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Despite Police statistics, the unlicensed drivers aren’t about to kill everyone

November 13th, 2008 at 06:39am

I’ll start this by saying that I have a lot of respect for the Police and the work that they do, in fact it is on my list as a possible long-term career objective, although whether I would meet the fitness requirements of the job is something that we can debate another day. As such, none of what I’m about to say is in any way intended as a slur against the Police, rather it’s an editorial that I should have written a long time ago about how annoyed I am at a particular set of dubious and malleable statistics being trotted out by the Police on a regular basis.

I’m referring to the statistics which get thrown at us about unlicensed drivers. Of late, with automated number plate recognition technology being used all over the place in “compliance operations”, these statistics have been trotted out a bit more than usual, generally alongside a statement from a senior Police officer who is “disappointed”. The latest AFP press release on the subject is a good example:

Traffic compliance “Results disappointing”
Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Compliance Targeting Team, comprising of ACT Policing officers and ACT Government representatives continue to be disappointed by Canberra drivers.

Using the highly-successful RAPID plate-recognition system, the team has targeted unregistered, uninsured and defective vehicles and unlicensed drivers on Canberra’s main arterial roads since 20 October, 2008.

To date, the team has detected 111 unregistered vehicles, 56 uninsured vehicles and issued 215 vehicle defect notices.

Of significant concern is that 126 unlicensed drivers, including 50 suspended and 6 disqualified drivers were detected.

Detective Superintendant Mark Colbran said it was driver’s continual disregard for compliance and road safety which is most disappointing.

“The fact that between January 2006 to September 2008, 22% of serious motor vehicle collisions involving injury in the ACT involved either unlicensed drivers or unregistered vehicles, highlights the importance of these types of operations to the safety of all Canberra road users.” Supt Colbran said.

“We will continue to target those drivers who fail to register and insure their vehicles, in all areas of Canberra”.

“These operations are for the safety of all Canberra motorists and we ask that all motorists be patient when approaching vehicle checking points”.

Motorists should be aware that the Compliance Targeting Team will be conducting a compliance operation on Adelaide Avenue, commencing at 3pm, Friday (November 14). Traffic delays should be expected.

The main problem that I have with these statistics is that they seem to work on the premise that a shiny bits of plastic turn people perfect drivers which, as we know, is utter nonsense. People with valid shiny bits of plastic are involved in accidents all the time…in fact, according to Detective Superintendant Colbran, people with valid shiny bits of plastic and valid vehicle registration are involved in 78% of serious motor vehicle collisions involving injury. So, does that mean that 22% of such collisions involve “unlicensed” drivers…well that really depends on your definition of unlicensed. (I’m going to stick with the 22% number, which is an overestimation, for the moment, because I have no figures with which to separate the “unlicensed” from the “unregistered”).

When the Police talk about “unlicensed drivers” they really mean people who don’t have a valid bit of shiny plastic. Basically it’s an erroneous name for a statistic which includes people who have invalid bits of plastic (eg. those who have been suspended and/or disqualified from driving) and people who have never had a bit of plastic (who, for the sake of convenience, I’m going to refer to as the “never-helds”, an abbreviation of “never held a licence” which is another term which seems to get used). It’s slightly unclear whether these figures include unsupervised learners.

“What’s the problem with grouping all of these people as “unlicensed”…after all, they aren’t insured?” I hear you ask. Quite simply, each category has a very different risk factor:

Suspended drivers are a tad difficult to quantify. In most cases, they’re probably not outright lunatics, a lot of the time they’re probably just people who were over the speed limit a couple too many times when somebody in authority was watching. For every one of these people, there is probably another validly licensed driver who has done the same thing, just without being caught. Sure, there will be some in this category who probably deserve to be off the road for longer than their suspension period, but for most who have been suspended purely on accumulated demerit points, they’re not exactly a high risk, most would probably be about the same risk as validly licensed drivers.

Disqualified drivers are a different story. These tend to be repeat habitual offenders who have been removed from the road and have been disqualified from holding a driver’s licence for very good reasons. This category are almost always a ticking time-bomb and I fully support efforts to keep these people off our roads.

Those categories are very easy to count, and are therefore quite easy to include in accurate statistics. We know how many of them exist, and we can easily work out the “serious collision” rate for these categories of drivers. The other categories aren’t quite as easy.

Unsupervised learners: There are plenty of them. We know how many leaner drivers exist, but we can’t really work out how many of them are unsupervised at any given time, especially seeing as any half-smart unsupervised learner will not be displaying “L” plates. Generally speaking, despite their lack of experience, learners are regarded as the safest category of driver on the road, and considering that learners are generally competent enough to progress to a provisional licence for some time before they actually do progress (you don’t suddenly become competent in the last five minutes of your final assessment or logbook lesson), having a competent learner on the road without supervision isn’t likely to cause a “serious collision”. As far as I’m concerned, this is a fairly low risk category as well, especially when you consider that learners do their learning on public roads, and it’s very rare to hear of a fatal collision involving a learner driver.

