Driving when unlicensed

Recommendation 12–3            State and territory governments should work with relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and community organisations to identify areas without services relevant to driver licensing and to provide those services, particularly in regional and remote communities.

12.130       A person who is convicted of driving when unlicensed is likely to enter the fine enforcement system and may also have their licence disqualified, preventing them from becoming licensed in the near future. Persistent driving while unlicensed can result in a term of imprisonment.

12.131       Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can face particular obstacles to getting a driver licence. These include: limited access to registered vehicles and licensed drivers to supervise learners; the number of learner hours required to become licensed; difficulty in obtaining identity documentation (such as birth certificates);[217] financial constraints; and language or literacy issues and corresponding difficulty passing written tests.[218] The circumstances of some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been said to equate to an ‘endemic lack of licensing access for Aboriginal people’.[219]

12.132       The ACT Government submitted:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience significant barriers to obtaining and sustaining a licence relating to low level literacy, low income, challenges navigating a mainstream system and limited access to both licensed drivers and registered vehicles for supervised practice. What starts as a social justice issue often becomes a criminal justice issue.[220]

12.133       Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who live in regional and remote areas are likely to experience ‘transport disadvantage’,[221] that is, to live remotely without access to public transport. Austroads submitted that 87% of people in regional and remote areas travelled to work in a privately owned car.[222] In 2013, fewer than half of all eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people held a driver licence compared with 70% of the non-Indigenous population.[223] As observed by ALSWA:[224]

The nature of living in a remote area means that people have a very real need to drive. It is impossible to compare driving in the city or a large town to driving in the regional and remote parts of Western Australia; the vast distances, harsh environment and lack of public transport means people must drive whether or not they hold a valid licence.[225]

12.134       ALSWA also noted that cultural requirements for law business, funerals, hunting and visiting family, as well as being obliged to follow Elders, can also result in unlicensed driving.[226]

12.135       The NSW Bar Association noted that driving offences that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living remotely ‘demonstrate how metropolitan laws may operate unjustly in remote areas. Often Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities have longer distances to travel, minimal access to public transport and face administrative and financial obstacles to obtaining a driving licence’.[227]

12.136       Driving unlicensed can have dire consequences. The NSW Council of Social Service observed:

The consequences of driving without a licence can be serious and significant for Aboriginal people and the communities in which they live. Not being able to drive can mean not being able to access vital services, such as receiving medical treatment. Being caught driving without a licence can exacerbate financial hardship and result in loss of employment and potential imprisonment.[228]

Impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

12.137       The NSW Aboriginal Legal Services reported that, in 2010, of people charged with driving unlicensed in NSW, 21% were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[229] BOCSAR data shows that in 2016, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constituted 31% of all people imprisoned for driving while suspended or disqualified.[230] This is similar in other states and territories, and is particularly high in the NT.[231]

12.138       Nationally, 3% (270) of the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison population in 2016 were imprisoned for traffic and vehicle regulatory offences (TVRO). This proportion was similar in the non-Indigenous prison population, at 2% (556).[232] However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are over-represented in this prison population, constituting 33% of all prisoners imprisoned with traffic and vehicle regulatory offences nationally—and 100% in the NT.[233]

Table 12.2: Number and percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners convicted of traffic and vehicle regulatory offences (TVRO) by state and territory (Dec 2016)










Number of prisoners convicted of TVRO









Percentage ofall prisoners convicted of TVRO who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples









Percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners convicted of TVRO









Source:Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia 2016, Cat No 4517.0 (2016) table 15.

12.139       TVRO include: driver licence offences; vehicle registration and roadworthiness offences; regulatory driving offences (such as speeding and parking offences); and pedestrian offences. They exclude: dangerous or negligent driving (including driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and culpable driving); actually or potentially causing an injury; motor vehicle theft; and fraud related to motor vehicles.[234]

12.140       ‘Driver licence offences’ include ‘drive while licence suspended or disqualified’, ‘drive without licence’ (where licence expired or unlicensed driving), and other driver licence offences including ‘drive contrary to conditions of a restricted licence’ and ‘fail to produce licence on demand’.[235]

12.141       Stock prisoner figures are taken from census data. These data may hide the actual number of people—especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—that driver licence offending affects. As discussed in Chapter 3, Prisoner census data limits our understanding of flow—the number of people imprisoned on short sentences which flow through the system over the period of a month, or six months or a year.[236] Austroads noted:

Traffic related offences, including the direct and indirect impact of imprisonment for unpaid fines, are often identified as a small component of the cause of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration. This is a contested issue in the literature … Nonetheless, the broader consequences of the disconnection and inequality resulting from reduced mobility are significant contributors to the underlying drivers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates.[237]

The provision of driver licence programs and services

12.142       Most jurisdictions require that for a person to attain a provisional driver licence, they must: complete a computer based testing procedure to attain a learner driver licence; complete minimum time period on that licence whereby the person completes a minimum number of supervised driving hours; and pass a driving test. These requirements have been described as ‘frequently insurmountable’[238] that ‘inadvertently disadvantage’ vulnerable groups in accessing a licence.[239]

