Australian Road Rules
The Australian Road Rules are a set of model road rules developed by the National Road Transport Commission which form the basis for state and territory road rules across Australia. The first edition of the rules was published on 19 October 1999, after decades of working towards a shared road safety policy with officials from jurisdictions across Australia.
Australia's Constitution does not provide the federal Parliament legislative power for road transport law. As such, road laws are the responsibility of state and territory parliaments. Historically, there were many differences between the eight sets of traffic rules in force in Australia, for example, the penalties for traffic offences varied and there were differing rules governing the approach to intersections. Calls for a set of uniform road rules for Australia came as early as 1933.
According to Shepherd and Calvert, the first genuine attempt to establish national Road Rules was in 1947 when Australian transport ministers (constituted as the Australian Transport Advisory Council) established the Australian Road Traffic Code Committee. The first version of a National Traffic Code was issued in 1958 and the last in 1988. Shepherd and Calvert reported that it was not applied uniformly across the country: some jurisdictions adopted parts of the Code; others ignored significant parts of it. In 1963 Richard Kingsland, then Secretary of the Department of the Interior, convened the 13th meeting of the Australian Road Traffic Committee and called for states to be flexible and to compromise to achieve a national traffic code. By 1965, the Australian Transport Advisory Council had prepared recommendations for nationwide standards for a national road law, for considerations by the states.
The Australian Road Rules project was established in the early 1990s, aimed at establishing a model set of road rules that states and territories across Australia could adopt in their local laws to create improved national uniformity or consistency. Responsibility for the project was passed to the National Road Transport Commission in 1995.
In January 1999, the Australian Transport Council (comprising each of Australia's transport ministers) voted by majority to approve the final draft Rules submitted by the National Road Transport Commission, the Commonwealth and all states and territories except Western Australia approved the rules. The first edition of the Rules was published on 19 October 1999 and was available for formal adoption by States and Territories from December 1999.
The broad content of the Australian Road Rules is explained by Shepherd and Calvert as follows -
"The ... Rules contain the basic rules of the road for drivers and riders of motor vehicles, riders of bicycles, pedestrians, passengers and others. In very broad terms, the rules deal with the following sorts of things:
- speed limits (for lengths of roads, areas and zones) and how they are set (e.g. by sign)
- rules about turns (left and right, U-turns and hook turns)
- changing direction (e.g. indicating) and stopping (e.g. stop signals)
- what to do when faced by traffic lights and arrows
- giving way in various situations (e.g. when facing stop or give way signs or lines, when not facing any lights, signs or lines, at pedestrian and children’s crossings, etc.)
- what to do when faced by particular traffic signs (e.g. turning signs) or road markings (e.g. traffic lane arrows)
- level crossings
- keeping left, overtaking, driving in lanes or lines of traffic and merging, special purpose lanes
- restrictions on stopping (e.g. in or near intersections) and parking
- lights and warning devices
- rules for pedestrians including persons on wheeled recreational devices
- special rules for bicycle riders (e.g. mandatory helmet wearing)
- rules for persons travelling in or on vehicles (e.g. seatbelt requirements)
- miscellaneous road rules (e.g. driving a vehicle in reverse)
- specification of applicable traffic signs."
NRTC, its Act and the intergovernmental agreements
The National Road Transport Commission was an independent statutory body established under Commonwealth legislation to give effect to two intergovernmental agreements entered into by the Commonwealth, the States and the Territories in 1991. These were changed by amending agreements entered into by heads of governments in the late 1990s.
The agreements committed each of the nine jurisdictions in Australia (the States, Territories and the Commonwealth) to work together in the interests of reforming road transport for the operation of both heavy and light vehicles. The Act, which arose as a result of those agreements, established the Commission and its objectives. In broad terms, the NRTC sought to develop national laws, policies and procedures to achieve four main things. These were:
- improved transport productivity
- improved safety
- a cleaner environment
- lower administration costs.
