Selected offences detected by Victorian Police in Operation Raid, Nov-Dec 2014

Victoria Police released information last week on the number of traffic offences detected in the first 24 days of this summer’s annual road safety blitz.

There’re the customary offences like speeding and drink driving that the mainstream media like to highlight (see here and here), but what shocks me is the number of drivers who were driving unregistered vehicles (and/or were disqualified from driving or had a suspended licence).

Driving an unregistered vehicle was the second most common offence after speeding. There were three times as many unregistered vehicles on the road as there were drink drivers.

A qualification. It can’t be assumed that these numbers are an entirely accurate reflection of the scale of this offence across the state. For one thing, the sort of driver who’s prepared to take to the road in an unregistered vehicle might also be the sort of risk-taker who’s over-represented among speedsters. (1)

Even so, an average of 162 offences per day suggests the number of unregistered vehicles in active use across the state could be a very large number. It’s likely to be a national issue with hundreds of thousands of unregistered vehicles being driven regularly.

A key problem is that these drivers are using the roads without paying their way; they’re freeloading. They’re also harder for Police to collar if they commit other offences like running red lights.

If they have a minor collision with another vehicle it may be difficult for the other driver, or her insurance company, to pursue any claim. This cost is passed on in higher premiums.

There’s also evidence that unregistered vehicles aren’t as safe on average as registered vehicles. Moreover, the NSW Department of Roads & Maritime says unregistered vehicles aren’t likely to be covered by compulsory third party insurance:

If you have an at-fault accident while driving an unregistered vehicle, you could be held personally liable for compensation to any person injured.

There’s a number of likely explanations for the large number of unregistered vehicles. Some motorists, like Victoria’s former Police Commissioner, simply overlook renewing their rego; they’re not deliberately avoiding their legal obligation.

It’s likely though that there’s another group of drivers for whom (a) the chances of detection and the likely penalty are sufficiently low relative to (b) the magnitude of the benefits of driving, that it’s a risk well worth taking.

That could be compounded by factors like the high and lumpy cost of registration for those on low to average incomes; the financial and time cost of associated compulsory roadworthiness checks (e.g. in NSW); and the perception that alternative ways of travelling are too expensive (e.g. taxi) or simply aren’t good enough (e.g. public transport).

Compliance by “forgetful drivers” might be improved if responsible agencies gave drivers stronger signals that their registration is due or made better payment options available e.g. automatic deductions, discounts for early payment; monthly or quarterly payment option. NSW might review its burdensome annual inspection process to see if the benefits really are worth the costs.

Stronger enforcement seems the obvious way to tackle recalcitrant drivers (i.e. increasing the odds of getting caught), but it’s expensive and the law of diminishing returns applies. An alternative option could be a national initiative that abolishes fixed fees in favour of collecting registration/insurance revenue via a surcharge on the price of petrol.

This approach would have a number of advantages. It would be virtually impossible to avoid; it does away with lumpy annual or periodic payments; and it would provide a much more accurate connection between road use and charges than the simple weight/engine size formulae used by the States and Territories at present.

It’s arguable if addressing the issue of unregistered vehicles provides sufficient warrant by itself for such a radical change, but another compelling reason is that it would act as a de facto carbon tax with the broad suite of benefits that implies. (2)

Vehicles would still need to be registered for identification purposes, but the associated tax and insurance costs would be “invisible” and hence not a deterrent. (3)

I like this approach because it opens the door for other lumpy costs – like comprehensive insurance – to eventually be charged in accordance with the level of road use. It contributes to motorists getting a better appreciation of what each trip really costs them. (4)

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  1. While I assume most drivers are pulled over as the result of speed cameras (a relatively objective method), there’s lots of other things we don’t know, like whether there’s a geographic bias in the location of cameras (the type of offences likely differ between Toorak and Noble Park) or a temporal one (similarly, the type of offence might vary by the time of day). It’s also possible that in some situations Police select (“pull over, driver”) the sorts of cars that’re more likely to be unregistered e.g. old vehicles or ones that look “hotted up”.
  2. It would deter the use of cars for low value trips and hence reduce negative externalities like pollution, emissions, accidents and noise (although it would have little impact on congestion)
  3. There’d be downsides too, like less flexibility for each State to set its own scale of charges; the political difficulties associated with anything to do with petrol; owners of gas guzzlers would resent having to pay more, and so might outer suburban residents (who typically drive a lot).
  4. To clarify, I’m not suggesting comprehensive insurance premiums could also be recouped via a surcharge on petrol; they couldn’t because they’re tailored to individual risks. But there’s scope for company’s to link premiums to the level of road use (i.e. kilometres travelled) of an individual vehicle through the use of technology like transponders.