Aussies face road carnage head-on

GETTING THERE

May 21, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

When you have a really bad problem, and American solutions aren't working, do you consider ones that work but are - shudder - foreign?

For the past two weeks, I've explored some of the approaches Australian states have taken to reduce that country's once-appalling highway death rate. They have included the widespread use of speed cameras, tough drunken driving laws and confiscation of vehicles owned by "hoons," an Australian term for aggressive and antisocial drivers.

Australia must be doing something right. It has brought its traffic fatalities down at a much greater rate than the United States. Victoria, the state whose capital is Melbourne, has cut its fatalities by more than half since the late 1980s.

Some readers would eagerly embrace the tough series of measures adopted in Victoria. Others would rather live with the current butcher's bill - roughly 42,000 lives a year in the United States, including 600-plus in Maryland - than give up what they perceive as their American freedoms.

Debbie Hardy of Conowingo writes that the state and country need to take a serious look at the death rate on our roadways.

"The leading cause of death for our teens isn't suicide or homicide, it's motor vehicle crashes!" she writes. "Why aren't we doing something to save the lives of our children? If they were dying of West Nile or AIDS or anthrax, I guarantee you there would be efforts from all areas of government and society to save our children."

Hardy has ample reason to care passionately about the issue.

"The average citizen doesn't think it will ever happen to them or to their family. I used to be one of those `average' citizens. It was just 3 1/2 years ago when a drunk driver took the life of my 13-year-old daughter, Janet Hardy. She should be graduating high school in June, but I won't see that happen. I have to live with the complacency that society has forced upon my family."

Fred Lancaster of Howard County has a 17-year-old son. Funny how that focuses the mind on safe-driving issues.

"What combination of incentives and disincentives will drive us to consistently making the safe driving choices here in Maryland? I agree, the Aussies are on to something," Lancaster wrote. "That said, just as we lack courage to take on handgun control in order to reduce the price on our society for handgun-user inflicted crime, I submit that we lack the courage to do anything about road safety. My hat is off to you, for having the courage to write your article."

Fred, it has nothing to do with courage and everything to do with fear. I have a 17-year-old son on the road, too. But take hope in this: While guns enjoy an elevated level of constitutional protection - the Second Amendment - vehicles do not. There is no "right to bear car keys."

Larry Schaffer of Phoenix was less than enthusiastic about the Aussie approach: "If I wanted to live in socialist Australia I would move there, but I don't so I live in the United States. It is no wonder readership at The Sun and other liberal papers [is] going down. Try writing and supporting something to the center."

So what is the "center" when it comes to traffic safety? Our weak-kneed, permissive status quo? Our 652 Maryland road deaths last year? As for our staunch ally in the global war on terror, the State of World Liberty Project, a libertarian organization, ranks Australia 13th out of 159 in economic freedom. That's just a few points behind the United States in eighth place, and slightly ahead in individual freedom. And they even speak English - kind of.

David Yandle of Mooresville, N.C., writes that he's been keeping up with the Australian trend of adopting "anti-hoon" laws and considers them "overzealous." He notes, correctly, that in some Australian states, police can consider citizens' reports of bad driver behavior - "dobbing the hoons," as the Aussies say - in deciding whether to impound a vehicle.

"I would hope our USA Constitution would protect us from such an unreasonable search and seizure policy," Yandle writes.

Yandle may be right about seizures based on reports from neighbors, but confiscation does not by itself violate the Fourth Amendment. More than two dozen U.S. states - regrettably not Maryland - allow confiscation of vehicles of repeat drunken drivers. That sounds like a reasonable seizure to me.

(Paris Hilton got a little constitutional law lesson this year when the $190,000 Bentley she was driving with a suspended license was impounded for 30 days under California law.)

Now, if state legislatures can permit confiscation of cars for repeated drunken driving, why couldn't they do the same for repeated instances of extreme speeding or street racing? Maybe some activist judge would disagree, but such a penalty seems equally reasonable provided there is an opportunity for the accused hoon to have a day in court.

Lawyers, submit your briefs.

Finally, Peter Samuel, the Frederick-based editor of the online Toll Road News and a former resident of Victoria, talked with the officer in charge of that state's safety program. Samuel suggested some prudent steps officials might take before implementing such a program.

"The cop in charge told me to gain support for camera-based speed enforcement, it was crucial to do a comprehensive survey of posted speeds. They raised many posted speeds, lowered a few and kept some," Samuel writes. "Only then, when there was reasonable agreement that posted speeds were right, could they get public support for draconian enforcement."

Sounds fair. Where posted speeds are too low, they should be raised. Then enforced - with cameras. For reasons to be explained in a future column, toll facilities would be a great place to start.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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