12.143       Driving in the bush is often viewed differently to driving in urban areas. In some communities, bush driving without a driver licence is intergenerational and normalised.[240] In 2009, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) suggested that community members in the NT should be able to drive unlicensed or in unregistered cars within communities and on Aboriginal land on bush tracks, especially for hunting purposes.[241]

12.144       There has been support for the introduction of driver permit schemes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in some regional and remote areas. For example, in 2010, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs recommended the introduction of ‘special remote area’ driver licences.[242] The recommendation was supported in a 2012 report to the NT Government, which suggested that the reform be ‘carefully studied’ as a way to increase employment opportunities for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[243]

12.145       Some stakeholders to this Inquiry supported the introduction of regional driver permits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities.[244] The ALSWA, for example, submitted that a reduced driver permit should provide for a reduced number of hours and learner and probationary periods. It should require fewer identity documents, with drivers having to undergo a modified test more relevant to country driving. Low income earners should access it on a reduced fee basis. ALSWA also submitted that a regional driver permit could relate to a person’s community, relevant native title determination or regional boundaries, with an option to expand the permit after a certain period without any traffic convictions.[245]

12.146       Kimberly Community Legal Services did not support the design and implementation of a regional driver licence scheme, advising that it would ‘create a more confusing and elaborate process of licensing than already exists’. It suggested instead that further consideration needs to be given to decreasing costs associated with licensing.[246] The Legal Services Commission of SA advocated a ‘return to the previous model of a single, practical driving test conducted by local police’ for Aboriginal people living remotely.[247]

12.147       The NSW Government submission advised the ALRC of the Restricted Provisional P1 Licence (RP1), available in certain regional and remote areas. The RP1 requires fewer hours of on-road driving experience (50 compared with 120 hours). The licence permits drivers to drive for work, education or medical purposes only. Take up of the RP1 has been low, and research has suggested that system barriers such as literacy; access to proof of identity documents, vehicles, petrol, and supervised drivers; and unpaid fines are still preventing young people in these regional areas from achieving 50 hours of supervised driving. While the RP1 is still available in NSW, [248] focus has relocated to addressing barriers through the Driver Licensing Access Program and Safer Driver Court Disadvantaged Learner Initiative (see below).[249]

Driver licence programs and services

12.148       The ALRC is not opposed to these and the other options discussed above. There is value in local solutions developed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Nonetheless, the ALRC recommends that state and territory governments work with relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to identify gaps in servicing to remove the obstacles to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples getting fully licensed. VALS/IWG stated that, in regards to driver licences, the ‘priority should be investing in significant additional resources to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in regional locations have better opportunities from a young age to obtain and keep a full drivers licence as opposed to a limited regional driver permit’.[250]

12.149       This is not a new proposal. The RCIADIC recommended that, in jurisdictions where motor vehicle offences are a significant cause of Aboriginal imprisonment, these causal factors should be identified and, in conjunction with Aboriginal community organisations, programs should be designed to reduce the incidence of offending.[251]

12.150       There are some driver licence schemes already operating, such as the Aboriginal Justice Project in WA, which provides travelling services to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to pay fines, access birth certificates and apply for or reinstitute their driver licence. To this end, representatives from the Department of Transport, Centrelink, Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Fine Enforcement Registry, and the Aboriginal Justice Program attend ‘open days’ in identified priority locations.

12.151       In 2015–16 the Aboriginal Justice Project reported that it had:

  • conducted 73 open days, which 2,751 people attended;

  • converted over $300,000 worth of fines to time-to-pay schemes or stayed the fine;

  • provided for 33 people to enter time-to-pay schemes;

  • lifted 684 licence suspensions caused by fine default;

  • enabled 900 people to apply for a birth certificate; and

  • conducted 146 practical driving assessments and over 200 theory tests.

12.152       WA also has the Royalty for Regions program, which provides enhanced driver training and education in regional and remote communities;[252] the Remote Areas Licensing Program run by Department of Transport; and a community owned driving school in Roebourne (the Red Dirt Driving Academy), which also provides assistance with getting identification. There are also other community-led[253] and NGO programs available throughout WA, such as those provided in the Kimberley by Life without Barriers.[254]

12.153       The NT Government developed DriveSafe NT Remote, which provides free licensing services to Aboriginal clients in remote NT communities. It uses

verbal assessment methodology and unique educational resources to recognise the environmental and cultural attributes of Aboriginal learning styles and linguistically diverse population groups, many with low levels of English literacy with online versions available in English and three Aboriginal languages (Warlpiri, Yolgnu Matha and Kriol). In addition, driver education and licensing services are delivered in remote high schools and correctional institutions (prisons and work camps) through the Departments of Educational and Correctional Services.[255]

12.154       The program has provided for an increase in driver licensing rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in the NT.[256] The NT Government submitted that, since the program’s inception in 2012, it has delivered 4,671 learner licences, 1,713 provisional licences, and issued over 1,500 birth certificates, describing the program as a ‘sustainable solution to the complex, multi-causal and interdependent barriers to getting a driver licence for clients who reside in remote and regional areas of the NT’.[257] A program evaluation published in 2017 concluded that the program offered flexible delivery and community engagement and had filled a need within communities.[258]