Uniformity or consistency
An important part of the Commission’s role, now the responsibility of its successor the National Transport Commission, was to establish a uniform or consistent regulatory environment for road transport across the nation.
As Shepherd and Calvert observed -
- "The NRTC was established to help road transport function in a way that allowed it to function unencumbered by differing jurisdictional requirements that stifle efficiency and productivity and potentially compromise safety and the environment. That is, to overcome the effects of the so-called lines in the sand that represent State and Territory borders."
Approval and implementation
The National Road Transport Commission developed proposals in consultation with industry, governments and other stakeholders and then made recommendations on national policies and legislation to Commonwealth, State and Territory Transport Ministers. A formal voting process set out in the intergovernmental agreements determined the outcome with each Minister’s vote having the same value. If approved by a majority of Ministers, governments implemented the approved reforms “on the ground” with the NRTC playing a broad coordination role. By any measure, this was a challenging process as the history of similar schemes to that point had been mixed broadly due to the special problems posed by seeking to satisfy nine governments and their bureaucracies and industry and the public as well.
Template and model legislation
Initially, the intergovernmental agreements heavily emphasised the development of template legislation as a prime means of entrenching road transport reform in the laws of States and Territories. This is important background to an understanding of how the Australian Road Rules were developed. With the template legislation scheme mandated in the national road transport intergovernmental agreements, legislation was intended to be enacted or made by the Commonwealth for operation in the Australian Capital Territory. The stated intention then was that that legislation was to be adopted unchanged by each of the States and the Northern Territory thus establishing national uniformity. Then as the template was amended, so the theory went, the law of other jurisdictions would change automatically.
While the Commission sought to deliver some national reforms as template legislation in selected instances, over time it became more likely that road transport reform would be delivered in model legislative form or even as policy. The emphasis in the late 1990s and early 2000s was targeted more at the speedy, on the ground delivery of reform without being bound up in process. In conjunction with jurisdictions, the Commission ultimately adopted a ‘horses for courses’ approach. In some instances the reduction of a reform to precise legislative wording was critical or very important to its success. The Australian Road Rules were a good example of this and were broadly delivered in a consistent way by States and Territories. In other instances, such precision became unnecessary and in some instances was a hindrance to achieving reform.
Delivery by jurisdictions
While the Commission was charged with developing reforms and obtaining approval from Ministers for them, it is the responsibility of States and Territories to entrench the reforms in their local laws. While the Commission could monitor progress it was largely powerless to ensure that reforms are implemented on the statute books and “on the ground” in practice. In the result, however, the Australian Road Rules developed by the NRTC were well adopted and entrenched across the country
Multi disciplinary team
Shepherd and Calvert explained the process adopted by the National Road Transport Commission to develop and finalise the Australian Road Rules -
Development and drafting
The project team started by examining the road traffic rules that were in place in each jurisdiction. Detailed public consultations were also a feature of the policy development process. By 1996, arguably most of the policy basis for the Australian Road Rules was settled. Yet there was still widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the draft Rules at that point. Many thought the document was unenforceable and therefore useless as a template or model law. And so, the group worked very intensively through 1997 and 1998 to ensure that the Rules were not only satisfactory in a policy sense but crucially were drafted in such a way that they were enforceable. In effect, the Rules were completely redrafted using the dedicated resources of the Commonwealth Office of Legislative Drafting who liaised with the national Parliamentary Counsel’s Committee as the representatives of State, Territory and Commonwealth parliamentary drafters.
Peak Ministerial approval
Finally, by the end of 1998, the Commission considered that the draft Australian Road Rules were ready to be submitted to and voted on by Ministers. That vote was successful. In the result, the Commission considered that the process produced a superior set of national Rules. They were comprehensive, expressed simply and most importantly, would advance Australian road safety, although there was still room for further improvement as road safety research continued.
