29 January 2022

Income-based fines would still need to hurt

| Ian Bushnell
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Speed camera

A 40 km/h zones in Civic. Less income, smaller fine? Photo: File.

The so-called Civic speed trap has been the catalyst for another call for income-based fines, not just for speeding but a range of other offences and charges.

Although clearly marked, the 40km/h zones have caught thousands of drivers oblivious to the signs and in denial that the city’s main thoroughfare could be reduced to such a crawl.

But an assembly committee recommended some waivers be issued due to financial hardship, prompting the ACT Council of Social Service to call for a fairer system of penalties and charges that would reflect a capacity to pay.

It’s not that revolutionary, having been a part of the northern European justice system for many years, although England and Wales tried it for a short time, but neither magistrates nor the public liked it.

The scheme was replaced by requirements that magistrates consider an offender’s means when imposing a fine, just not according to a mathematical formula.

READ MORE Calls for income-based approach to fines as inquiry recommends waivers for vulnerable motorists

In Finland, the higher the income, the more you pay, but ACTCOSS appears to be focused on reducing the impact on the Territory’s 40,000 low-income households, so don’t expect to see a $100,000 speeding fine any time soon.

The principle is much like that of progressive tax rates.

There is no doubt that a fine of hundreds of dollars will have a disproportionate impact on someone of low to average means than the many high-income earners who enjoy life in the national capital.

But there are already ways to mitigate the damage.

In 2020, legislation introduced by Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur enabled payment plans and community services in place of fines to ease this burden.

And drivers with excellent records – a clean sheet of at least five years – can already apply for a fine to be waived, and speaking from experience, that does happen.

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The question is, by how much would income-based fines dilute their deterrent value, especially if they were not raised for higher-income earners, remembering that the goal is road safety not generating revenue.

The penalty still needs to inflict enough pain to hopefully change behaviour, a point that can be forgotten in the quest to make it easier for those doing it tough.

So to be workable and send the same message to people of differing means, the range of fines would need to increase across income groups.

The administration of such a scheme based on income quintiles would throw up its own injustices at its arbitrary cut-offs.

It would be a courageous government indeed that did this.

The best social justice advocates can hope for is a system that is flexible and discretionary but still retains its essential integrity and purpose, which is to support, in this instance, the safe system of road usage we all enjoy.

The bottom line is that if you don’t want a fine, obey the road rules.

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Why not both? Have a minimum amount for fines, while those on higher incomes or with larger asset wealth are fined more. The only ones who would complain about fines are those who do the wrong thing.

Reducing fines just disincentivises those on low/no incomes not to worry about the law, while the wealthy also don’t care because they have no problems paying $200 for a ticket.

The proposal is totally unworkable because the ACT government doesn’t know how much people earn, so cannot fine people on the basis of unknown income. Your income is only known to yourself, your employer, your accountant and the ATO. People are not going to tell the ACT government what their true income is so that it can then work out size of their fine. It is a ludicrous idea. ACTCOSS should stop hounding ordinary members of the community and remember that the more we pay in fines the less we have to donate to charities and the less sympathetic we will be to their next fund raising campaign. Here is a better idea. Instead of paying the traffic fine to the ACT government, give people the option of nominating a charity to receive the fine they get from a traffic offence. But that won’t happen because the ACT government would lose all that juicy revenue from its revenue raising cameras.

They could ask the ATO / Federal government. Solve your problem?

Do you wish to argue that private charity provides more infrastructure and better social welfare than governmental action? Any good national examples?

Jorge Garcia10:11 pm 02 Feb 22

🙂 Where in that article does it say that the fines will be lowered for anyone? I bet you the cost of a speeding ticket that what will actually happen (if anything) is that fines will increase for high income earners. And if you think about it fines are not currently a deterrent for such folk anyway, so I think the idea makes some kind of sense.

Another idea that makes sense is to ensure that rules and fines are kept to a minimum, that their linkage to unacceptable, unsafe behavior is clear, and that the amount is commensurate with the severity of the transgression.

Leon Arundell10:21 am 02 Feb 22

We don’t expect people on low incomes to pay the same amount of income tax as people on high incomes.
Fixed fines are a small deterrent for people with above average incomes, and a large deterrent for people with below average incomes.
Income-based fines would provide more equal deterrence.

Aaaah yes, the old income tax argument.

So going down that route, where do we stop?

Do we make wealthier people pay more for fuel because they can?

More for the same food?

