Always a green light for Traffic Offenders Program

Mentions LAWYER TALK - July 2002

Recently a Queensland truckie, arrested for a traffic offence committed in northern NSW, hitched a lift every Thursday for eight weeks, intent on making a two-hour lecture at Seven Hills Community Centre by 6:30 p.m. Next day he hitched a lift home.

It was huge effort, but every week for the past ten years or more, a steady 100 or so traffic offenders, mainly young men, anxious to avoid losing their licenses or going to goal, have seen fit to accept their solicitor's recommendation and attend Blacktown City's community-owned, community-operated Traffic Offenders Program Inc. (TOP).

With a recidivist rate fully half that of offenders who can not access it, the Traffic Offenders Program Inc. is an amazing success story for its coordinator, ambulance officer Graham Symes, who began the Program a decade ago and operated it alone for six and a half years.

Continually responding to the nightmarish scenarios that are road accidents generated by human negligence, indifference and egotism, keeps Symes committed to the Program.

A well prepared kit on the TOP details the Program's history, scope, effectiveness, membership of its lecturing panel and of its Advisory Board, the latter formed in 1998 when the Rotary Club of Blacktown City decided to support the Program by supplying a fax, administrative services and meeting public liability cost (which originally came from Graham Symes's own pocket).

Rotary representative and TOP Advisory Board Honorary Chairman, David Bamford will be trying the new Registered Clubs Community Development Fund to meet this years $20,000 bill for TOP.

"TOP is free to offenders," he told LSJ, "and it's run very cheaply, but it's a constant struggle to keep it going."

TOP participants face a variety of traffic offences and are required to attend eight lectures over seven weeks, submitting an assignment for each lecture.

A rotating system of lectures allows participants to enter the Program at any point. Their continued participation in the Program is subject to rigorous compliance with specified conditions.

Lectures are given by officers of the Ambulance Service, solicitor Michael Corbin, Insurance, Drug and Alcohol Agencies, the NSW Police, the RTA, NRMA Technical department, and Spinal Cord Injury consultant Kevin Faulkner (now Craig Cannane).

Solicitor Michael Corbin, a member of the TOP Advisory Board, told LSJ he sometimes encounters clients who would have benefited from the Program had their solicitors been aware of it.

"We have a duty to do the best for our clients, to know all the options for them. If I have a client with a serious traffic offence, I ask the Magistrate to adjourn sentence to allow the client to attend the Program." Corbin emphasised that a Magistrate must be asked to authorise a referral to TOP.

WAKE-UP CALL

Behavioural change is TOP's aim. Young men are notoriously short on empathy and the ability to visualise consequences, but within 20 minutes of being shut in a room for a preliminary talk with Graham Symes, the smirks have gone, little puckers of anxiety are appearing between the brows an the very diverse complexions of faces begin to assume a grayish cast.

No excuses for lateness, for an illegible signature, for failing to do the week's assignment, for missing a lecture.

"You're out, you're out. We know all your tricks. If you're out, you're in strife. No second chances. And solicitors needn't bother to ring up and complain. The integrity of the Program has to be guaranteed. We've been known to ask a Magistrate to re-sentence a delinquent participant. And don't forget, even if you complete the course there's no guarantee you'll get the magic section 10."

At the end of the talk there's a rush at Symes to besiege him with queries and check forms.

DOWN TO EARTH

Twenty-year old Brendan Williams of Wilberforce is there only to submit his last assignment. It has been a tiring eight weeks for Brendan, meeting all the requirements of the Program and riding his push bike to work (14 kms a day). He recalls being hit and nearly knocked down by the tail end of a bus making a turn. It shook him up.

He thought the lectures were very "down to earth" and more compelling as the Program advanced. His shrewd assessment of the Program is that "they work on the guilt factor and on what can happen. The ambulance and spinal injury unit stories get to you the most."

But he was impressed too by a video showing racing car champions who say they don't have even a breath of alcohol before racing because it "takes the edge off your judgment".

"So what's the safest amount you can drink before driving, Brendan?" He hesitates a moment and shakes his head. "None, really."

MARY ROSE LIVERANI