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ACT way behind NSW on breath testing

Are ACT roads under-policed? Or is it just really, really hard to get information out of a Federal Government agency? ALEX MACLAURIN investigates gaping holes in Canberra’s road safety strategy.

John Anonymous (real name not supplied) is a serial drink driver, but not according to the Australian Capital Territory. His provisional license requires him to maintain a 0.00 blood-alcohol level, however he has admitted to breaching this numerous times, driving home from the local establishment after a few too many beers and putting himself and others in danger.

“I know I’m over the limit,” he said “I know it could be dangerous, but it’s too close for a taxi and too far to walk. . . I know where the RBTs are set up. I just avoid them and I’ve never been caught.”

John is one of a growing minority of young people who are slipping through the cracks of ACTs road policing strategy, drink-driving out of convenience due to the apparent unlikelihood of arrest.

One would think that such a well-planned city as Canberra would have foolproof road safety and anti-drink-driving systems – the limited number of routes between suburbs, numerous pinch-points and high concentration of nightlife hotspots within a confined metropolitan CBD make it an ideal territory for police to establish efficient roadside breath testing strategies.

The high proportion of students and apprentices, and thriving nightclub scene also call for airtight road policing, but the existence of people like John suggests a systemic failure.

To investigate, I began at the ACT Department of Justice and Community Safety. A Freedom of Information request was lodged with the department, asking for access to statistics of roadside breath testing in Canberra.

This seemingly simple request for information that is freely available online for NSW took three weeks to be processed, yet was rejected on the grounds that “…the ACT FOI Act does not apply to records held by the Australian Federal Police because the AFP is a Commonwealth Government Agency, not an agency within the ACT Government. “

A subsequent FOI request was lodged with the information access team of the AFP. After a month of no response and several unreturned phone calls, a final call was made to the AFP’s FOI office, and they confirmed that the request had been processed, but requested more time to gather all the documents. Lacking time due to deadline constraints, I instead decided to inquire into the reasons behind the red-tape barring access to this information.

Dana Nikodijevic, of the AFP information access team, cited Canberra’s small size, coupled with a lack of demand for such information as reasons why it was difficult to obtain the documents;

“We don’t have a system like the NSW [Road Transit Authority],” she said “The statistics aren’t organised by suburb and we don’t publish monthly reports like they do. We just have raw data.”,

An inquiry to the Department of Justice and Community Safety on why they didn’t receive regular reports from the police department as is the case in NSW resulted in Vicki Crispe, the resident FOI Coordinator, pointing to a smaller pool of resources resulting in the lack of information organisation and availability;

“NSW police have over 16,000 officers and dedicated IT employees to update their systems regularly. There are only around 600 officers in Canberra and a much smaller system,” she said. “They don’t have the resources to constantly send us crime statistics.”

Eventually, some documents were received from the AFP – a 95-page comprehensive crime report from 2011 with a tiny spreadsheet at the end containing quarterly RBT results. Some number crunching revealed the possibility of a systemic failure in the ACT road safety system.

For the past five years, RBT statistics have hovered at around 90,000 tests per year, or 26 for every 100 people. When this is compared to suburbs in NSW we see a clear difference – Sydney CBD saw 101,322 RBTs in 2011 or 55 for every 100 people. Newcastle and Albury/Wodonga both had 53 for every 100. The small Sydney beachside suburb of Manly had a whopping 66 RBTs for every 100 people in 2011.

These suburbs see well over twice the number of RBTs than Canberra, and considering the drinking culture of young Canberrans and the fact that almost two percent of the breath tests conducted in ACT in 2011 produced positive results, one cannot help but be concerned about the number of drunk drivers squeezing through the cracks.

As the population of Canberra is increasing at almost 2% per year, this issue may snowball as the roads system comes under increasing pressure. Unless more resources are dedicated to the ACT road safety strategy we could see an increase in fatal accidents involving alcohol.

Both the AFP and Department of Justice and Community Safety declined to comment on the disproportionate number of RBTs conducted in ACT.

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