12.155       There are similar driver licence programs in NSW, including Driving Change; and the Balunda-a program (for offenders). Birrang Enterprises provides community-led literacy and training to adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[259] Programs also facilitate payment of fine default. An evaluation of the initial three pilot sites[260] forDriving Changewas published in 2016.[261] This evaluation found that the program increased access to driver licences for young Aboriginal people and delivered a ‘sufficiently flexible’ program that was able to respond to ‘community and client identified need’. It reported that 22% of people who participated in the program sought help for fine and debt management, and 22% had sanctions lifted.[262] The program is to expand into a further nine communities in NSW.[263]

12.156       Driver training is also a key element of the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Program in Bourke, NSW. In 2013, Bourke was identified to have the highest number of driver licences offences in the state. In response, the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project developed the driver licensing program, which commenced in late 2015. Under the project, a person can either volunteer, or be referred by police (as a diversion strategy) to take part in the program. The program provides:

  • access to registered cars, driver mentors and associated costs;

  • removal of barriers to identity documents;

  • case management of the services required by the individual; and

  • the opportunity to obtain a Certificate 1 in Automotive Mechanics.

12.157       From December 2015–September 2016, 58 licences were obtained; two people required assistance gaining documentation; and 53 required assistance with SDR, WDOs or Centrepay. Four people had secured employment due to having a driver licence. Similar statistics were provided by Just Reinvest NSW from October 2016 to June 2017.[264]

12.158       The NSW Government submission also outlined the Driver Licensing Access Program, which provides culturally appropriate support services including literacy, numeracy and computer skills, access to roadworthy vehicles, debt negotiation and management and learner driver mentoring and supervision.[265] The NSW Government submission further informed the ALRC of the Driving and Licences Offences Project, which provides support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples appearing in court for driving or licensing offences in some regional and remote local courts. Through this project, driving offenders can be referred to services such as Births Deaths and Marriages for identification, SDR to put in place time-to-pay plans or referrals to WDOs to reduce fines and retain or regain licences.[266]

12.159       Similar programs are run in other jurisdictions. The Queensland Department of Transport and Mains Road Indigenous Driver Licensing Unit operate the Indigenous Driver Licensing Program, which provides licensing services to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Far North Queensland.[267] Victoria has a Learner to Permit program, which is reportedly used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.[268] The SA Government runs the ‘On the Right Track Remote’ driver licensing service. Under this program, some clients can be exempted from some aspects of the Graduated Licensing Scheme, specifically the number of hours of supervised driving and the length of time required on a learner permit.[269] A program for a driver licensing pilot for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT is under development.[270] These types of programs were supported by stakeholders.[271]

12.160       The NSW Auditor-General’s 2013 report, Improving Legal and Safe Driving among Aboriginal People, outlined characteristics of successful driver licence programs. These included using and building on community capacity; having program champions; and involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in program development and delivery.[272] In their submission to this Inquiry, Austroads advised the ALRC of its project, ‘Improving Driver Licensing Programs for Indigenous Road Users and Transitioning Learnings to Other User Groups’. The project aims to provide national policy principles to guide further Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program development; provide service-level solutions to licence barriers; and better link data sources and information sharing. The project is scheduled for completion in August 2018.[273]

12.161       Driving programs are necessarily limited by resources and geography. Other issues include the small scale and short lifespan of most programs; the practical constraints of insurance cover; volunteer driver reimbursements; and lack of ownership, funding and evaluations.[274] Driver licence programs require coordination between different government departments, such as Births, Deaths and Marriages, Attorneys-General, and Roads and Maritime Services. This happened under the Aboriginal Justice Program in WA, but lack of coordination can be a problem in other states and territories. The NSW Auditor-General identified coordination as a key gap in the steady provision of driving programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in NSW.[275]

12.162       ALSWA suggested that, to improve the delivery of driver licence programs to regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, an increase in the frequency and geographic scope of current programs in WA was needed. It also suggested that school driver licence programs be run in all regional schools; that regional and remote communities receive reduced fees for all government resources and services related to driving tests for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that the services produce culturally appropriate material; and that government uncouple the Department of Transport offices from law enforcement facilities, and employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. [276]

12.163       Incorporating driver programs into the school curriculum was supported. Mission Australia advised that, in Victoria, this was provided by Changing Gears and Ignition programs in remote area schools.[277] In WA, the Department of Transport had partnered with schools to implement programs to assist students to obtain their learner permit and progress to a provisional driver licence.[278]

12.164       It was also suggested that school-age children receive information on getting a licence, and the consequences of driving without one.[279]

12.165       Other suggestions have included:

  • the expansion and better use of WDOs and legal solutions, such as court diversion programs to attain a driver licence;[280] and

  • requiring people who are detected driving while unlicensed to undergo training (including through alternative methods of testing competency which may not rely on literacy) for a licence rather than facing mandatory disqualification from becoming licensed.[281]

12.166       Under-licensing can result in serious consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who choose, or need, to drive unlicensed. While work has been done to improve access to driver licences, there remains an imperative for state and territory governments to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to enhance and commit to current and new government driver education programs.[282]