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Friday, 22 May 2009

Seatbelt amendments

The government brought in some changes to seatbelt laws last December, partly in reaction to some horror smashes on the roads. Extra provisions were inserted into Schedule 4 of the Road Safety (Road Rules) Regulations via the (imaginatively titled) Road Safety (Road Rules)(Seatbelt) Amendment Regulations 2008.

The intent of the changes was to increase fines for seatbelt offences and create offences for sharing a seating position with another passenger, and for not occupying a position with a seatbelt fitted to it.

Changes to the Road Rules — Victoria aren't made to the Road Rules themselves, but in the Road Safety (Road Rules) Regulations that apply the Road Rules in force in Victoria. In theory, this keeps the Road Rules uniform across Australia, but the reality is it makes the rules look uniform despite some variations from state to state.

For example, if we look at the Road Rules by themselves, the default speed limit in a built up area is still 60 km/h, almost a decade after it was lowered to 50 km/h. That change to Victorian speed limits is in fact found at clause 5, Schedule 4 of the Road Safety (Road Rules) Regulations 1999:
5. In rule 25(2) of the Road Rules, the reference to 60 kilometres per hour is to be read as a reference to 50 kilometres per hour.
It's similar for signs, mobile phones, vehicle safety standards and an assortment of other modified rules.

The problem with this approach is that it makes it difficult for the general public to access the relevant law (as well as for for folk who have to enforce and apply those laws). The Australian Road Rules provide the model for each state and territory. They're maintained by the National Transport Council and sponsored by the Australian Transport Council. The ATC is a ministerial council (kind of a road safety equivalent to COAG), and the NTC is a statutory body that makes the ATC's decisions happen. Confusing? Well, it's probably not immediately obvious to the average road user. VicRoads does mention the effect of Schedule 4, but you're not likely to note it if you're not already aware of it.

One of the few case laws on seatbelts concerns the meaning of properly fastened and adjusted, which is a requirement of wearing a seatbelt. In Moroney v Wodcicka (2003) 39 MVR 358, the ACT Court of Appeal considered if the phrase created a subjective test (the driver wearing the belt in a way he claimed was right for them, such as with the shoulder sash worn under their arm) or an objective test (worn as the designer intended).

Unsurprisingly, the Court went with the objective test.

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