THAT’S THE LAW: Can you stop disqualified drivers getting behind the wheel?

If you've spent any time in the Local Court, you will probably know that it's commonplace for disqualified drivers to jump behind the wheel notwithstanding being disqualified. The Bureau of Crime Statistic and Research has found that disqualification (particularly for long periods) is not much of a deterrent to some people and may actually increase the risk of re-offending.

This is particularly so for those who have long disqualification periods of 10 years or more. These disqualification periods fail to deter and they can unfairly prejudice those living in rural areas with limited infrastructure and public transport. These people rely on cars as their only mode of transport to get them to work, school, the grocery shop or to seek medical attention.

The question for the NSW Government has been, how do we make it a deterrent? How do you stop repeat offenders who blatantly flout the law which requires a valid driver's licence for all drivers behind the wheel?

The NSW Government is proposing reforms to do just that, which ultimately will better secure the safety of the public by ensuring that those who shouldn't be on the roads won't be.

The reforms expand the powers of the police to impose on-the-spot vehicle sanctions. For example, the police will have the power to confiscate registration plates or cars of repeat offenders on-the spot.

Three-month vehicle sanctions will apply where a disqualified driver is caught speeding more than 30 kilometres over the speed limit.

For re-offenders, police will issue on-the-spot vehicle sanctions of six months if the driver has two or more prior convictions for certain driving offences within the past five years. Such offences include unlicensed or disqualified driving, applying for a licence and failing to disclose their disqualification or incorrectly stating their name on a driving application.

The reforms are not all punishment; there's incentive to obey the law and rewards for law-abiding disqualified drivers too. Some disqualified drivers who have complied with a disqualification period for at least two years, may apply to the Local Court to have their disqualification lifted early. However, drivers convicted of offences involving death or grievous bodily harm cannot apply to shorten their disqualification.

In any application, the Local Court will consider the threat to the community's safety posed by driver applying for the lift.  Drivers who successfully shorten their disqualification, will still need to apply to Roads and Maritime Services and undertake the standard road safety and knowledge tests to get their licence back.

Finally, the reforms strive to make the punishment fit the crime. At the time of writing, repeat unauthorised driving may attract the maximum penalties similar to those imposed for very serious offences such as high range drink driving.

Revised minimum and automatic disqualification periods will apply to unauthorised driving offences. If a person is caught driving whilst their licence is disqualified, cancelled or suspended, the automatic disqualification of six months applies. However, the Court has the discretion to vary the automatic disqualification but it must be no less than the minimum disqualification period of three months.

The reforms will abolish the Habitual Traffic Offender Scheme. This scheme declares a person a Habitual Traffic Offender if convicted of three serious driving offences in a five-year period, banning that person from holding a driving licence for five years. This scheme currently operates in addition to original driving offences and penalties which may disqualify a driver for years, sometimes even life which is unrealistic and as the studies show, may even increase the chances of re-offending.

These reforms are yet another example of the evolutionary process of the law. Chameleon by nature, the theoretical law needs to change to respond to its practical effect and to further its fundamental aim which is put simply, to keep the public safe. If it is not achieving that aim, the dictates of justice require it to be changed.

Michael Evans is a solicitor at Whiteley, Ironside and Shillington