After nearly a month of working in the Northern Tablelands I hired a car to drive out and see the Wollomombi Falls, a plunge waterfall about an hour away from town. The region presents its residents with a tight-knit sense of community, partially enforced by sheer isolation: the roads, which provide entry and exit into town, stretch deep into the bush. Driving down Waterfall Way you are instantly struck by the canvas of regional Australia: the uneven palette of greens and browns, the broad slopes and the shallow rivers. But there is also a sense of alienation that accompanies the long, open road. And out here, the thing that separates autonomy from abandonment is a licence and a car.
Earlier this month, Lismore Magistrate David Heilpern made headlines after acquitting a man, who was caught ‘drug driving’ nine days after smoking a joint. The case highlights the precarity of criminal justice responses to traffic offences in regional and rural areas.
Section 111 of the New South Wales Road Transport Act 2013 prohibits a person from driving a motor vehicle if cannabis, speed or ecstasy is ‘present’ in their oral fluid, blood or urine. Law enforcement, as NSW Greens’ Justice Spokesman David Shoebridge points out, does not currently test for cocaine – an omission, he says, which would otherwise whip up ‘a lot of grief in the Liberal heartland of the eastern and northern suburbs of Sydney.’
Law enforcement is carefully withdrawn about how much of a prohibited substance must be found to trigger a prosecution. The strength of mobile testing equipment is similarly kept under wraps. The Transport for NSW website states that cannabis can ‘typically be detected in a person’s saliva . . . for up to 12 hours after use.’ ABC Radio National’s Damien Carrick reported the word ‘typically’ had been added in shortly after the Magistrate Heilpern’s decision.
The provision does not turn on the offender’s competency or capacity to drive. Accordingly, the law’s wording and its enforcement has resulted in bizarre and unanticipated outcomes. Out here, I’ve seen drivers hauled before the court up to a week after smoking cannabis.
The state’s punitive drug driving laws expose a deep problem of criminal justice in the bush. According to a NSW government submission to the Inquiry into Licence Disqualification Reform, about one in five licence suspensions in regional areas were a result of court disqualifications (compared to 6.3 per cent of licence suspensions in metropolitan areas).
Losing one’s licence is an economic and social catastrophe for those living in regional Australia. Those caught under the NSW’s drug driving laws face an automatic disqualification period of six months. In special circumstances, for example where the offender requires their licence to care for an elderly family member or commute to and from work, the court has discretion to suspend their licence for three months. However, with public transport practically non-existent in regional and rural areas, the lives of those who reside or work away from town often fold inwards immediately.
The vicissitudes of life continue over the twelve to twenty-four weeks spent in limbo. I once witnessed a serial traffic offender, who was plodding through a thirty-year licence suspension, come before the magistrate for driving while disqualified. Despite a complete absence of alcohol or drugs in their system, and without any complaints against them for nearly a decade, the person was sentenced to six months in jail for driving while disqualified. They had taken to the road to fetch groceries for a distressed former partner.
This might seem like the pointy end of the stick, but in the bush, licence disqualification is effectively consigning a person to push a boulder up a very steep hill for a very long time.
In 2010, a submission on behalf of communities in the Tabulam area, a rural village with a large Indigenous population in the far north-east of NSW, described the situation like this:
Additional lengthy disqualification periods are also considered a veritable death sentence for many people in relation to their licences and economic and social prospects… For example, not having a driving licence creates a substantial barrier against members of this remote community obtaining and retaining employment, seeking medical attention or simply having access to fresh fruit and vegetables and cheaper food to improve their general health and wellbeing.
The current state of drug driving laws reflects the worst of broken windows policing. Undoubtedly, substance abuse and roadside fatalities are important issues in country towns. Grave anecdotes seem to follow whenever either is mentioned, particularly in small towns, where everybody knows everybody. Of course, law reform is not the sole antidote. The problems facing regional Australia – deficient public transport, insufficient or inappropriate drug rehabilitation services and stagnant or scarce employment opportunities – must also be addressed. However, as it currently stands, the harsh medicine of criminal justice is reductive and reactionary.