Government still considering tougher driving penalties, fines for motorists

The Transport Minister says the Government is still considering a review of road penalties and isn't committing to progressing the work prior to the election, despite policy decisions initially having been expected by the end of last year.

The Ministry of Transport last year provided a policy proposal to Cabinet about changes to New Zealand's road safety penalties regime, including fees or fines, recognising that many may be "too low to deter undesirable behaviour". 

It's part of the Government's Road to Zero programme, which aims for a "New Zealand where no one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes".  

Noting the work was already behind schedule, the ministry said final policy decisions were expected to be made in late 2022.

But Transport Minister Michael Wood on Wednesday told Newshub the Government is still considering the advice.

"We've got a very busy program in terms of transport policy considerations across the Road to Zero programme and other areas," Wood said. "So we'll just have to look at whether we're able to get that in the election."

He called the work "important", but "so are many other things". 

"The Government always has to balance what we can get done at any one time."

Wood wouldn't say what the proposal included; whether the Government was considering hiking speeding fines or making adjustments to demerits. 

Dylan Thomsen, the AA's road safety spokesperson, said it's "disappointing" the work hasn't progressed by now and time is running out for the Government to act prior to the election for any proposal to also go out for public consultation afterwards.

"Probably the time for anything to go out, any changes to be proposed and to go to public consultation is probably pretty slim now for this Government," he told Newshub.

"If that doesn't happen very soon, then it will just be something that will be left to be picked up by the next Government once it's decided."

Wood said he couldn't commit to progressing the work before the October 14 election.

"What I would say is we have a huge amount of work underway in the road safety space across vehicle safety standards, across making sure that we have safer speeds on the network and a range of other areas," he said.

Most road penalties haven't changed in decades. 

The Land Transport (Offences and Penalties) Regulations Act 1999 sets speedings fines, ranging from $30 for driving less than 10km/h over the limit, to $630 for driving between 45km/h and 50km/h over the limit.

Considering inflation, a $30 fine in 2023 dollars is equivalent to a little under $17 in 1999.

Thomsen said it "makes sense" for the Government to review the penalties.

"We would think some increase in the level of fine would have a lot of justification to it just because of the fact that they haven't changed in a long period of time."

But the AA hopes the Government looks beyond just increasing speeding fines and considers some other more creative approaches, he said. 

"In some countries overseas, what they do with certain offences is people can have an option of either paying a fine or taking part in a short course based around, it might be speeding, it might be using cell phones or things like that. That seems to have had some quite good results."

Other approaches used internationally include a good behaviour bond where repeat offenders get a higher level of penalty the second time they are caught breaking the rules, Thomsen said.

"We just think that we need to be exploring a range of other ideas beyond just what the dollar amount of the fine is, to try and make sure that we're doing things that are going to have the best chance of getting people to change their behaviour if they need to."

There could also be unintended consequences of hiking fines, Thomsen said. There's a group of people who refuse to pay fines and then end up in court, eating up a lot of its resources, he said.

"We just need to try and make sure that we get the balance right, that we have penalties that are going to deter people, that are going to seem fair enough to people and also not have any unintended consequences for the justice system overall."

The Road to Zero monitoring report released last year said the current penalties "may be too low to deter undesirable behaviour, do not align with the level of risk of the offending and, in some cases, are not effective in changing driver behaviour".

It noted that the Government had already increased the fine for using a mobile phone while driving from $80 to $150. 

"This was done in advance of the wider review in order to address a known risk in a shorter timeframe."