Road Safety Amendment (drinking while driving) Bill 2011

I rise to speak on the Road Safety Amendment (Drinking while Driving) Bill 2011. I saw this bill for the first time yesterday at 1.00 p.m., and I saw the second reading for the first time at 8.00 a.m. today.

Road safety is a critical issue and one that demands the very best of our governments and our parliaments and the very best public policy. The impact of road trauma is immense. When things go wrong on our roads, families, workplaces and communities are devastated. The effects of injuries and fatalities on our roads are felt for years, and many thousands of people in Australia feel those effects for the rest of their lives.

Let me say at the outset that the Labor opposition does not oppose this bill, and it will play its role in expediting its passage through the Parliament this week. Labor has a proud and successful record on road safety, and it will not allow those opposite to portray Labor as anything less than fully committed to driving down the road toll. This bill is not without merit, and there are Victorians who will indeed welcome it. However, is this the most pressing road safety issue before us? Is this the most significant thing we as a Parliament in our last sitting week this year, can do to reduce the road toll? Is the substance of this bill reflective of its incredibly rushed passage through the Parliament?

This bill is unfortunately a reflection of the Baillieu government’s entire approach to road safety. This government is more interested in spin over substance and grabbing the headline as opposed to doing the hard work in developing and implementing innovative and — can I stress — evidence-based strategies to reduce the road toll. The year 2011 has been one of lost opportunity and lost momentum on road safety, following a decade of action on road safety that saw the road toll fall under Labor by more than 35 per cent, from 444 fatalities in 2001 to a record low of 288 last year. As of today, this year’s road toll is exactly the same as it was this time last year, and all of us in this house hope we can create a new record this year.

What have we seen from the Baillieu government? One of the first decisions it made in relation to road safety was the disgraceful reversal of funding for the road safety experience centre, and I will talk more about that later.

There has also been the introduction of the road safety camera commissioner, which will not save one life on our roads; slogans for numberplates; an extension of Labor’s hoon driving legislation; claiming credit for road safety projects of the previous Labor government; and a delay of almost 12 months in the delivery of the Arrive Alive action plan. By the way, Deputy Speaker, there is an acknowledgement in the conclusion of that much-delayed action plan document that the plan is basically in a holding pattern. Towards its end that document, which was released a short while ago, says:

… the strategy is currently being reviewed.

Following an extensive program of community and stakeholder consultation, the strategy will be updated and released in 2012. The Baillieu government still does not have a comprehensive road safety strategy. To conclude the year, in a desperate bid to appear to be taking action on road safety in the lead-up to one of our most critical periods — the Christmas and New Year summer holidays — the government has introduced this bill. Its urgency is apparently so great that it has to be rushed through both houses this week. It went to cabinet yesterday morning, and shadow cabinet ministers were briefed at 1.00 p.m. yesterday, not by the relevant department, as would usually be the case, but by advisers of the Attorney-General. I thank the Attorney-General and his staff for that briefing, but it just exemplifies the rushed nature of this bill. Cabinet considered it, there was a briefing for myself and the shadow Attorney-General, and at 2.00 p.m. we brought it to our shadow cabinet meeting.

The bill is so imperative that advice from the Transport Accident Commission was not sought.

I contacted the TAC directly yesterday, and it did not know a thing about it. I was told the TAC had not been asked to provide a brief to the government. It is of such grave public policy import, requiring such lightning action, that the advice of the leading experts in the field, Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC), was not required. The ministerial advisers yesterday admitted that no external stakeholder was consulted over this critical and urgent legislative change. Parliament’s Road Safety Committee and Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee have both been sidestepped in the haste to introduce this bill.

I will just pause for a moment to note in relation to Parliament’s Road Safety Committee that that much-delayed. Arrive Alive action plan update document, released last month, says this of the committee:

The parliamentary Road Safety Committee has played an integral role in advising and making recommendations to Parliament on road safety issues in Victoria since its inception in 1967. The committee considers a broad spectrum of issues and views, and seeks expert and community opinions, resulting in the introduction of many road safety initiatives that have seen significant reductions in deaths and serious injuries on Victorian roads. That is a fact. Over many decades the work of Parliament’s Road Safety Committee has played a vital role. I have said that before during previous road safety debates: Victoria has a proud international reputation of being at the forefront of innovative and successful road safety policy. The critical ingredient is that it has been evidence based. The evidence base has been the absolute core ingredient of everything we have done in road safety over the last four decades, whether it has involved Parliament or its Road Safety Committee; the work of our road safety partners, Victoria Police, VicRoads or the Transport Accident Commission, or other road safety organisations such as MUARC.

