Skip to main content

On Monday 22 May, our CEO, Tracy Howe, gave evidence at the Staysafe (Joint Standing Committee on Road Safety) Inquiry where she addressed committee members and answered their questions around our submission. We focused on supporting the needs of Aboriginal people and communities to obtain driver training and highlighting the range of issues they face in successfully fulfilling the requirements to obtain and retain a driver's licence. We gave evidence along with representatives from Aboriginal Legal Service, the Law Society and Literacy for Life Foundation.

The Staysafe Committee monitors, investigates and reports on road safety in NSW. As part of its role, the Committee looks at ways to reduce deaths and injuries, as well as the social and economic costs to the community of road accidents.

NCOSS's submission highlights the impact of unlicensed driving on Aboriginal people and communities, drawing attention to some important facts:

  • One in 20 Aboriginal people in prison in NSW are there because of unlicensed driving [1]. The head of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has said this offence is now responsible for the rise of Aboriginal incarcerations in this state. 
  • An Aboriginal person caught driving without a licence is twice as likely to go to prison as a non-Aboriginal person (see table below). 


                                   ABORIGINAL                                                      NON-ABORIGINAL

Year# of licence offences# in
%# of licence offences# in
20111,849    21111.4%15,451698 4.5%
20122,011    21110.4% 14,1886944.8%
20131,939    157 8.1%13,9845654%
20142,186    1747.9%14,370580 4%
20152,136    191 8.9%14,8227465%
Average2,024     1899.3%14,5626564.5%

These are worrying statistics. It speaks volumes about what we as a society are doing to close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It seems once again we are unable to design systems that ensure equal treatment and which don’t unduly punish the most vulnerable.

We told the committee that some Aboriginal people drive unlicensed out of necessity. Many live in remote areas where the only way to get about is by car - if you have access to a car and need to drive to buy food, visit a doctor and so on, then you have no choice but to take the risk. Some drive unlicensed without knowing. For instance, if they have unpaid parking fines which might result in a person’s driver's licence being cancelled. Technically (and legally), this constitutes unlicensed driving, but if a person gets caught it can then result in a hefty fine and lengthy licence disqualification periods. And this is when things can start to spiral downwards. It can wreak havoc on the person who risks going to prison, and it can also affect the viability of the community.

Unlicensed driving is a complex issue, we acknowledge that. But Aboriginal people are up against it when trying to access the licensing system because there are simply too many barriers for them to engage with it equitably. For starters, if you’re a young and novice driver (under 25 years of age) you have to complete 120 hours of supervised driving. That’s hard in places where there are few mentors who have the time to supervise. Driving lessons, which can reduce the number of hours slightly, are expensive and not an option for many. Then there’s the challenge of proving your identity and we are increasingly being told how difficult it is for Aboriginal people to get a birth certificate. It’s not just the cost of the certificate; it’s getting the necessary documents together to satisfy the requirements of applying for one.

We can’t underestimate the importance of a driver's licence, particularly for Aboriginal people living in rural and remote areas where public transport is either limited or non-existent. A driver's licence can mean the difference between having a job or being unemployed. It can mean the difference between seeing a doctor or missing the appointment. It can mean the difference between being part of the community or being isolated. It is an economic and social enabler and should be treated like a qualification.

Perhaps the prevailing concern in relation to unlicensed driving among Aboriginal people is the extent to which this behaviour is criminalised. As noted, Aboriginal people represent one in four people sent to jail for unlicensed driving and have an incarceration rate twice that of non-Aboriginal people. Arguably, the offence of driving without a licence is relatively minor and the appropriateness of criminal charges against people for unlicensed driving is questionable given the degree of criminality involved.

What can be done to fix the problem?

In recent times, NCOSS has advocated for the NSW Government to invest in the implementation of a program designed to address the very problem highlighted in the article and in our research. Called Driving Change, the program was developed by the George Institute of Global Health with the aim of helping young Aboriginal people get their driver's licence. It is an ‘end to end’ program that provides participants with information and advice on how to navigate the licensing system, assistance with completing forms and obtaining essential documentation (e.g. birth certificate), and help with supervised driving. The program has helped some 400 people obtain their licence since it began in 2012. Once fully operational the program could potentially form part of existing diversionary programs designed to address contact and progression through the criminal justice system. We estimate this investment to be approximately $2 million, and from a justice reinvestment perspective, this is a small amount of money to invest considering the social and economic costs associated with imprisonment.

Tell us your thoughts!

If you've had experience with the problem of unlicensed driving, please let us know as we’d like to hear stories from people directly affected by this issue.

[1] NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2015, Crime Statistics