The impact of the model road Rules on States and Territories varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, while the banning of hand-held mobile phones while driving was initially a significant change for some jurisdictions, other jurisdictions had had such a ban in place for many years. Based on feedback from States and Territories major changes for some jurisdictions were:
- banning of hand-held mobile phones when driving
- keeping left unless overtaking on multi-lane roads with a speed limit of more than 80 km/h
- the zip merge rule (a driver in a line of traffic that is merging with one or more other lines of traffic travelling in the same direction must give way to a vehicle if any part of that vehicle is ahead of the driver’s vehicle, but only where there are no line markings or lane lines)
- new stopping distances (various locations such as intersections, bus stops, crest or curve, railway crossings, children’s crossings)
- prohibiting U-turns at signalised intersections unless otherwise signed
- giving way to pedestrians at slip lanes
- prohibiting the crossing of double continuous centre lines to enter or leave roads
- prohibiting passengers travelling unrestrained in a vehicle’s load space (e.g. utilities)
- two tier parking (no stopping, no parking)
- prohibiting the crossing of single continuous lines unless turning onto or off the road
- requiring people on skateboards, in-line skates (wheeled recreational devices) and wheeled toys to give way to pedestrians on footpaths
- allowing footpath cycling by children under 12 years old.
Features assisting interpretation and understanding
The rules as a traffic handbook
One of the original ideas behind the development of the Australian Road Rules in the 1990s was that the Rules should be so simple that the book containing them would contain not only the law but double as a traffic handbook for learner drivers as well. This ambitious idea was probably always doomed to failure. Early and supposedly simple drafts of the Rules were deemed unenforceable by parliamentary drafters. The final approved version of the Rules was drafted in a plain English style favoured by Australian Parliamentary drafters and has proved since 1999 to have none of the enforcement problems evident in the earlier drafts.
The Australian Road Rules contained a number of other interesting features that were innovative in Australian and possibly in the traffic law in other counties at the time they were first included. Each of these features was aimed at helping readers to interpret and understand the law. For example, the Rules contain a Reader’s Guide aimed at providing a general introduction to the content and structure of the Rules.
The Rules also made use of example diagrams to assist in the interpretation of particular rules. Again, this was unprecedented in Australian legislation at this point, particularly in traffic law. For instance, sub-rule 33 outlines how drivers are to make right turns. In basic terms, the rule says that if a road marking exists indicating how a right turn should be made, a driver must turn as indicated by that road marking (rule 33 (2)). However, if there is no such road marking, a driver must make the right turn so that the driver passes as near as practicable to the right of the centre of the intersection. Both of these situations are made clear by colour diagrams which are included in the rules themselves. The diagram feature is used regularly throughout the Rules, most notably to help explain give way rules.
Also, examples in narrative form supplemented many rules too, again to help readers with particular rules and generally to make the law clearer for readers. This leads into another feature of the Rules.
Use of colour
The National Road Transport Commission produced the Australian Road Rules in colour. Again, this was a revolutionary development in Australian traffic law and Australian law generally at the time as laws at that time were uniformly produced in black and white only. Each of the common and standard road signs and alternative signs was reproduced in colour in a Schedule to the Rules. However, if required, the diagrams could be viewed and interpreted satisfactorily in black and white as well.
Notes supplemented many individual rules and sub-rules. The purpose of notes varied, but they can alert readers to the fact that a term used in a rule is a defined term (and provide advice on where the definition can be located), advise readers about other relevant rules or provide other types of assistance. Rule 140 of the Rules provides an illustration of how notes are used throughout the Rules document.
Adoption and maintenance
When the Australian Road Rules were in the final stages of negotiations, States and Territories began to turn their minds to how they would adopt them in local law. Methods of adoption varied across the nation. Some jurisdictions adopted the Rules in a quasi-template fashion by simply referencing the Rules document published by the National Road Transport Commission. Other jurisdictions, on the other hand, adopted the Rules by a “mirror” approach and basically reproduced the Rules in their local law.
