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Tim READ (Brunswick) (17:54): I am speaking on behalf of the Greens and also the Brunswick electorate on the Transport Legislation Amendment Bill 2023. It is a bill that amends many disparate areas of transport legislation. I am not going to go into all of the detailed, technical proposed amendments – I will leave it to my colleagues in the other place to speak in more detail on the entirety of the bill – but I will discuss where the bill engages with road safety, road trauma and active transport in the inner city.
The headline amendment proposed in the bill is to enable the Minister for Roads and Road Safety to establish a framework for a road safety research trial for driving under the influence of drugs such as medicinal cannabis and potentially other substances by allowing regulations to change the Road Safety Act 1986 for the purposes of establishing the trial. Victoria passed legislation to enable access to medicinal cannabis in 2016, but unlike all other prescribed medications that can affect a person’s driving ability, including classes of opioids and benzodiazepines, for some reason the government decided that the general offence of driving while impaired is not sufficient to deal with medicinal cannabis but rather that any amount of THC – the active element of cannabis – in a person’s test result, however minute, should be an offence. Now, why the government decided that one prescribed drug should be treated entirely differently from every other prescribed drug, including some far more sedating, is puzzling. It is also irrational and entirely political.
But of course cannabis has caused far more cognitive impairment in Australian politicians over the last half a century than it has in Australian drivers, and as a result we have seen little change to our ineffectual cannabis laws from Australian governments for the last 50 years. The Greens position is that those with a prescription for medicinal cannabis should be treated the same as a person driving under the influence of any other prescribed drug under the Road Safety Act. But the proposal here to initiate a trial on the effects of medicinal cannabis on driving does at least suggest a scientific approach will be adopted to this specific aspect of drug policy, so we will support this amendment. But I do wonder why we are stopping here and why we are not undertaking scientific trials for other drug policies and laws in terms of their impact on public safety and public health, because what we will find is that we have laws and legal status for drugs that are largely political and arbitrary and that are not based on science and not based on safety or on reducing harm. In fact in some ways our current drug policies are maximising harm. So let us do a scientific trial of pill testing and let us do a scientific trial of the decriminalisation of drug use to seek to improve public safety more broadly beyond driving and beyond prescription drugs as well.
Let us turn from one trial to another. Victoria is now heading into the third year of what began as a one-year trial of e-scooter hire schemes, which has now been extended. In the interim Victoria has also allowed the use of personal electric scooters. In terms of uptake, this scheme has been a great success, reflecting the reality that in all major cities many people really do not want to have to drive in traffic and find and pay for a place to park in the inner city and in the inner suburbs when there are cheaper, cleaner and faster ways to get around. As an e-bike user I can travel into the city whenever I want. Door to door from my home in Brunswick it is about 20 minutes to Parliament by e-bike, it is about 20 minutes by car and it is about 20 minutes by tram, provided you do not have to look for a park or wait for a tram. So scooters and bikes are really good at joining the dots in transport systems, and particularly in other cities they are often referred to as last-mile transport or last-kilometre transport. And the lack of emissions and pollution is a great bonus.
However, there have been some issues and problems with the trial, many of them reflecting the longstanding issues and problems with Victoria’s active transport policies and infrastructure which have really just been magnified by the uptake in all of these new technologies. The primary issue is safety – safety of those using the e-transport, but this is also applicable to those using other unpowered active transport, whether it is cycling, skateboarding or walking. I have heard concerns of emergency doctors who have seen a substantial increase in scooter injuries, albeit from a baseline of zero before the technology was available. Because the need to change how we move about this city is obvious and because these problems are predictable, not insurmountable, and should really have already been resolved by a progressive government committed to planning for a metropolis which, I read today, will hit 6.4 million people in little over a decade but, as we know, has nowhere to put the million-odd extra cars on the roads from this population growth, something needs to change. And so I am glad that the government has finally adopted a Greens policy from two elections ago to appoint a minister for active transport, noting even conservative governments elsewhere did this years ago. That points us to some of the problems that we have observed both in the e-scooter trial and in active transport more generally.
The government needs to get serious about planning and investing in separated road lanes to protect e-scooter users from cars. E-scooter users are not surrounded by a ton of plastic and steel, like drivers. Therefore physical separation will prevent cuts and bruises from becoming life-altering and sometimes life-ending injuries. The government did belatedly release a cycling strategy in 2018 but it has been ignored, and it has become even more relevant today with the advent of e-transport and population growth. The cycling strategy stated the obvious: that many more people, particularly women, will use active transport and not cars if it is made safe to do so, and the only serious way to improve safety is to create a barrier on the roads between those in motor vehicles travelling at high speeds and those who are at best only protected by a helmet and their skin.
But this government simply has not invested in the relatively inexpensive infrastructure required to make vulnerable road users less vulnerable, and where it has, the rollout has been piecemeal, leaving people vulnerable for at least part of their trips. Too much of the hard work, planning and financing of active transport infrastructure has been left to councils, meaning some, like Melbourne City Council, have moved substantially forward, but this infrastructure has not carried on to the neighbouring inner suburbs – not in an integrated way which would protect people end to end, from home to their place of work or school. So I am concerned that this bill also appears to propose putting responsibility for how scooter trials are run and regulated back on every separate LGA and council to decide, rather than at least providing some statewide guidance and direction, which is required to ensure that there is consistency and continuity across the state.
Every morning when entering my electorate office I see the end result of a piecemeal approach. There is a multitude of dumped rental e-scooters along Brunswick Road and Nicholson Street because this is the point at which the scooters are GPS restrained from moving beyond the trial zone. This artificial geographic restriction may be necessary during the trial but also serves to illustrate that we must ensure that there is a consistent framework and rules operating across all of Victoria to make this scheme work for people. Councils have an important role to play, but the state government must provide the direction, strategy and funding for an integrated active transport network, and this means providing the end-to-end infrastructure along major inner-city transport routes to separate motor vehicles from vulnerable road users.