Written by Andrew Fraser
December 18, 2014
More NSW drink-drivers are set to return to the road somewhat earlier – but only with the mandatory imposition of alcohol-ignition-interlock devices under a significant restructure approved by state Parliament.
Both houses of parliament passed the Bill with bipartisan support in mid-2013 and the new scheme is to begin on February 1, less than two months before the next state election.
Under the shake-up, a high-range (0.150 or more) drink-driving offence and repeat drink-driving offences at all levels will become “mandatory interlock offences”, meaning drivers will have to have an alcohol-ignition interlock system fitted to their vehicles before being able to drive again. The devices prevent vehicles starting unless drivers have no alcohol in their breath.
But actual time off the road can be reduced, in a move Roads Minister Duncan Gay says strikes an appropriate balance, with the focus being on keeping drink-affected drivers off the road.
In introducing the new measures to Parliament, Mr Gay, said, “Interlock programs help offenders to learn how to separate their drinking from their driving, while enabling them to continue to access employment and essential services for their families.
“By providing a strictly monitored way back into licensing, interlock programs reduce the chance that offenders will drive unlicensed, and potentially under the influence, while disqualified.”
The changes are marked.
A mid-range (0.08 to 0.150) repeat offender currently faces an automatic disqualification of three years, reducible to a minimum 12 months.
Under the new law, such an offender faces a minimum of 6 months off the road (extendable by a court to 9) at which point the driver enters a minimum interlock period of 24 months (or more, if the court so orders).
The new minimum disqualification periods relating to the Interlock are supposed to work in tandem with the existing penalty regime. So, for example, someone might be disqualified by the court for 18 months, but could be back on the road after six months – only because they would have to have an interlock fitted to their vehicle at that time. That device would have to stay there for at least the 24-month minimum, which would stretch 12 months after the court-imposed disqualification period ended.
Currently high-range and repeat drink-drivers have the option of taking up the interlock after a “compliance period” of disqualification. The new interlock minimum disqualification periods largely mirror the old compliance periods, with one exception being made for high-range repeat offenders. The old “compliance period” for them had been 12 months. The new minimum disqualification period is to be 9 months (but extendable to 12 if a court deems it necessary).
A new mandatory interlock order will disqualify a person from holding a driver licence (other than a learner licence or interlock driver licence) for five years from the day of the conviction – unless the person has first held an interlock driver licence for a period (or periods in total) equivalent to the minimum interlock period, or for a longer period specified by the court.
Other than choosing to stay off the road for five years, there are some limited exemptions from mandatory interlock orders, but the threshold is high.
An interlock exemption order can only be made if the court is satisfied that the offender does not have access to a vehicle in which to install an interlock device, or that the offender has a medical condition diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner that prevents the offender from providing a sufficient breath sample to operate an approved interlock device.
A person is deemed to have “access” to a vehicle if the person is the registered operator, owner or part-owner, or shares the use of the vehicle with the registered operator, owner or part-owner.
The legislation declares, “An interlock exemption order must not be made merely because an offender cannot afford the cost of installing or maintaining an approved interlock device, or will be prevented from driving a vehicle in the course of his or her employment if the interlock exemption order is made, or has access to a vehicle but the registered operator of the vehicle refuses to consent to the installation of an interlock device in the vehicle.”
The cost of having an interlock can be high: around $1200 for every six months’ use.
The new interlock rules apply also to those convicted of dangerous driving causing death or grievous bodily harm, in those cases where alcohol was involved.
Labor MP Ron Hoenig, who led parliamentary debate for the Opposition, noted that NSW, which introduced interlock on a voluntary basis more than a decade ago, had fallen behind other states and territories in the time since, noting that many jurisdictions had already moved to mandatory interlock regimes.
The NSW parliamentary passage came a month after the ACT introduced the interlock for the first time with a system that allows first-offending low- and mid-range drink-drivers to return to the road voluntarily immediately they have been dealt with by the court.
Those ACT drivers with a reading of 0.150 or more and those who are repeat offenders have to undergo a mandatory assessment for the Interlock. But, unlike NSW, the time that ACT offenders have to have the interlock fitted for does not extend beyond their court-imposed disqualification. The interlock period begins halfway through that court-imposed disqualification and ends at the same time.
Roughly 5,000,000 breath tests are conducted annually in NSW with approximately 20,000 drivers charged. One in six offenders is convicted for a second drink-driving offence within five years.