Sunday, September 27, 2009

The ever-expanding drivers licence

Apart from the design of our streets and cities, there is nothing that celebrates 'car culture' more than the status accorded to the drivers licence.

The drivers licence started as a tool for the policing of motoring. Since it became a plastic card with a photo it has emerged as a virtual ticket to adulthood.

While statistics are not kept, the 'non-driving' uses of a licence as a means of identification outstrip their intended 'traffic policing' role by over ten to one.

For example, drivers licences receive consideration in the following:

Enrolling to vote Rules have been changed so that non-licence holders must jump through more hoops than licence holders to enrol to vote. The Youth Action and Policy Association (NSW) claims that this could disenfranchise many young people.

Opening a bank account or getting a loan Financial institutions will only deal with people who have satisfied a 100-point check. Drivers licences usually contribute 40 points to this.

Signing up for a mobile phone plan Here a passport or drivers licence is the starting point and has priority over credit, Medicare or proof of age cards. Even prepaid phones need ID, even though the Productivity Commission doesn't think it stops fraud.

Hire a video A drivers licence is a pre-requisite for this DVD and pizza deal

Renting a house or unit Tenancy application forms produced by real estate agents often require drivers licence information

Some jobs in public transport Even if one can make their own transport arrangements for early/late shifts, some have claimed that recruiters exclude non-licence holders. Others have been more fortuate and it's reassuring that it has not hindered the state's transport chief.

This list is not exhaustive and many other cases where a licence is requested can be found. It is however sufficient to illustrate the point above, namely that drivers licences are most often used for other than their original intended purpose.

Why is a drivers licence so widely accepted? Firstly more people have them than passports. About 85 to 90% of adults aged between 20 and 59 hold one (with lower proportions for younger and older adults). They fit into one's wallet, and most people carry them most of the time, along with their credit or debit card. Especially in places where most people drive for most of their trips.

Drivers licences also have a photo on them and are always individually issued. This makes them more favoured than Medicare cards which have no photo and can have family members listed. The failure of Gareth Evans' 'Australia Card' in 1987 and the subsequent creation of the 100-points financial ID system a few years later only strengthened the status of the drivers licence.

To be fair, there exist proof of age cards that look like drivers licences. These aren't as widely accepted and provide a second-class form of ID for non-licence holders. A Proof of Age card won't help with enrolling to vote, for example. Even where they are mentioned, proof of age cards may be considered a lower form of ID with fewer points. And it is not known whether they will feature advanced security measures of new drivers licences such as facial recognition.

How does any of this relate to public transport and growing its role?

The first is the 'TravelSmart' angle - where good walkability, bike tracks and public transport services exist we should encourage people to consider using them rather than reflexively reach for the car keys or all trips. Breaking down cultural and institutional impediments such as tax rules that favour driving are important here.

Then there is winning the patronage of youth. For a decade or so after the 1960s/1970s collapse in public transport use, a significant number of children still cycled or walked to school. But school amalgamations, 'stranger danger', the two-car household and the growth of private schools beyond walking distance from home all reduced this share. Today more children rely on 'Mum's taxi' and fewer have experience with navigating their area on foot, by bike or on public transport.

Hence it becomes more important that youth have a period in young adulthood of transport independence without a car. Each year young adults delay getting their licence because public transport is good enough for their transport needs must be regarded as a compliment to the system. And we should encourage such 'TravelSmart' thinking, given the environmental, urban amenity and other benefits of such choices.

If young people have no need for a drivers licence they should not be forced to get one. Doing so should be more a lifestyle choice (related to their transport needs) instead of being socially mandated, considered a rite of adulthood or a means to satisfy onerous identification requirments.

Where jobs do not involve driving, employers should not discriminate against non-licence holders, although the employee should of course be responsible for honouring their allocated work roster and any variations.

And the licences themselves should only be used for their original motoring-related use, with legislation guaranteeing that reasonable alternatives have equal weight as ID for non-motoring purposes.

1 comment:

Vic Rail (Riccardo) said...

Again Peter, your faith in human nature is charming but misplaced.

I do agree we need alternatives to driving and driving-dependency, but don't go fetishing 'yoof'. The nothing innocent or virtuous in being 'yoof' that needs protecting from mean-old adulthood.

And I doubt there are many who get a licence but with no wish to drive a car. It's just too hard, too expensive, too convoluted a route.

A passport is cheaper and easier (but according to your logic, might promote unnecessary travel on the grounds of the double negative of 'not not having one')

How would you hold employers responsible for not offering jobs to people with no licence. Apart from the practicalities (you would only need to argue that you might occasionally require the employee to use the work car for errands, meetings etc) you would also have the reality that many employers have set up in places with little or no PT.

This is, at the end of the day, a government failure, not private market failure. The market being somewhat indifferent, the government has discretionary 'levers' and failed to use them.

And for your soft-left outlook, how do you reconcile the soft-left who opposed the original Australia Card. Even HK, the land of low regulation, has a rigorous and complete adoption of ID cards.

Maybe the soft-left missed the early warning signs - that one day we would need ID cards for a wide range of worthy left-wing causes, from immigration (ensuring Cornelia Rau cases don't happen again) to environment.