Should we have to slide our ATO linked Australia Card through the Self Service machine at the supermarket so it knows our income before it calculates our shopping bill?

More for a cup of coffee or a beer?

More for clothes?

Where are the results from the studies showing that we have a problem with people on higher incomes getting numerous fines because they are easy to pay?

Those studies may exist so it would be interesting to see them.

Is there really a problem?

Leon Arundell2:02 pm 02 Feb 22

Aaaah yes, the old fuel/shopping/coffee/clothes argument.
Since the cost of these items does not stop wealthier people from over-consuming, is Spiral arguing in effect that we should make fuel/shopping/coffee/clothes free for wealthier people.
And where are the results from studies (if they exist) showing that we don’t have a problem with people on higher incomes getting no more fines than less wealthy people?

No, I’m arguing those items should be the same price for everyone, as they currently are.

As should be the penalties for breaking the law.

The claim that people on higher income find it easier to pay fines may be broadly true but is often wrong.
And what counts as a high income driver? 80K, 100K, 150K 200K, 500K?

And there has not been any evidence presented yet that we have a problem with high income drivers accumulating lots of speeding fines because they are trivial to pay off.

That may indeed be the case, but surely it is best to make an informed decision.

Laws brought in to try and penalize the rich are more likely only going to hurt the “middle class”.

So provide the evidence.
Propose income brackets and which levels of fines apply to them.

Be open.

Be truthful.

And as we often hear when discussing topics such as Climate Change: Follow the Science.

Scott Anthony7:38 pm 01 Feb 22

Income based Fined, sprouted by ACOSS, are the politics of hate, envy and the legalised theft of money from the ‘rich’ so the so-called ‘poor’ can get away with paying less.. It professes division, envy and hate for often what are, our high achievers who also earn more. The reality is that the Demerit Points system is the great equaliser on cars, its the points that determine when you do or do not drive, and the fine, is the same for everyone, because thats how equality in a society works.. Not ‘equalised’ results as ACOSS would like to have, where someone who doesn’t work, gets the same benefits as someone who’s dedicated their life to their work… thats socialism, but with misery up top… and in the end, Aussie high achievers would just leave for where they are appreciated, not hated and hunted and treated differently because they did well..

The ACT Sentencing Act 2005, under Purposes of Sentencing, says in 7(1)(a): “To ensure that the offender is adequately punished for the offence in a way that is just and appropriate;”
It seems to be a guide, even though we are not discussing criminal law here.
Carry on, everyone.

Demerits affect the people with more money disproportionately as it affects their earning capacity. So reduce the demerit points for people with more money.

The Northbourne Ave cash register!
Since becoming a 40km zone thousands of people have been fined, and zero has been done to genuinely limit speeds/make it ‘safer’.
We’re this Gov genuinely wanting to limit speeds, speed humps would have been installed years ago – REALITY, they are focused on the revenue here and are quite happy for things to continue as is.

I hope it’s based on my net salary. hehehehe

This is a good idea, I’m heavily negatively geared so my taxable income is very low so I’d be paying the minimum amount for fines.

ChrisinTurner1:19 pm 31 Jan 22

It would be a good idea for parking fines because the expensive cars just treat the fines as petty cash costs.

One of my kids, who lives in another City, chooses to pay parking fines rather than parking fees, because overall, he reckons it’s cheaper.

He doesn’t own a home; just rents an apartment. Luckily for him there are no demerit points for illegal parking!

Is this a solution looking for a problem?

Do we have real evidence that people on higher incomes are speeding more than people on lower incomes or is it just anecdotal evidence?

It would be interesting to see a breakdown by things such as income, occupation, type of vehicle, ethnicity etc.

Is it wealthy people frequently speeding?
Or are some occupations frequent offenders?
Or owners of certain vehicle types?
Or is the message not being effectively communicated to people from some ethnic groupings?

If the goal is to reduce speeding and save lives, then it is important to get an accurate view of where the problem is.

Presumably these studies have been done as it would seem unwise to try and improve the system if the problem isn’t what the improvements are targeting.

I can see it now. A study of this magnitude could employ every unemployed person in Canberra from now until the end of the decade and by the time the data was analysed and put thru various committees, the recommendations would be out of date due to changing population dynamics and obviously, people flocking to catch Light Rail or ride push-bikes.

Much simpler just to treat everyone the same and fine as many people as they can.

@kenbehrens – but by the end of the decade, all the former unemployed will have had a steady job and can afford the higher fines!

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