Driver's licence laws changed for remote SA communities

A special law has been passed in South Australia to make it easier for residents of remote Aboriginal communities to get drivers licences.  

(Transcript from World News Australia)

A special law has been passed in South Australia to make it easier for residents of remote Aboriginal communities to get drivers licences.

It's hoped the move will boost people's job prospects and reduce fines for unlicensed driving.

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"Which is the correct sign? So we can have a look at some of those. So this one - slow down, there are workmen ahead, so we look at which one would suit. Here? Yeah that would be right."

In the study room of the Fregon TAFE on the APY Aboriginal Lands, 19-year-old Jennica Waye is brushing up on her road rules.

She had little difficulty passing the written test - the bigger challenge was finding licenced drivers to supervise her practical learning.

"I kept telling myself I just have to wait and you'll get it, you'll be there, so I just had to keep all my frustrations in."

To qualify for P plates under current laws, learner drivers need 75 hours of supervised driving alongside a licensed driver.

South Australia's Road Safety Minister Michael O'Brien says less than 20 per cent of people on the APY Lands have licences, compared to more than 90 per cent elsewhere in the state.

"A large number of individuals on the Lands actually drive. There's no shortage of drivers up there, the problem is that they don't have driver's licences."

The reasons for the low rate of licensed drivers are diverse.

There's evidence of people driving for years who never bothered to get licences, others who allowed their license to lapse due to oversight or financial hardship, and some who drive despite losing their license.

TAFE lecturer Hettie Groves is currently offering driver training under the old system, and says the reform will transforms lives, because without a driver's licence it's almost impossible to get employment on the 103,000 square kilometre APY Lands.

"Look, we know that you know how to drive, because you've been driving for years, but we really emphasise that it's really a job skill. And our courses here are based on job skills and employment, so we always say look, if you get your licence you're a lot more likely to get employed. "

However for many, it's just too hard to meet the requirements for tuition, study, testing and practical experience in such a remote region.

Minister O'Brien says this creates a heightened risk of criminalising a large proportion of Aboriginal communities.

"Risk being fined by police for driving unlicensed and unregistered and that then compounds itself because they're unaware of the necessity to pay the fine and then find that they're dragged before the courts."

The legal fraternity saw that something as simple as a driver's license, often taken for granted elsewhere, was proving so problematic in Aboriginal communities that it was reinforcing a cycle of criminalisation and poverty.

It prompted a group headed by Judge Peter McCusker to establish Project Mutuka.

Four years later it's resulted in the new law.

Judge McCusker says drafting the changes was easy; achieving support from bureaucrats and politicians was harder.

"We knocked it out in less than an hour, so that wasn't the problem. It was to get what was really happening on the Lands through to people in Adelaide who didn't understand how it could be so bad, and then to realise what the way ahead was."

Minister O'Brien says the legislation also had to clear racial hurdles.

"We did have to be cognisant of the Racial Discrimination Act, and we had Crown Law look at the Act and they gave us clearance. We also had concerns as to creating a subset - if you like- of driver's licenses, in this case learner's permits, but we felt that the issues on the Lands were of such a magnitude that we would bite the bullet."

The changes mean learners will receive shorter but more intensive tuition, and may be eligible for reduced hours of supervised driving if they're already experienced behind the wheel.

TAFE lecturer Hettie Groves says for many Anangu English is the second or third language, so special effort is needed overcome language barriers.

Ms Groves says the new laws will streamline driver learning, but without compromising and ensure they're no less skilled than other drivers.

"It is one thing to drive out here on the Lands, but it's totally another to have to know the rules down in the city and in Port Augusta with all of the signs and the rules and regulations so that's really one thing we really have to keep reinforcing with adults as well as the students."

Each candidate will need community endorsement to seek an exemption from the minister to reduce their supervised driving from 75 to a lesser amount depending on the candidate's ability and experience.

For would-be legal drivers like Jennica Waye, the changes can't come soon enough.

"It would make it heaps, it would make life heaps easy for all of us, especially younger ones as well."

The laws have passed parliament with bipartisan support, and work is underway developing the new course, to begin midyear.

Meanwhile, Project Mutuka is working on the next stage of its plan, hoping to boost jobs by employing newly licensed drivers to start a local public transport service for the region.

Judge Peter McCusker says the beauty of the changes are that they were developed on the advice of Anangu, the local people - and as a result are more likely to be embraced by them.

"My hope is a very great hope that it'll make things better on the lands. It'll be a game changer. It will improve the standard of living of people in remote communities, but above everything else it will be an example that if we listen to the senior people, the best element, they have the answers to these terrible problems that exist on the Lands. So I guess it's just if we listen to them, they've got the answers."

Source: World News Australia