What does this urgent bill do? As the Attorney-General just outlined in his second-reading speech, this short bill amends the Road Safety Act 1986 to create a new road safety offence for drivers who drink whilst driving a motor vehicle, carrying a maximum penalty of 10 penalty units. This offence relates to only the driver of the vehicle; it does not extend to passengers consuming alcohol in a vehicle that is being driven.

In that respect it is similar to legislation in New South Wales and Queensland and different from legislation in Tasmania, where the provision applies to everyone in the vehicle, and Western Australia, where a broader prohibition applies — it does not specifically talk about consuming alcohol but is a general prohibition on drunkenness.

The bill inserts two new sections into the Road Safety Act 1986: section 49B, the offence of consuming intoxicating liquor while driving; and section 49C, the offence of consuming intoxicating liquor while accompanying a learner driver. That second offence is an appropriate offence to have in the legislation. The standard of proof is beyond reasonable doubt. As was explained in the briefing yesterday, an infringement notice will be issued in circumstances where a police officer witnesses a driver consuming alcohol.

Whether the container contained alcohol will be a matter for the police officer to determine at the time — that is, through what the officer saw or through smelling the contents of a container. We were advised that it does not relate to open cans of beer in the cabin of the vehicle or to other passengers drinking alcohol.

Private land is also covered by the bill, but as direct observation by a police officer is required, the range of circumstances in which this could apply — for example, someone who is driving a tractor and drinking a beer at the same time — are limited. Drinking while sitting in a car with your keys in your pocket is not covered; however, the penalty could apply if a police officer witnesses a driver drinking while starting or attempting to start a vehicle.

I understand the point the Attorney-General made about messaging around drinking and driving and the importance of getting those messages out at this time of the year, but one of the issues I have with the bill is its enforceability.

There is no doubt that this will be a difficult thing to enforce. For example, it is almost impossible to discern the difference between a driver holding and drinking from a can of Coke Zero and a driver holding and drinking from a can of Jim Beam Black. I encourage members to look at the cans of those two products and imagine how difficult it will be for police to discern whether someone is drinking alcohol or simply a soft drink.

That brings us to another issue — that is, distraction within the cabin. I know that the Monash University Accident Research Centre has done a lot of work around distractions whilst driving. Eating and drinking whilst driving are certainly distractions, and we should discourage those activities, but in terms of distractions whilst driving there is no difference between drinking a can of light beer and drinking a can of Coke. My question is: how many times will police pull over drivers for drinking Coke before this legislation is deemed by the men and women in blue to be completely useless?

It is my contention and the contention of the opposition that this is window-dressing. As I said at the start, it does have some merit, but when we compare it to the various road safety measures we could introduce as a matter of urgency, this is a low priority. It is not substantive road safety policy, but did we really expect anything different from the government that has given us on-the-spot fines for swearing and legislation to protect a minister from people being mean to him? As far as the penalties go, this is another example of spin over substance. There are no demerit points for these offences.

If the bill is so significant, why is it that a repeat offender cannot lose his or her licence for these offences? You could be fined for these offences week after week, month after month, but you would never be at risk of being taken off the road for this behaviour. The government’s rationale for introducing the bill is that it is all about messaging — that creating this penalty better aligns drink-driving messaging with the law. This government’s track record on road safety messaging is appalling.

For much of the period of the former Labor government those opposite, particularly the now minister for transport, were friends of the hoon. There are dozens of quotes from then shadow ministers dog whistling about speed cameras, speeding and running red lights. There was constant dog whistling that it is okay to speed or to run a red light and constant bagging of our road safety camera system as a revenue raiser — a view categorically rejected by successive Auditor-General reports.

