Fines and disqualification do not reduce offending – major study.

MEDIA RELEASE - 16/08/2009

Fines and disqualification often have little effect on driver behaviour, and may make a bad situation worse, says the car buyers’ Dog & Lemon Guide.

Matthew-Wilson was commenting after unpaid fines reached $800 million for the first time.

Editor Clive Matthew-Wilson says fines work as a deterrent for middle-class people with reasonable incomes. However, they are often largely ineffective against the two highest risk groups of road users – teenagers and poor people.
Matthew-Wilson’s conclusions are backed up by several studies, including the largest study of fines as a deterrent ever conducted in Australia, which also concluded that higher fines do not reduce the risk of re-offending.

The study, carried out by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, identified 70,000 NSW persons who received a court-imposed fine for a driving offence between 1998 and 2000. Researchers then followed each offender for a period of five years to see whether they committed another driving offence.

After controlling for a wide range of other factors likely to influence re-offending, the Bureau found no relationship between the magnitude for the fine imposed and the likelihood of a further driving offence.

The same negative result was obtained for drink-drive (PCA) offences, driving while disqualified offences, exceeding the speed limit and ‘other’ driving offences.

For most of these offences the Bureau also found no relationship between the period of license disqualification and the risk of a further driving offence.

For speeding offences, longer disqualification periods actually made the situation worse because it increased the risk that the offender would drive illegally.

Commenting on the findings, the Director of the Bureau, Dr Don Weatherburn, said that they were consistent with a large body of evidence indicating that, contrary to popular opinion, tougher penalties do not reduce the risk of re-offending.

Matthew-Wilson adds:

“The bureaucrats who come up with our road safety strategies are generally white, middle-class and middle-aged. They see life as a series of planned steps and have little idea of how young people and poor people think or act. In a typical case a student will own an old car and the WOF will run out. While he’s sorting that, he gets a ticket. Because he hasn’t got a warrant, he can’t register his car, so he gets a ticket for that as well. Next thing enforcement fees are added. Then the bailiffs are after him.”

“Nothing is gained as a result of this. The money that might have gone to pay for car repairs simply ends up paying for fines.”

“A survey of young people who drove to a Northland training course showed that 92% had no license. 20% of these people couldn’t get a license because they were illiterate. You can’t say these people are simply criminals; they are part of the great messy underbelly of New Zealand culture. You can fine them, but you simply make criminals out of people whose main crime was growing up in a poor area.”

Matthew-Wilson – whose road safety research was awarded by the Australian Police Journal – supports the government’s ban on handheld cellphones, but opposes the plan to fine offenders.

Instead of fining drivers and issuing demerit points, Matthew-Wilson believes the police should have the power to temporarily seize cellphones being used by drivers while a vehicle is in motion.

Under Matthew-Wilson’s proposal, every police car would carry a pre-printed receipt book and a few pre-paid padded postal envelopes. Instead of issuing a ticket, the officer would instruct the offending driver to write his or her address onto the envelope. The officer would then place the cellphone into the envelope, seal it and drop the envelope into the nearest mailbox. The offender would get his/her cellphone back by registered mail in a few days.

The officer would also note the offender’s details, and after two offences the cellphone would be permanently seized.

Matthew-Wilson says that simply banning cellphones may not work because many users are prepared to risk a fine rather than miss a call. However, says Matthew-Wilson, most cellphone users would hate to lose their cellphone – even temporarily – and this fear would eventually modify their behavior.