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Canberra road toll is tragic but increasing prison sentences is not the answer

By Lorana Bartels and Gary Humphries, The Canberra Times, 6 January 2023

The journey to becoming a safe driver starts in the backseat.

From a young age, we watch adults get behind the wheel and observe their actions and attitudes towards driving.

This education kicks up a gear in adolescence, when many of us are fortunate enough to have a responsible driver teach us the road rules and supervise as we start clocking up hours of driving practice. 

There's overwhelming evidence to show that this essential practice, education and prevention of risky behaviour are the keys to safe driving.

This is critical in the current debate over whether tougher punitive measures would have an impact in reducing dangerous driving in the ACT.

Increasing prison sentences is not the answer to the problem of dangerous driving.

While there's a need for penalties for road offences, all the research suggests tougher punishments have no impact on crime rates, whether it's dangerous driving or any other sort of crime.

We need to look towards practical steps to improve road safety, including measures to increase equity for the essential education and practice required to become a safe driver. 

This is particularly critical for young men, with male drivers under the age of 25 most commonly among the drivers causing road trauma.

The ACT currently requires 100 hours of practice before people can obtain their P-plates.

We need to reduce the barriers faced by many young people and their families to ensure this practice occurs and is valuable learning time.

Funding community organisations to supervise driving practice, providing access to roadworthy cars and underwriting the cost of petrol for people living in financial difficulty would help ensure people experiencing disadvantage have the opportunity to strengthen their skills before sitting for their driver's licence test.

The Road Ready course should be made free of charge for all potential drivers. 

Completion of the course, which runs for 10 hours and costs $188, is the first step for obtaining a driver's licence in the ACT.

While it is delivered for free in schools as part of the year 10 school curriculum, not all young people participate for reasons including disengagement from formal education, poverty, disability and poor literacy.

Enabling greater access to road safety courses would also help give young drivers the knowledge and skills to be safer drivers on our roads. 

These courses can be expensive, often out of reach for some young drivers and their families. Policy responses to dangerous driving can also have a greater focus on specifically supporting young men to become safer drivers, recognising the greater risks among this cohort. 

We need to look at expanding access to programs such as the Reducing Aggressive Driving (RAD) program, developed by Monash University, with the support and collaboration of the ACT Road Safety Fund and aimed at drivers aged 18-25.

The program focuses on the risk of aggressive driving, the triggers for anger and aggression and strategies to manage these - seeking to modify the key psychological aspects motivating driver behaviour.

Evaluation of the program has shown a high degree of support from participating drivers, with 87 per cent saying it helped them generate realistic strategies to avoid aggressive driving.

Undertaking this course is voluntary, although the evaluation found support among participants for making it compulsory.

We also need to invest more in health-based responses for substance abuse, as an underlying cause of dangerous driving. 

Investment in treatment and support services will have far greater impact than a punitive approach which draws people deeper into cycles of reincarceration and entrenches disadvantage.

As patrons of the Justice Reform Initiative, we are working to bring Australians towards an evidence-based approach to criminal justice, rather than one based on failed tough-on-crime rhetoric.

Dangerous driving has a tragic impact, but evidence shows that education and prevention will do far more to make our roads safer than increasing prison sentences. 

Prison fails when it comes to controlling crime - half of the people leaving prison return within two years of their release. 

We urge the ACT government to stay focused on policies based on what actually works to make our roads safer, to deliver better outcomes for everyone in our community.

  • Lorana Bartels is a professor of criminology at the Australian National University and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Canberra and University of Tasmania.
  • Gary Humphries is a former chief minister of the ACT and senator representing the ACT in the Australian Parliament. They co-chair the ACT chapter of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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