Let's put brakes on `hoon' drivers



Australia is cracking down on hoons. No, not hons. They come from Baltimore, and they're very sweet. We're talking about hoons. They come from Australia, and they're a menace on the roads.

Hoon is a well-known term in Australia and New Zealand for aggressive, anti-social drivers. The word's derivation is uncertain, but you can think of them as "highway goons" or a cross between hooligans and loons.

Hoons do a lot of rotten things. Earlier this month, under the headline "Hoons Run Riot," the Lake Macquarie News in New South Wales - the Australian state where Sydney is located - described how hoons doing wheelies had torn up the turf at a local athletic field. Last month, the Cairns Post reported that Victoria state police were seeking hoons who chased down kangaroos in their car then jumped out and clubbed three of them to death.

Hoons bad.

Roo-bashing aside, hoon is a great little word - well worth importing from Down Under.

And even more intriguing than the word is the concept behind the recent adoption of what are known as "anti-hoon" laws in some Australian states.

For instance, the state of Victoria - home to the city of Melbourne - adopted an anti-hoon law last year.

Instead of being satisfied with halving their annual highway deaths through previous strict enforcement measures (reported in last week's column), the ruling party in Victoria is aiming to cut that rate even more by going after its hoons with a graduated series of penalties culminating in confiscation of the offender's vehicle.

Here's how it works: The first time a driver is caught committing an offense considered to be "hooning," the person's car is immediately impounded for 48 hours - at the hoon's expense and in addition to any other penalties. For a second hooning offense within three years, the police can ask a magistrate to impound the vehicle for three months.

Three strikes and you're out one vehicle. Take a hike, mate.

Last month, Terrence Lord earned the distinction of becoming the first offender to lose a vehicle by racking up three hooning offenses since the law went into effect last year. His third offense came when he was caught "drink-driving," as the Aussies call it, while on a suspended license.

While the stereotypical hoon is a young person, Lord achieved the pinnacle of hoon-hood at 43. He also got six months in jail.

"Driving while disqualified" is just one of the offenses that can count toward confiscation under Victoria's anti-hoon law. Drag-racing is a hoon offense, as are burning rubber, intentionally skidding or causing excessive noise. And if you're caught going more than 45 kilometers per hour (28 mph) over the speed limit, you're a hoon. (That works out to 83 mph on the Baltimore Beltway.)

As of last month, Victoria police had impounded more than 1,400 cars under the new anti-hoon law. And it wasn't just the hoons who lost their cars. "Teen loses mum's car and wins a date in court" was the headline in a story in the Sunbury/Macedon Ranges Leader about an 18-year-old who was caught doing 125 mph on a local freeway.

That probably led to an interesting parent-child conversation.

South Australia - the state surrounding Adelaide - has an interesting twist on anti-hoon legislation. Instead of keeping seized vehicles in an impound lot, it clamps their wheels in the offender's driveway with the equivalent of a Denver boot. More than 1,300 vehicles have been clamped since the law took effect two years ago.

Anyone who has driven American roads lately can attest that we have no shortage of home-grown hoons. We have SUV hoons barreling down the interstates at 90 mph, tractor-trailer hoons tailgating small cars at 70 mph, motorcycle hoons pulling high-speed wheelies, sports car hoons turning public roads into private NASCAR tracks.

In most cases, when these folks are pulled over by law enforcement, they're simply given a ticket and allowed to drive off.

Maybe we in Maryland can learn something from Australia. Perhaps some of our more out-of-the-box-thinking legislators could introduce a bill based on Australia's hoon laws. It would at least make for an interesting hearing.

Of course, a tough law-and-order approach such as this might not find favor with some of those "speed liberals" who blame traffic accidents on police pulling over offenders. (I'm not making this up. Just last week, there was this wacky guy on the radio whining about how traffic stops cause crashes.)

However, my e-mail from readers suggests these voices from the fringe would be greatly outnumbered by voters who would eagerly embrace a Stop the Hoons movement.

But ours is a compassionate state. It would be a shame to auction off somebody's car and give the poor hoon nothing.

Let's give 'em all transit passes.


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