Drivers who have never held a licence: A completely unquantifiable category. We know that they exist, because the Police keep telling us that they’ve found some, and I would suggest that we have probably all known at least one. The Police like to make an example of this category when they find them, especially if they’ve been involved in some other traffic incident. “Police catch driver travelling 10km/h over the speed limit” doesn’t make for much of a news story, but “Police catch unlicensed driver at 10km/h over the speed limit” does make for a bit of a story. Ultimately the Police, apart from actually enforcing the law, have the job of making us believe that they are enforcing the law within a three block radius, hence the whole raft of “do this and you will be caught” messages that we receive from them on a regular basis, and it’s much easier to get that sort of message out there with stories about people who are perceived as “doers-of-no-good”, so they run with those stories as much as possible, further cementing the category’s place on the “doers-of-no-good” list.

Anyway, the “never-helds” are impossible to quantify because, by the very nature of the category, there is no list of people in the category, so we can’t say that “90% of people in this category will kill someone if we don’t stop them first” because to say that, we would need to be able to show that, historically, 90% of never-helds end up killing someone. We can’t measure a percentage of an unknown number, so we can’t really say that “never-helds” are more or less likely to kill or injure another road user.

I’d be willing to admit that this category appear in more Police press releases than any other category, but I’ve already explained the reasons for that, and it has nothing to do with the number of incidents involving this category of driver. The interesting thing that we can see about the press releases regarding collisions involving this category of driver, is that, almost without fail, there is another contributing factor, generally alcohol, which basically means that, like every other category of driver, a drunk version of this category is more dangerous than a sober version of this category.

This kind of leads back to my original point. Despite all of the press releases about Police catching people who have never held a licence, they still keep finding them at these “compliance operations”, and they only reason they are finding them is because the number plate recognition software has said “Car is registered to person without licence…check driver”. The people driving in front, behind and next to the unlicensed driver didn’t know that they were unlicensed, which indicates that they were probably driving normally. It is said that a good driver “blends in”, and that’s precisely what most “never-helds” do.

Really, the crime here isn’t that they’re dangerous (which in most cases they’re not), it’s that they haven’t gone through the administrative hoops required in order to make insurance companies cough up in the case of something bad happening. It’s got nothing to do with road safety, and everything to do with paying the government nominal amounts of money for bits of shiny plastic that insurance companies like.

Don’t believe me? Well consider this. The usual fine for a driver who has never held a licence in the ACT is about $400. The fine for an unsupervised learner is about $90. Considering that you can start the day as a “never-held” and end the day as an unsupervised learner, without any noticeable increase in skills or ability, and absolutely no increase in your level of insurability, do you still think that this is about road safety?

If anything, it’s probably about “compliance”. We have rules, therefore they should be followed, and that will make everyone safe. Gee, what was that statistic? 78% of “serious motor vehicle collisions involving injury” involve people who validly licensed drivers…and this year’s road toll is how high? Well, that’s been a roaring success hasn’t it?

I suppose that I have missed one category…the people with expired licences. I think we’ve already disproved the notion that plastic makes you safer, so I probably don’t need to elaborate on this category.

So, what am I getting at with all of this? Am I suggesting that we should abolish licences and have a free-for-all? No, absolutely not. The licensing system is about personal responsibility, it’s a deterrent, a “be responsible or we’ll take this plastic away, and your ability to drive along with it”. The licensing system is not perfect, but it plays an important role in society…it’s a way for us, as a society, to say, “yes, you can drive that particular type of vehicle and we trust you to do so”, and through that, we can put in place a system to deal with problems when they occur.

What I’m getting at here, is that we are constantly being fed some nonsense of a statistic about “never-helds” and unsupervised learners being as dangerous as disqualified drivers, and as a population, accepting it without thinking about it.

As I said earlier, I’m sure that almost all of us have know at least one person who has been driving when they legally should not have been, it’s probably a side-effect of the car becoming such an integral part of modern society, and some of us may have even been there ourselves, I know that I have been. I’m not proud of it, and I was certainly a bit out-of-pocket because of it on a few occasions, but I never hurt anyone, and nobody worked it out (except for one person who guessed after about two hours of guessing why I was feeling too paranoid to leave work) so I must have “blended in”. If I could go back, the only thing I would change is that I would have gotten (what an awful word) my licence a bit sooner than I did.

The bottom line to all of this is that unlicensed drivers generally aren’t as bad as we might like to believe. I don’t condone the behaviour from a legal and administrative perspective, and I regret my part in it, but for the most part, you probably notice them about as much as you notice any validly licensed driver, and no matter how much Police Media may try to mangle the statistics, we’re not all about to die at the hands of unlicensed drivers.

If the statistics say anything useful at all, it’s that the Police aren’t catching enough unlicensed drivers in their general day-to-day duties (which could be construed as a testament to the “blending-in” of these drivers) and as such, their “concerning” catch rate in these operations is too high for their day-to-day statistics to look any good, and as such they’re trying to lower the catch rate by warning us all about the next operation, and effectively telling all the drivers who could be caught to “please avoid this road for a little while”.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that critical thinking should apply to everything that you read, especially that which comes from The Powers That Be. The things which you find between the printed lines can sometimes be quite interesting.


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