One of the first things this government did about road safety was publish the sites of mobile speed cameras. What did the Auditor-General say in his most recent report on the road safety camera program in relation to this message from the Baillieu government? He said: Given the connection between speeding and road trauma, and the demonstrated effect of cameras in reducing speeding, there is a likelihood of increased adverse road safety outcomes as a result of this practice.

The Auditor-General found that the government’s action was inconsistent with the general road safety message and that this would have a negative outcome. In the context of road safety, a negative outcome means fatalities and injuries.

An article in the Age of 16 November, under the headline ‘Government ignores watchdog’s speed camera safety call’, states: Monash University professor of accident research Max Cameron said he was surprised the government had not stopped disclosing camera sites in line with the Auditor-General’s findings. ‘Some people view the published sites as telling them where the cameras aren’t and really that’s the key issue and that’s what the Auditor-General found’, Professor Cameron said.

‘There used to be a view that it wasn’t all that much of a problem publishing the sites because to a large extent people didn’t make a mental record of all those but there are some chronic speeders who really capitalise on the information to know they can speed with impunity everywhere else and that’s really a major issue’.

This government does not do road safety messaging well or in the best interests of Victoria’s road users. The ministerial advisers also conceded that most people think this is already an offence. We are changing the behaviour of a small group of people, and that is important, but the offences created by this bill are hardly groundbreaking. We are told that there is a need as a matter of urgency to get this road safety bill through this Parliament in our last week of sitting. As far as the Baillieu government is concerned, this is the most crucial road safety initiative it can deliver!

Where is the compelling case that this is the most urgent, critical and effective road safety legislation? Is this truly the most effective initiative on road safety we can deliver in the lead-up to Christmas? Or is this more about pretending to be doing something — to be able to say to the community that in our last sitting week we introduced and passed urgent road safety legislation? It is undoubtedly the latter.

Earlier in the year Victorian Labor became so concerned that this government had completely dropped the ball on road safety that it delivered a comprehensive policy document of its own entitled Below 200 by 2020. We did so in the hope that the government would pick up on the initiatives in it. Indeed we offered those ideas to the government to continue the important progress that had been made on road safety over the last decade. Below 200 by 2020 continues Labor’s leadership and innovative thinking on road safety. I will outline some of those initiatives. The first initiative is funding the road safety experience centre. That is a world-first facility for educating young people about the realities of road trauma and the importance of safe driving habits. The tragic loss of young life, particularly over the last couple of months, has highlighted the need for all of us to do more to engage with young people.

That was the key thinking around Below 200 by 2020 and the announcement of then Premier John Brumby that we would fund the creation of the road safety experience centre. The centre was able to be fully funded. The Transport Accident Commission actuaries informed the government at the time that its surplus premiums were estimated to be in the order of $150 million. We wanted that money invested back into road safety; that was not a call on the budget.

When we first raised the issue with the current Premier through the media he said that it was a nice idea but that the government did not have the money. He should tell that to the families of those young people who lost their lives over the course of the last couple of months — that is, that the best he can do is introduce this legislation and not deliver something as innovative and proudly Victorian as the road safety experience centre.

Some of the initiatives in our policy documents included recognising and rewarding new drivers by providing a free three-year licence if the four-year probationary period was completed with no road offences, giving a tip to good behaviour; providing new drivers who attended the road safety experience centre with a free driving lesson; requiring drivers convicted of serious driving offences to attend the centre; piloting the use of intelligent speed assistdevices in vehicles of recidivist or dangerous speeding offenders; creating the position of a minister for road safety to oversee the implementation of road safety initiatives; and reducing the TAC premium for people registering a new 5-star car.

The latter initiative is an important idea. We need to take the next step in improving the quality of Victoria’s fleet, and a significant increase in cars with greater safety features will significantly reduce road trauma. Below 200 by 2020 states:

Research shows that if each motorist upgraded their vehicle to the safest in its class, road trauma would immediately drop by up to one-third. The voluntary Stars on Cars program was launched in 2009 to provide Victorian motorists with more vehicle safety information when buying a new car. We need to build on that. One of our ideas was to reduce the TAC premiums to encourage people to purchase a safer car. That would make an immediate and massive difference on our roads. Another initiative was to introduce a graduated licensing system for new motorcycle riders. That has been a great initiative of the former government for P -plate drivers, but we need urgently to do something for motorcycle riders. I again refer to our policy document:

Although motorcycle and pillion passenger deaths have dramatically decreased since Labor’s first Arrive Alive strategy began on average over 40 Victorian riders are killed and about 900 are seriously injured each year. We have to do more through the graduated licensing system. We have to do more to encourage the take-up of people wearing appropriate safety wear when they ride a motorcycle.

