December 2005 - January 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Wide open road

By Julienne van Loon
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

At 8 o’clock on a Wednesday morning Nathan is driving the Commodore he spent the whole weekend tuning. He’s feeling a little cocky, or maybe just a bit hemmed in, and as the lights turn green he puts one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator, causing the rear wheels to spin and the back of the vehicle to slide a little, releasing a cloud of smoke. It feels good, especially afterwards, when he takes off fast, weaving effortlessly between the lanes. He turns left into Stockdale Road and pulls up in front of a factory. That’s when they close in on him: two cops, ready to impound the Commodore under Section 79 of the Road Traffic Act. “What? Just for a little bit of cheek on the way to work?”

In the 15 months since Western Australia’s “Hoon Legislation” was introduced, police have seized 495 vehicles. That’s more than one a day. A first-time offender like Nathan loses his vehicle for 48 hours. If he’s caught again within a three-year period he faces having his licence suspended and his car impounded for up to three months. A third offence within five years and the vehicle is forfeited, the licence cancelled. The idea, says Inspector Neil Royal of WA police’s Traffic Enforcement Group, is to curb wilfully dangerous driving, illegal drag races and the like. “We look at whether they’re racing with another vehicle and whether there’s aggravation involved – for example, if speed or acceleration, braking or steering are being tested or contested in any way, or if the car’s being driven in a manner that causes smoke to come from one or more of the vehicle’s tyres, or if they’re driving in a manner that causes them to lose traction.”

The best thing about the legislation, some say, is its name. “I don’t know what the word hoon means, actually,” Inspector Royal admits. “I can’t find it in the dictionary. It seems a bit lightweight to me.” The Macquarie Dictionary, directly underneath its entry for the word hooligan, provides the following insight: “hoon noun Colloquial 1. a loutish, aggressive or surly youth. 2. a fast, reckless driver. 3. a foolish or silly person, especially one who is a show-off.”

The reference to “youth” highlights one of the law’s most contentious points. Of the drivers convicted so far, 96% have been male. Half come from the city, half from the country. And their average age is 21. Hoon Legislation, in common with the “Northbridge Curfew” (which bans unsupervised under-16s from Perth’s nightclub district after 10 p.m.) and “Repay WA” (in which graffiti artists pay the bill to have their graffiti cleaned up), seems aimed directly at Perth youngsters. According to Premier Geoff Gallop, now in his fifth year in office, a brighter future is a future completely free of dissenting youth.

Nineteen-year-old Trent, of Palmyra, was convicted of reckless driving within a week of the new law coming in. On his way to pick up a mate, he moved into the right lane to overtake another driver just before a form-one-lane section of road. The other driver sped up. Trent was six days short of his 18th birthday. The detective who witnessed the incident believed that he and the other driver, a 38-year-old mother of four, were drag-racing. Despite Trent’s protestations that he was simply overtaking, he lost his vehicle for 48 hours. When he got to court the magistrate cancelled his provisional licence for six months. “I was an apprentice electrical fitter at the time and it was pretty tough,” he says. “I got a lift with another bloke for three months because there were no buses that early in the morning.” Later, when his lift fell through, Trent drove himself to work regardless. It was ten months before he was legal again.

“When you’re on your P plates and you lose your licence,” he explains, “you have to re-sit the driving test with an instructor. When I went to sit the test, they’d ask me: ‘Have you previously held a licence?’ And I’d say: ‘Yep.’ And after that I failed the test three times in a row. If you fail you’ve got to wait another month. The fourth time I went there they didn’t ask if I’d had a licence before.” Trent passed the fourth test without incident. “Everything is up to the discretion of the police,” he says. “There’s things like ‘excessive acceleration’ – where even though you don’t go over the speed limit, if you excessively accelerate to the speed limit you can get done for that as well.”

Kerry Armstrong, at the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety in Brisbane, has done considerable research into hoon culture. She says the typical hoon is a 16 to 25-year-old male who eventually grows out of hooning. The young drivers Armstrong has interviewed tend to echo Trent’s views: that there’s too much uncertainty about what constitutes illegal behaviour; that too much hinges on the judgment of individual police officers; that drivers with obviously modified cars are targeted more than others.

These complications and uncertainties may yet become even more pronounced. In October the Gallop government announced a list of proposed changes to “strengthen” the existing law. Police officers will no longer need to witness an offence in order to charge a driver; instead they can rely on statements from independent witnesses. Courts will allow photos and video footage from the public to be used as evidence. “It’s going to lead to personal vendettas,” says Trent. Inspector Royal isn’t all that enthusiastic about the proposed changes either. “Oh, there’s no doubt that the potential’s there for someone to victimise somebody. If you take any suburban street, there are young fellows with motorcars. Friends come around visiting and there are parties and noise and loud music. The neighbours get distressed and there’s the potential for them to complain about someone who simply drives away from the area doing whatever.”

So far, only five of the 495 people convicted under WA’s Hoon Legislation have re-offended, a statistic the government sees as proof of its success. Nobody has yet reached three strikes and had to forfeit their vehicle altogether. But it’s early days. For Nathan, Trent and others, Perth’s wide open roads no longer seem quite so wide or open.

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