With the introduction of the HVNL, the roads authorities in most States have supported a move towards uniform laws. They recognise the benefits of a streamlined transport network throughout the county, where drivers and operators are subject to the same rules regardless of which borders they cross. 

While there have been many successes, there are still areas that need work. One such area is vehicle registration. 

A quirk in legislation means that interstate drivers visiting NSW are being penalised in for ‘driving while unregistered’, even though the vehicle is validly registered in the home State, just because the number plates aren’t displayed perfectly. These drivers are receiving harsher penalties than a local driver would for the same conduct. 

The problem is caused by the way the registration laws work. Each State and Territory is responsible for overseeing the registration and use of vehicles on its roads. 

In NSW the law says that any vehicle used on a NSW Road must be registered in NSW, i.e. with the RMS. There is however an exemption for “vehicles temporarily in NSW.” The exemption allows visiting vehicles to rely upon their interstate registration, so long as certain requirements are met.

One of those requirements is that the vehicle needs to comply with all the laws in its home State/Territory about displaying number-plates. If the visiting vehicle doesn’t meet the requirements, then the exemption is withdrawn and the vehicle is treated as being unregistered in NSW.

On the face of it, having to display your number plates correctly doesn’t seem like an unreasonable requirement. However, many people are surprised by just how detailed the rules about displaying number plates are. The requirements include things like how high the number plates are, and the distance and specific angles that they must be visible from. It is relatively easy to unknowingly display your number plates incorrectly.

Most drivers caught in this trap are entirely unaware that there is any issue with their number plates. The first time they realise there is a problem is when they receive the fine. Sometimes they will receive multiple fines at once.

In addition to punishing drivers for offences that they didn’t realise they were committing, the legislation also treats them unfairly based on where their vehicle is registered.

If the vehicle was registered in NSW the driver would receive a fine for ‘using a vehicle with incorrectly displayed number plates’. The fine is $686 and 3 demerit points. For an interstate driver charged with ‘driving an unregistered vehicle’ the fine is more than doubled – $1,449 and 4 demerit points.

The obvious question is why don’t the authorities simply charge the interstate driver with the same offence that they would a NSW driver? The problem is that they can’t. The offence of ‘using a vehicle with incorrectly displayed number plates’ only applies to vehicles registered in NSW. There isn’t an equivalent offence for vehicles registered in another State. This leaves the authorities with their hands tied; the registration offence is their only option to penalise incorrectly displayed plates on an interstate vehicle.

The problem could be solved by a fairly simple amendment to the legislation. Simply expand the offence for incorrectly displayed number plates to also apply to vehicles registered interstate.

If the authorities are serious about creating uniform and streamlined transport legislation, this is an issue that they should consider. In the meantime, the best protection for drivers and operators is to familiarise themselves with the requirements for displaying number plates and check all of their vehicles.

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