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Beating the hoons and saving lives

By Bernie Masters - posted Wednesday, 5 January 2005

We can significantly reduce the death toll of young people on our roads. But are government policy makers prepared to make what may be tough and unpopular decisions?

At first glance, a connection between New York’s Broken Windows anti-crime policy and the death of young people on our roads seems remote. But they are connected. Consider what happened in New York.

In the early 1990s, city administrators decided they wanted to get tough on crime. They chose not to focus on the big-ticket items that would generate headlines. Instead, they resolved to change the mental attitude of criminals with a simple message: No matter how minor the crime, the police were now out to get you.


A good example is what happened to fare evaders on the underground train system. After years of doing nothing about the problem, transit police began arresting offenders, lining groups of them up in public view in the train stations, before doing the paperwork. At the same time, city police stood by to assist and found that one in seven fare evaders was wanted by the police for other reasons.

Very quickly, the message got around that you don’t try to evade fares on the New York underground.

As explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, even the smallest anti-social act in New York was to be considered unacceptable and, if caught, the full force of the law would be applied. The result was that criminals, who are as perceptive and human as most other people, realised that here was a community that was going to get tough on crime, so it made sense not to undertake criminal activity.

Western Australia must adopt a similar policy in relation to young people driving on our roads if we are to stop them killing and injuring themselves in motor vehicle accidents.

In parliament, I have argued that we have done most of the obvious things needed to make our roads safer for all who use them. Motor vehicle designs are much improved, safety belts are compulsory, riding in the back of utilities is banned, blood alcohol levels must be below certain levels, driver education is much improved and so on.

But deaths and injuries continue to occur on our roads at an unacceptable rate, especially for people under the age of 25. Why is it that, in 2001, 57 of 165 fatalities on our roads involved 17 to 24 year olds?


I believe that we haven’t yet properly understood the psychology - the thought processes - of young people. Most serious traffic accidents now involve spur of the moment decisions by drivers who decide to do something stupid: drive fast to impress the girl friend; ignore the signs of drowsiness; show off to your mates; and so on. Some people would believe that these stupid acts are taken without the driver thinking about them, but that doesn’t make sense. All decisions to drive fast or recklessly require even a micro-second of thinking by the person involved.

So one thing is lacking. We haven’t yet got the message burnt into these young people’s brains that any mistake while driving, no matter how minor they might think it is, can result in a serious traffic accident.

So now the question becomes: how do we get every young driver to carry the thought in their minds that we’re out to get them if they do anything stupid. As a community, we have to say to every young driver that any infringement of the traffic laws is totally unacceptable and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Just as New Yorkers said they wouldn’t accept even one broken window, so we have to say that we won’t accept even one minor traffic infringement from young drivers.

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First published in the Sunday Times on October 24, 2004.

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About the Author

Bernie Masters was the Liberal MP for Vasse from 1996 to 2005 and the shadow minister for science and the environment from 2001 to 2004.

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