Other initiatives include introducing additional speed advisory technology along roads to alert drivers to their speed and setting up a new fund targeting safety improvements on category C roads in regional Victoria. As you would know, Deputy Speaker, they are generally two-lane sealed roads with shoulders that connect populated centres, which are of particular concern. As members on both sides of the house have acknowledged, the number of deaths on regional roads is significantly higher than the number of deaths on our metropolitan network based on the proportion of population.

Other initiatives include setting up a trial hotline similar to the dob-in-a-hoon hotline to enable affected motorists to report tailgating to authorities, introducing a trial for break-in radio warning systems, introducing cameras at level crossings to minimise the risk of train and car collisions, and continuing the rollout of truck exclusion lanes, which is a great hobbyhorse of the former Minister for Roads and Ports.

We are talking about EastLink, the Monash-West Gate freeway and the M80 Western Ring Road, when construction is completed. These things make a real difference.

Another initiative was working with stakeholders to develop industry standards for safety clothing for motorcyclists, as I mentioned, and increasing the use of speed warning devices inside heavy vehicles. These are the measures that will make a real difference. When Labor was last in government these initiatives were strongly advocated for by our road safety partners VicRoads, the TAC, Victoria Police, the Monash University Accident Research Centre and international innovative movements. All of these measures were being raised with us, and we took that knowledge from our time in government to produce the document that we released about six months ago. Those are the measures that we should moving on with urgency.

The Baillieu-Ryan government has a responsibility to bring about real and positive change in driving behaviour in Melbourne and throughout regional Victoria. Unfortunately only a limited number of those initiatives which I outlined from Below 200 by 2020 have been taken up. If this government is serious about improving road safety and continuing to drive our road toll down, it has to be at the forefront of real and effective change. Slogans on numberplates and banning the traveller may be headline-grabbing issues, but they do not deliver on changing behaviour. That is the challenge for all of us. Today the road toll is exactly the same as it was this time last year. We must all be concerned about reducing the road toll and reducing the impact of serious injuries.

Those initiatives — a slogan on a numberplate, the bill we have before us today — are not the same as building a road safety experience centre to teach good driver behaviour to new and young drivers. They are not the same as tough sanctions for tailgating or rewards for Victorian drivers to positively change behaviour and educate people about the dangers of risky driving. This bill — and it is symbolic of the entire year of this government when it comes to road safety — fiddles at the edges. This government continues to leave the road safety field all but vacant.

Safety is paramount. No-one in this house or in this Parliament is saying it is not, but it takes more than legislation by headline to drive the road toll down. For 12 months now, the Baillieu government has dodged the hard work of developing meaningful public policy on road safety. It is simply not putting the funding or the time into getting it right. Victorian road users deserve better.

Whilst we will not oppose the bill and whilst we will play our part in expediting its passage through the Parliament, I, for one, am getting sick and tired of a government that seems to prefer pretence over substance.

Pretence over substance: that is what it is about. We need to drive the road toll down. Whilst the opposition will not oppose this bill — as I said, it has some merit — it pales into insignificance when you compare it to the road safety initiatives we outlined six months ago, which we have been calling on the government to implement.

We have this holding document that the government released a couple of weeks ago which says at its conclusion that the government is going to take another 12 months to deliver a comprehensive road safety strategy. Cards, numberplate slogans and minor bills are not going to drive down the road toll. We may find at the end of the year that the road toll is similar to what it was last year, or it may be a little bit higher or a little bit lower, but if as a Parliament we are serious about making massive inroads into the road toll and the devastating effects of road trauma on the Victorian community, then we need to do more than this. This cannot be the best that this government can offer up to be urgently passed in the final week of Parliament this year.