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Courts given the power to rule on demerits

NSW Government introduces amendment to give courts the power to rule on demerit points, sidelining the RTA

By Brad Gardner | December 3, 2010

NSW courts will now have the power to rule on demerit points as part of reforms passed this week by the Keneally Government.

Following concerted lobbying from interest groups and the Opposition, the Government introduced an amendment to allow magistrates to waive demerits in extenuating circumstances.

Currently magistrates can choose not to fine someone found guilty of an offence, but the Roads and Traffic Authority will always record demerits.

“There is a current anomaly in road transport law that stipulates that the Roads and Traffic Authority must deduct demerit points following a finding of guilty,” Parliamentary Secretary Penny Sharpe says.

Like they do with monetary penalties, magistrates will now be able to consider a person’s character, age, health and the nature of the offence before deciding if demerit points are warranted.

The NSW Transport Workers Union (TWU) congratulated the Government on the move, saying it will create a fairer system for truck drivers.

“It is particularly important for our members as a professional driver’s licence is their most important asset, and this change ensures drivers will be treated more fairly before the courts,” TWU State Secretary Wayne Forno says.

The amendment was slotted into the Road Transport (Driver Licensing) Amendment Bill, which increases demerit points for truck drivers from 12 to 14 and from 12 to 13 for motorists.

The Government initially wanted to send the issue to a working group that included the Law Society and NRMA. It was due to report its findings in February next year.

The Law Society has long campaigned for magistrates to be given the power to rule on demerit points, while opposition spokesman on roads Andrew Stoner last year introduced a private member’s bill to reform the system.

While the Opposition supported the increase in demerit points, Stoner claims it is a “smokescreen” to distract motorists from the increase in the use of mobile speed cameras.

“The Government is giving with one hand and taking away with the other hand,” he says.

“The drivers of NSW are going to need every point they can get because this mob are about fining them, raising the maximum revenue possible and rolling out mobile speed cameras despite there being no evidence to indicate that they are effective.”

Stoner has also criticised the Government’s plan to erect warning signs 50 metres in advance of a mobile speed camera, saying the units are capable of detecting drivers from 400 metres.

His comments drew a rebuke from Parliamentary Secretary and Wyong MP David Harris.

“If people do not speed they will not get fined. It is as simple as that…If you do the right thing you do not get caught,” he says.

Independent MP Dawn Fardell has backed the increase in demerit points for truck drivers but has also proposed further reforms.

Fardell, who is known as a strong supporter of the trucking industry, says points for truck drivers should increase as they move on to higher vehicle classes. She says drivers upgrading their licences must undergo more training and difficult tests.

“In my view, each time a driver takes on a vehicle that is heavier than the category of vehicle they are licensed to drive, he or she should have the upper limit of points increased by one,” she says.

“I will continue lobbying on behalf of professional heavy vehicle drivers.”

However, the Greens have questioned the Government’s and Opposition’s actions.

Greens MP Cate Faehrmann claims both parties are sending a message that some offences such as disobeying traffic signs and speeding are fine in some circumstances. She believes the roads will become more dangerous unless the Government and Opposition promote strong road safety messages.

Under the Bill, the Government will amend demerit point offences to bring NSW into line with other jurisdictions.

Drivers in NSW can currently lose two points for incorrectly entering or leaving a roundabout, but the penalty will be scrapped under the reforms.

Penalties for disobeying rules to keep left, cutting in front of a vehicle after overtaking and failing to overtake in a safe manner will all be reduced from three to two points.

Motorists will no longer be hit with three points for driving in a truck lane, with the Government scrapping all points for the offence. However, one point will be imposed on motorists caught driving in a bus lane.

The working group that includes the NRMA and Law Society will look at automatic demerit points for drink driving offences, hardship provisions for people who have their licence suspended and alternatives to demerit points such as education courses.

It is expected to deliver a report to the Government on hardship provisions next month and on the other matters by February 2011.

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