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Herald on Sunday editorial: Too laidback on licensing

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New Zealand drivers licence.  Photo / NZPA
New Zealand drivers licence. Photo / NZPA

In most cases, our drivers' licences are forgotten pieces of plastic. Consigned to the back of wallets or the bottom of purses, they are rarely produced and hardly ever examined. Some more elderly drivers may even still believe their licences were issued for a lifetime, rather than the prevailing 10-year term. Perhaps, therefore, it comes as no real surprise that 488,781 licences - in a country of just three million motorists - are registered as expired. Oversight plays an obvious role in this, but so, too, does a deliberate decision by other drivers not to renew their licences. Either way, the size and implications of the problem demand a response.

The current situation may have developed in part because of the relatively mild penalties for failing to renew. The offence carries a fine of only $400, or up to $1000 if a person is summonsed to court for persistent offending. There are the added penalties of being forbidden to drive by the police or, in extreme cases, having your car seized and impounded for 28 days. But perhaps the greatest risk is the likelihood that any insurance claim will be declined.

That level of threat hardly tallies with the significant implications for road safety. People's eyesight can deteriorate rapidly in a decade. Or they may suffer a debilitating long-term injury that restricts their ability to drive safely. They are a threat to other drivers if this is not picked up because they have failed to renew their licence. Much focus has been placed on ensuring those over 75 must renew their licences far more frequently. Medical certificates are demanded from them. But in an age dominated by TV screens and digital games, there must be a recognition that many younger people will also experience problems with their eyesight.

Nevertheless, the police generally take a softly-softly approach when they detect an expired licence. This is an acknowledgment that, in many cases, it is matter of oversight. There are no fines or court appearances, only a ban on people getting behind the wheel again until their licence is updated. That response is reasonable in most circumstances. It should, however, not deter the police from treating deliberate breaches seriously. Certainly, the road-safety consequences suggest more action will be required if the number of people with expired licences continues to grow.

At the moment, little is being done to prevent that. The New Zealand Transport Agency sends out reminder letters when licences are up for renewal. These go to the address given when the licence was last renewed. But most people shift homes at least once and often several times during a 10-year period, and it is fair to assume that a large percentage of these reminder notices do not reach their target.

That, and the evidence presented by the large number of expired licences, provides every reason for the authority to be far more vocal about this issue. The Government has also been silent, even though it has been active in other aspects of drivers' licences, most recently announcing that restricted and learner drivers will soon have to gain their full licence within five years, or be forced to resit tests. That has not been greeted with total approval. Driver Educators national president Wayne Young suggested an expiry date on those licences would have been a better idea.

He should think again. The expired status of so many full licences shows the shortcomings of that approach. So much so that it is time for a publicity campaign urging people to check when their licence expires - or expired. The vast majority of those unaware they are breaking the law will be only too ready the rectify the situation. The police will then be free to spend more time tackling those deliberately flouting the law.

- Herald on Sunday

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