Driving In The NT

Following the Intervention, police were under pressure to make more prosecutions, and targeting driving offences needed minimal investigation and reliance on witnesses. Overall, offending charges increased by 250 per cent between 2002–06 and 2006–10.

In 2006 the Howard government’s highly publicised denunciation of the alleged moral backwardness of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory led to a dramatic increase in police presence and infrastructure.

Six years on, the program to improve and ‘stabilise’ communities is under review and a detailed report, commissioned by the Criminology Research Council, has just appeared. Addressing the ‘Crime Problem’ of the Northern Territory Intervention: Alternate Paths to Regulate Minor Driving Offences in Remote Indigenous Communities is a meticulous piece of research, revealing the surprising data that over this period sexual abuse incidents remained fairly steady while car-related infringements soared. It explores this post-Intervention leap in driving misdemeanours of various kinds, following a $130 million investment for ‘law and order strategies’, with $40 million alone for new police stations.


A major objective of the ninety-page document has been to explore ways to increase numbers of licensed drivers and registered vehicles, to lower incarceration rates and deaths in jail, reduce court loads and prison numbers, and break the criminal cycle which can begin with the collection of a minor driving offence.

It is a riveting read, albeit focused primarily on the potentially less than enthralling area of road law and its infringements. With illuminating references to Indigenous perspectives regarding the car and its social and cultural role, the report clarifies Indigenous communities’ misunderstanding of driver and vehicle offences, with appendices describing interviews with Warlpiri elders, driving offenders and police and support staff working in remote communities.


The authors bring to the study substantial credentials and experience. Harry Blagg is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Plymouth and Thalia Anthony is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Technology, Sydney. Blagg’s Crime, Aboriginality and the Decolonisation of Justice was published by Hawkins Press (2008) while Anthony has written widely in the area of Indigenous people and the law, especially in relation to the criminal justice system, civil remedies and legal history.

What becomes clear is that the two systems of law operating in Central Australia compound the problem of road rules and lead to the subsequent criminalisation of Indigenous people who may have limited understanding of, and therefore interest in, the process of meeting regulatory driving requirements. Without a redirection of investment into road safety measures (from road improvement to better access to services), law enforcement measures do not appear to be effective in helping lawful drivers and preventing misdemeanours. As the authors point out, more driver training is needed to avoid the fines that frequently lead to cancellation of a licence, and surprisingly often to imprisonment.

The research frame for the report was designed as a qualitative analysis of Indigenous perceptions of unlawful driving and agency responses, while quantitatively providing an overview of the increase in driver offending and high levels of road fatalities and injuries, despite higher levels of policing and governance. Much of the investigative work took place in the Warlpiri communities of Lajamanu and Yuendumu.

The study attempts to ascertain alternative forms of driver safety and considers solutions to the obstruction of good relations between police and Indigenous people, in part a result of the higher turnover of officers since 2006. And the report notes there is ‘scant evidence’ that this surveillance has been accompanied by educational or administrative initiatives to help communities understand the newly enforced rules of the criminal law system.

Following the Intervention, police were under pressure to make more prosecutions, and targeting driving offences needed minimal investigation and reliance on witnesses. Overall, offending charges increased by 250 per cent between 2002–06 and 2006–10, with a 50 per cent and 65 per cent lift in Yuendumu and Lajamanu respectively. Harry Blagg visited Yuendumu in 2007 and 2008 to find a fourfold increase in court lists, most involving minor driving offences. Total driving offences in 2009–10 were 28,604 as against 355 total sexual offences over the same period.

Formerly, police had turned a blind eye to such ‘off the beaten track’ incidents and  fewer convictions were made on Aboriginal land. Now, the authors say, a vicious circle has been created which has many drivers, especially the young, unable to acquire a licence due to unpaid fines. Such criminalisation strategies, say Blagg and Anthony, can also block young Aborigines accessing the labour market. A lack of money commonly will prevent car repairs being carried out or payments being given over for registration, so this is revealed as one of a number of weaknesses in the current system.

