Saturday, April 22, 2006


At first glance, the connection between the tragic loss of young lives on our roads and the reduction in crime rates in New York city seems remote. But there are two connecting factors. First, New York administrators decided that they wanted to get tough on crime and the resolve to adopt the same attitude here in WA in relation to young people killing and injuring themselves in motor vehicle accidents is increasing.

Second, as explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point”, the most important decision in New York was to adopt the Broken Window concept: even the smallest anti-social act was to be considered unacceptable and the full force of the law would be applied. The result was that criminals, who are for the most part perceptive, human beings like you and I, realised that here was a community that was going to get tough on crime, so it made sense not to undertake criminal activity.

In Parliament, I have argued that we have done most of the obvious things needed to make our roads safer for all who use them. Motor vehicle designs are much improved, safety belts are compulsory, riding in the backs of utilities is banned, blood alcohol levels must be below certain levels, driver education is much improved and so on.

But deaths and injuries continue to occur on our roads at an unacceptable rate, especially for people under the age of 25. Why is this? I believe that we haven’t yet properly understood the psychology, the thought processes, of young people. Most serious traffic accidents now involve spur of the moment decisions by drivers to do something stupid: drive fast to impress the girl friend, ignore the signs of drowsiness, show off to our mates, and so on.

So one thing is lacking: we haven’t yet got the message across to these people that any mistake while driving, no matter how minor they might think it is, can result in a serious traffic accident.

If we want to significantly reduce the accident rate among young drivers, we as a community have to say to them that any infringement of the traffic laws is totally unacceptable and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Just as New Yorkers said they wouldn’t accept even one broken window, so we have to say that we won’t accept even one minor traffic infringement from young drivers.

I propose that all drivers under the age of 21 must display a ‘Y’ plate on their motor vehicles. Our police will then be instructed to apprehend any Y plate driver who commits any traffic infringement. Minor breaches of the road rules, such as changing lanes without indicating or even the smallest squealing of tyres, will attract the maximum penalty of fines and/or demerit points. Serious offences such as driving without a license would also result in impoundment of the vehicle, regardless of who owned the vehicle (unless it was stolen, in which case the illegal activity is to be treated even more seriously).

As Jim Kelly reported in the Sunday Times on October 9, getting tough with P-plate drivers in New Zealand has made a big difference to the death toll. But 101 dead young people in that country in 2002 is still unacceptable.

In New York, fare evaders on the underground rail system were handcuffed together and forced to wait in a queue in the station until 20 such people were apprehended. Then, as a group, they were marched upstairs to be processed in a specially outfitted bus, to be released an hour or so later. Fare evasion plummeted.

In New York, graffiti artists were allowed to spend three nights defacing new train carriages and then apprehended, whereupon they were forced to see their ‘artwork’ removed or painted over. Strange as it may seem, they were devastated by the loss of what they considered to be the product of their talent and three days of hard work. Most never tried to deface carriages again.

We have to get a message into the heads of all young drivers that any traffic infringement will not be tolerated. We have to warn them that, thanks to the Y plate, they will be subject to far more public and police scrutiny than in the past. We have to make them realise that they will get caught, sooner rather than later, and that they will pay whatever penalties their stupid driving behaviour warrants.

Most importantly, we have to say to them that they will look anything but cool to their mates or girlfriends if they have to catch the bus or walk once they lose their license or their car.

We have to make it a privilege, not a right, for any person to own a motor vehicle and to have a license to drive that vehicle. Being a privilege, we as a community can take that motor vehicle registration or drivers’ license back if the privilege is abused. And we have to show that we mean what we say.

New York city repaired its broken windows within a day of the breakage. That sent out a message that even minor anti-social actions would not be tolerated. West Australians should demand almost absolute compliance with the traffic laws from young inexperienced drivers. They have to know that even minor traffic infringements are unacceptable.

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