor at the nearby scrap-metal yard has any chance of lowering the road toll, then I have some swamp land in Florida he can buy, dirt cheap. Developers are snapping at my heels, but he can have it for just $10,000 an acre – that’s less than half of what they’re offering. It’s the bargain of the decade – guaranteed.