Joyriding VicRoads staff put public at risk with own rule breaking

By David Donaldson

June 11, 2015

Enforcement officers from VicRoads Transport Safety Services have broken laws and put the public at risk by flouting the same rules they were supposed to enforce, an ombudsman report has found. In some cases the enforcement officers’ managers were not even aware of what the rules were.

Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass, noting the frequency and indifference of the rule breaking, wondered what they were even doing on the road.

“There must be serious doubt about whether at least some of these speeding vehicles were engaged in enforcement activity at all.”

These officials “routinely exceeded the speed limit in VicRoads vehicles without displaying lights or sirens” and were later let off with little or not evidence or rationale, says Glass.

In the report tabled on Wednesday, Glass said that “the result was that VicRoads enforcement officers bore no consequences despite committing offences for which any member of the public would get a ticket and points off their licence”, adding that those charged with enforcing the law “must be held to the highest possible standards”.

John Merritt
John Merritt

The agency’s chief executive, John Merritt, said he was committed to addressing the issues, both cultural and specific, highlighted in this report. Merritt, who was appointed to VicRoads only several months before the investigation began last year, has a strong background in safety compliance, having previously served as head of WorkSafe and the National Safety Council of Australia.

Of the three senior executives who were interviewed as part of the investigation, all have since retired.

The report found that it is “‘normal practice’ with speeding infringements issued to VicRoads staff that officers are declared to be exempt without proper investigations … the process for investigating speeding infringements received by VicRoads employees is seriously deficient and that exemptions are approved where staff are not eligible.”

The investigation was limited to the Burwood office of VicRoads Transport Safety Services, examining 18 of the 40 infringements recorded against VicRoads vehicles over a two-year period, following a whistleblower tip-off.

Concerningly, the Ombudsman also said:

“Only one of the officers interviewed by my office demonstrated an understanding of the criteria for exemption under Rule 306A of the Road Rules [that lights or sirens must be displayed while exceeding the speed limit]. I question whether a number of the officers appreciated the rationale behind the rule — public safety.

“…Considering that none of the directors interviewed understood the criteria for exemption under Rule 306A, they were not in a position to fulfil their role of ensuring staff were aware of their obligations under the Road Rules.”

One officer even claimed rule breaking was a necessary part of the job:

“The investigation also exposed a culture within a key unit of VicRoads of ignoring the legislation they are responsible for enforcing. One VicRoads enforcement officer told us they “can’t do their jobs” if they did not break the law. People with the power to enforce the law and impose penalties on others must be held to the highest possible standards when it comes to their own conduct. It is a worrying state of affairs when those charged with enforcing the rules not only flout them, but have no qualm in doing so.”

The ombudsman also expressed concern that this limited investigation potentially pointed to a systemic problem within the agency, recommending VicRoads conduct a wider review into their own processes:

“While my office only examined 18 speeding infringement exemption requests relating to officers in the Burwood office, considering: the number of exemptions that were approved over a period of just under two years that did not fulfil the criteria under Rule 306A [and] the lack of internal controls to monitor exemptions it is possible that this is a systemic issue that applies across all TSS [Transport Safety Services] regions.

“This needs to be addressed by the VicRoads executive.”

“…Given the problems identified in this region, the lack of internal controls to monitor exemptions and the confused data, I am recommending that VicRoads review all exemptions approved in the past three years and take appropriate action in relation to any staff who either incurred or approved an exemption inappropriately.”

Glass emphasised the importance of whistleblowers reporting wrongdoing:

“This potentially dangerous and unfair practice came to light as a result of a whistleblower coming forward. Reporting wrongdoing is the first step to rooting it out.”

The ombudsman recommended disciplinary action against two VicRoads staff, according to Victorian public service guidelines. Glass also made a number of other recommendations on improved training of staff and developing review procedures to prevent a re‑occurrence.

VicRoads has accepted all the recommendations made in the investigation and is required to report the results of the audit and any action taken to the ombudsman within six months.

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