States and Territories made a powerful point to the Commission as the Rules process was concluding. In essence, the jurisdictions said that the value of the national Road Rules would dissipate quickly, given the dynamic nature of traffic law, unless the Commission established a process to ensure the Rules were kept up to date. The National Road Transport Commission agreed that a maintenance process was necessary and submitted an appropriate proposal on an in-principle basis to Ministers. Ministers then specifically approved the establishment of a maintenance process for the Rules when they approved the Rules themselves.
Since that time the details of the process have been settled with States and Territories and have been put into practice. In fact, the need for maintenance was seen to be so fundamental to ongoing national uniformity or consistency that it was written into the statute which founded the successor organisation to the National Road Transport Commission, the National Transport Commission. The National Transport Commission now acts as the coordinator of the Road Rules maintenance group.
The vast bulk of the 351 rules and Schedules that comprised the initial 1999 version of the Australian Road Rules were determined by consensus. A further eight rules were subject to a special Ministerial vote. Some issues could either not be settled during the negotiations or were simply left to local law rather than delay the approval and implementation of the Rules. In other instances, it was simply agreed that some matters were not appropriate to be dealt with in a national document.
The Commission regarded the gradual minimisation of jurisdiction exemptions as a good example of how the maintenance process might be used not only to maintain national uniformity or consistency but also to enhance it. More fundamentally, new road safety policies and strategies emerge from time to time and will form the basis for changes to the rules including potential new controls.
The National Transport Commission is charged with maintaining the Australian Road Rules. From time to time, the Commission develops maintenance packages for the Rules which are submitted to the Australian Transport Council for the approval of Australia's Transport Ministers and for the ultimate adoption and roll out across the States and Territories of Australia.
Notes and citations
- National Road Transport Commission (1 December 1999). "National Road Rules A Transport Milestone" (Press release). Archived from the original on 12 February 2014.
- Parliamentary Education Office, Making laws, Australian Government, archived from the original on 11 February 2014
- "Uniformity of road rules in Australia sought". The West Australian. 16 August 1951. p. 3.
- Doherty, Frank (19 September 1950). "Interstate traffic mix-up: 'Rafferty' still rules on the roads". The Argus. p. 2.
- Watson, J.C. (1933), Australian Year Book, NRMA of NSW in
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 1.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 4.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, pp. 3–4.
- "National Road Laws 'Needed'". The Canberra Times. 4 December 1963. p. 8.
- "National road law backed". The Canberra Times. 9 July 1965. p. 1.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 2.
- The National Road Transport Commission Act 1991 of the Commonwealth (“the Act”).
- See former Schedules 1 and 2 to the Act.
- See Schedules 1A and 2A to the former Act.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 3.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 8.
- South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
- ACT, NT, Tas, Vic.
- Vic, Tas, Qld.
- Tas, SA
- ACT; Victoria does not apply this rule (see r 40 in the Victorian Road Safety Rules 2009)
- NSW, NT.
- Qld, Vic.
- SA, Tas, Qld, NT.
- SA, Vic.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 5.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, pp. 5–6.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 6.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, pp. 6–7.
- Shepherd & Calvert 1999, p. 7.
- Such as New South Wales.
- Basically all jurisdictions other than NSW and the ACT used this method of adoption.
- A simple example of this latter situation is the definition of “emergency worker” in the Dictionary at the back of the Rules. Emergency workers are exempt from a number of provisions of the Rules and should and will cover different people in different States and Territories due to the diversity of emergency functions and organisations in each jurisdiction.
- Shepherd, Ian W.; Calvert, Fiona A. (1999), The Australian Road Rules—What are they and where are they going? (PDF), Australian Government (National Road Transport Commission), archived from the original (PDF) on 25 September 2016
- Australian Road Rules National Transport Commission road rules page.
- Copy of the rules in the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments