Road Toll Inquiry submission 

30 June 2020

INQUIRY INTO THE INCREASE IN VICTORIA’S ROAD TOLL

 Please accept this as my submission to the Inquiry into the Increase in Victoria’s Road Toll.  This submission covers five main recommendations:

  1. Increasing the rate of drug testing of drivers
  2. Reviewing sentencing for drug driving offences
  3. Expanding laws for the automatic suspension of licences to include alleged gross negligence driving offences
  4. Ensuring continued improvements to the condition of regional roads
  5. Widening defensive driver education for young people

Illicit drugs continue to have broad and significant impact on our communities, including road deaths.  In Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, we welcomed the statement from the Minister of Police in May 2020 that there would be a year-long review into the current regime of drug testing, though it is our view that  there should also be more immediate action to expand the rate of random drug testing of drivers on Victorian roads.  This should include the earliest possible uptake of the latest drug driving testing equipment and technology.

The Transport Accident Commission reports that in the last five years approximately 41% of all drivers and motorcyclists killed who were tested, had drugs in their system and 25% of Victorians who use recreational drugs admit to driving under the influence.[i]

In July 2019, Victoria’s then Assistant Commissioner for Road Safety, Stephen Leane, confirmed to the Herald Sun that drugs had easily surpassed alcohol as a risk factor on the State’s roads – with police, on average, catching drugged drivers once in each 18 tests compared with one in each 400 for alcohol.[ii]

Leane told the newspaper that “getting drug drivers off the road will be one of the greatest challenges over the next 10 years”.[iii]  The following month, he also told the ABC that a driver with “methylamphetamine in (their) system (is) 18 to 200 times more likely to have a collision”.[iv]

Wendy Steendam, Deputy Commissioner of Capability at  Victoria Police, likewise confirmed to the Inquiry into drug law reform the importance of screening for the presence of illicit drugs, because “the evidence is very clear from a risk perspective that with the presence of those illicit drugs, you are at greater risk of having an accident and/or causing community harm”.[v]

Victoria Police has significantly increased its focus on drug testing drivers and police have the right to pull a driver over at any time and test for traces of illicit drugs.  Victoria Police issued over 2,600 infringement notices for drug driving offences for the first half of 2019.  Testing has increased to over 150,000 drivers annually.[vi]  However, this still represents only five per cent of the equivalent target number (of three million random breath tests each year) for alcohol impairment.  This alone suggests there should be great scope for increasing the targets for drug testing of drivers.

In practice, not all police are trained to conduct testing (a two-day exercise). As a result, if a general duties officer suspects drug use, they must then contact Highway Patrol to inform them of their suspicion of substance abuse. They have to relay the case to Highway Patrol and wait for them to attend a scene to conduct a test. Highway Patrol MUST then physically see the person driving the motor vehicle before they are able to ask them to be submitted to a drug test.  It has been reported that there are only 600 Highway Patrol members able to conduct roadside drug tests and the availability of members who are trained and on shift to conduct drug tests is therefore restricted.[vii]

If Victoria Police trained and equipped all members to conduct random drug tests, the capacity for detecting drivers with illicit drugs in their system would improve exponentially.  It should further follow that with more capacity and greater testing, more drug drivers would be detected and removed from our roads.

Sentencing practices for drug driving offences should also be reviewed to ensure they reflect the severity of the devastating impact on individuals and families, either through the death or injury of innocent people.  Deputy Chief Magistrate Franz Holzer has advocated for more flexibility – and severity – when it comes to sentencing, saying “there’s a gap in the legislative regime where drug drivers don’t have the same consequences as drink drivers and I really hope that situation changes.”  More than six other magistrates have followed suit in calling for change.[viii] A driver that tests positive for drugs is required to not drive for 24 hours.

Another disturbing issue confronting our communities is the prevalence of ‘hit-and-run’ incidents.  Police records reveal that nearly 150 deaths and more than 18,000 injuries from ‘hit-and-run’ driving in Victoria occurred between 1 July 2000 and 30 June 2019.  Whilst Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party welcomed the laws that passed the Parliament in March 2020 to suspend the licences of drivers accused of offences relating to ‘intent’ or ‘reckless intent’, we are still advocating for these to extend to offences of ‘gross negligence’.

I would encourage the committee to consider the value of the potential application of immediate suspension of licences to these crimes, especially culpable driving causing death, dangerous driving causing death or serious injury, and failing to stop and failing to render assistance.

As a Member for Northern Victoria, I am a strong advocate for all areas to have equity of access to the services and infrastructure that our regions need to survive and thrive.  This extends to road infrastructure and the consistent and appropriate maintenance of our road network to ensure regions are accessible and safe.

There are some suggestions in the public sphere that the upgrading of regional roads to an acceptable safety standard would simply take too long and cost too much.  A common complaint from residents across Northern Victoria is the complete lack of shoulders on country roads.  Regional road users deserve equitable government investment in their needs.  Every road user should expect that our roads are maintained at an acceptable safety standard, whether they are in a country area or a major metropolitan zone.

Finally, but very importantly, I would urge the committee to contemplate ways of improving the education of young people to manage the range of conditions and circumstances that they may encounter on our roads.

In 2019, 26 of the 148 lives lost on Victoria’s roads were aged between 16-25 years old, representing 18% of the total road toll.  The Victorian Labor Party made an election promise in 2014 to introduce the ‘Road Safety Starts Early’ program for all Year 10 students to undertake defensive driver training.  Our party believes such a program to further educate young people on safe and defensive driving skills should be expanded and incorporate a special focus on identifying attitudes to risk and shaping behaviour towards low-risk driving.

In the context of better attuning young people to the importance of safe driving, I am optimistic that there would also be scope within such a course for specific attention to be devoted to the danger of mobile phone use in vehicles.

As the committee will know, this danger remains a significant problem on the State’s roads, and one that clearly continues to call for intensive focus and effort.  A National Transport Commission review of this subject is currently underway, but I would hope even in the interim that the committee will recognise and stress the importance of rolling out new and enhanced camera technology in Victoria for the better detection of mobile phone use by drivers.

I thank the Committee for considering these issues in the course of this Inquiry.

Yours sincerely,

Tania

Tania Maxwell MP

Member for Northern Victoria