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Freeway speeding fines fight heads to court over legal roadblock

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Bus and truck operators hit with hefty fines and license disqualifications under tough speeding laws – later changed – introduced for the South Eastern Freeway downtrack will head to court early next year in a bid to overturn their penalties, as amendments to the laws stall in Parliament.

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Under laws introduced in May 2019, drivers of trucks weighing more than 4.5 tonnes, and buses with 12 or more seats – regardless of weight or how many passengers the bus carried – faced heavy penalties if detected travelling at above 60 km/h on the steep final seven kilometres of freeway between Crafers and the Portrush/Cross Rd/Glen Osmond Rd intersection.

Penalties included a $5000 fine, the loss of six demerit points and automatic license disqualification for a year.

The tougher regime was brought in following recommendations from a Coronial inquest into motorist deaths and injuries resulting from collisions with out-of-control trucks at or near the freeway bottom.

Companies which chose not to nominate the driver of a speeding bus or truck faced a potential penalty of between $25,000 and $50,000 – a massive jump from the previous $300 fine.

While individual motorists could choose to pay a $1036 expiation fee instead of going to court, they still temporarily lost their licence.

But widespread criticism and confusion over big fines and licence cancellations – particularly among hire bus operators – prompted the government to revise the rules in December 2019, with the Department of Infrastructure and Transport website saying the reforms “better reflect community expectations, particularly around first offences”.

Under the changes, drivers who pay the upfront fine no longer lose their licence for a first offence, while those found guilty in court face a six-month license disqualification instead of one year.

Businesses that fail to nominate a driver now face a $5000 fee or between $10,000 and $20,000 if found guilty in court.

But while the law was changed, penalties handed out under the old system were not – meaning drivers caught between May and December 2019 still face the previous charges.

Stanley Law principal Karen Stanley – who is representing more than 30 of the 50 heavy vehicle drivers heading to court in February and March  – said if the cases weren’t overturned drivers and businesses risked not only paying fines between $5000 and $50,000 but also losing their livelihoods for a year.

Stanley said those drivers who had chosen to pay the upfront fee rather than going to court had also suffered the loss of their livelihoods on top of the fee for a first offence.

“If you just paid the fine you’d get your licence disqualified for six months … no one had told them,” she said.

“I’m aware of lots of people who paid the (expiation) fines, weren’t aware there was a disqualification and their businesses have gone under.

“But then if you elected to be prosecuted and were found guilty in court, you’d lose your license for 12 months.”

The DPTI website maps the 60km/h zone for heavy vehicles.

Taste the Barossa owner Dallas Coull is among the bus operators taking a heavy vehicle fine to court early next year.

Coull was issued a $26,000 fine after one of his Barossa and McLaren Vale tour drivers received a speeding penalty in June 2019 and Coull chose to foot the bill.

He said the driver was travelling at 77 km/h as he believed the bus was under the 4.5 tonne limit and could travel at up to 90 km/h.

“He (the driver) genuinely thought his vehicle was not included in the 60 km/h speed limit,” he said.

“Many people ask me why we didn’t simply pass the fine onto our guide, which would have alleviated our $25,000 fine, however it would have caused him to lose his licence for six months.

“At the time, we believed that it simply was unfair to destroy his life and ultimately I did feel responsible in letting him know.

“It’s not right to simply kick the misery down the road and I was quite confident the mistake would be addressed.”

Coull said although the legislation had subsequently been changed it remained “flawed” and needed to be further altered.

He was hopeful recent amendments introduced by SA Best MLC Frank Pangallo would become law, preventing more buses being caught.

“You can fill a 12-seat bus and fly down the freeway at 90 km/h. That exact same bus with two extra seats in the back has to do 60 km/h, even if it’s empty,” he said.

Pangallo, who introduced a raft of amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1961 last year, said more needed to be done to ensure the laws were working effectively.

Pangallo says the changes, which were aimed mainly at trucks, should not have applied to smaller buses.

“Clearly the government made a mistake with that section of freeway,” he said.

“As a result of my amendments, changes were made last year to the legislation, but they didn’t go far enough to distinguish between the actual targets of the measures – heavy vehicles over eight tonnes – and much smaller minibuses carrying up to 14 passengers.

“The Upper House passed further amendments earlier this year to exempt minibuses carrying up to 12 people, as well as returning discretion to magistrates when people opt to fight the matter in court.

“Unfortunately, the government has caused the Bill to stall in the Lower House which has created more anxiety for their drivers given infringement notices and left them in limbo.

“I urge Transport Minister Wingard to address this issue as a priority when Parliament resumes in February.”

Pangallo’s most recent amendment gives magistrates the discretion to reduce license disqualifications to one month for a first offence. It also changes the use of the word “bus” to “large bus” – which seats more than 25 adults.

Stanley said giving magistrates discretion to reduce license disqualifications would prevent more drivers losing their livelihoods.

“We’ve got all of these people who elected to be prosecuted … but the magistrate has no discretion whatsoever,” she said.

“They do have discretion on other offences, like a first drink or drug driving offence and dangerous driving.”

Stanley will take a test case before court in February.

“I think everyone is waiting to see the outcome of that test case,” she said.

“I think something of this scale will end up in the Supreme Court.”

InDaily contacted the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Corey Wingard and was directed to the Department.

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