According to interviewees, tough policing has made it difficult for Indigenous people not only to acquire licences or register cars but also complicated their lives in other ways. New restrictions on legal drinking, by creating more dry zones, force people to drive long distances to find alcohol. A paper prepared by the NT Department of Housing, Local Government and Community Services, cited by the report authors, shows Indigenous drink-driving offenders were much more likely to be imprisoned in the NT, a startling 23.9 per cent immured against 1.8 per cent non-Indigenous.

Across the board, offences fell into three categories: regulatory, such as failing to give correct signals or not wearing a seat belt; lack of a driving licence or vehicle registration; and road worthiness defects. Penalties are harsh, with sentences of up to six months jail for not showing a registered number plate, or up to twelve months for driving an unregistered vehicle. NT authorities explain the high levels of fines and sentencing as seeking to normalise mainstream modes of behaviour for Indigenous people in remote areas.

Communication between all parties—police, government and Aboriginal groups—is inadequate. The report outlines incomprehension of ‘whitefella law’ by community members charged with drink driving who subsequently avoid alcohol only to be fined or even jailed for driving a vehicle while disqualified: if they had legal training they might call it double jeopardy.

Informing this whole context is a far-reaching clash of cultural views and white-originated restrictions imposed on Indigenous communities where the car is found liberating and driving considered expressive—even a way of knowing country—and so sanctions and penalties have little effect.

It outlines the Warlpiri communities’ attitude as one of love of the car and the communality it offers (often via illegal passenger loads). Though they believe in safe driving (average speed is only 20 kph) there is little understanding about the meaning of holding a licence. Barriers are established when licences are available only at police stations, or by requiring documentation such as a birth certificate, which can be problematic in a less bureaucratic culture. Blagg and Anthony cite the 2011 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs’ support for the creation of a modified version of the ‘full’ licence for people living in remote communities: this proposal was also endorsed by mining companies because it would allow them to employ more locals.

In their review of present practices Blagg and Anthony support initiatives they believe will rectify what seems an inadequate system for all. These include improvement of pitted rough roads to help protect vehicles; regulation of the market to avoid scams in which Indigenous people are regularly sold unroadworthy vehicles by dealers; more public transport; and the return of night patrols to help reduce levels of drink driving.

Education measures are recommended for the setting up of more mechanic workshops to allow Indigenous people to manage their own repairs, the introduction of driver mentors, simplification of theory test terms and more instruction support via the school curriculum. They further suggest translations of the Road Users Handbook into Indigenous languages as well as administering the theory test orally, using an Aboriginal officer or interpreter.

Efforts should be made to disaggregate driving offences if punishment is to be meaningful. As the authors point out, ‘prison should not be a sentencing option for driving unlicensed, uninsured or unregistered’, since the research shows this has significant negative consequences for recidivism.

Questioning ‘the utility, morality and relevance of the current law enforcement approach to driving-related matters in the NT’, the review argues for more integrated services rather than the ‘array of government and non-government agencies’ currently said to ‘service’ Indigenous communities.

Anyone reading this carefully researched document must surely wonder why, in the face of the problems reported, regulators have been more concerned with punishing those committing misdemeanours on remote bush tracks, charging them for the lack of a licence or for an unroadworthy car rather than helping communities avoid such minor entanglements with the law.

Indigenous driver safety measures in other Australian states are also referenced here. They clearly endorse the authors’ view that in the Northern Territory the emphasis on punishment cannot be seen as promoting policies ‘that work’, while in other states community-based programs offer hope. In Western Australia, for example, there are vehicle inspection stations and driver support programs with the ultimate goal of increasing job readiness for Indigenous youth. Traffic offenders in NSW can join a licence program that includes literacy, general skills and alcohol education. Queensland’s ‘hands-on’ program to achieve a licence has raised pass rates from 10 per cent to 85 per cent, and elsewhere Indigenous people are offered a driver safety and legal course and provided with free child restraints. Among South Austrlia’s Anangu PitjantjataraYankunytjara, police work closely with local communities to help Indigenous youth obtain learners permits or log hours towards a probationary licence.

The authors offer a resonant conclusion to the report:

“Given that both Commonwealth and Territory Governments have justified increased and more intensive policing of remote communities on the basis of concerns about endemic abuse of children, the increased criminalisation for driving related issues (of a group already massively over-represented in the criminal justice system) appears to us to lack moral and political legitimacy.”


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