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Everything you need to know about demerit points

It can be hard to know exactly what a traffic stop is going to cost you, in dollars and demerit-points.
Stephen Corby
Contributing Journalist
CarsGuide

11 Aug 2016 • 9 min read

There's something just a little bit kindergarten about the whole demerit-points thing, only without the good parts - the six-hour days, tuck-shop lunches, being allowed to wee in your pants if you feel like it, and the gold stars.

The police don't give you gold stars for good driving, of course, they just take them away for bad behaviour, and if things go really badly, you'll have to sit in the corner with no car to play with for some time. Australian states, like our schools, don't all play by exactly the same rules, which means you need to know just how much playing up you can get away with before you wear the dunce's cap of licence suspension. Pay attention at the back.

Just about every driver, of course, knows that gut-clenching, squeaky-bum feeling of spotting blue-and-red lights in the rear-view mirror. What is difficult to know, in that sickening moment, is exactly what the traffic stop is going to cost you, in dollars and demerit-points.

While the cash penalty is annoying, it is at least predictable; the worse the offence, the higher the fine. But to ensure rich people aren't free to break the rules at will, the government also hands out demerit points for certain offences. Collect enough points and, rich or poor, you'll be on the bus (or possibly in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine) with your licence suspended.

You actually start with zero points

The most common misconception regarding the demerit-point system is that you start with a specific number of points, and every offence recorded counts you down to zero, where a licence suspension awaits.

But actually, every driver in Australia begins with a demerit point balance of zero, and offences add points (think of them as poo-brown-coloured stars) until you hit a pre-determined number.

NSW alone has more than 200 individual traffic offences (so you don't just get demerit points for speeding), and most carry their own demerit-point punishment.

How many demerit points that is depends on where you live. In Victoria, the magic number is a predictably low 11, while in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland it's 12.

In NSW, you can accumulate up to 13 points before you'll be taking a three-month – or longer – break from the road. The risks are higher if you're a new driver, with L- and P-plate demerit points limited to just four right across Australia. And they really can accrue quickly.

How you accrue demerit points

So far so clear, then. But it's the way demerit-point penalties are calculated that requires the Enigma machine to decipher. And not just because there is perhaps no other example on the planet in which the idea of earning points (think frequent flyer, hotel memberships or credit card rewards) is actually a bad thing.

Sadly the system is not only cruel but almost wilfully confusing: NSW alone has more than 200 individual traffic offences (so you don't just get demerit points for speeding), and most carry their own demerit-point punishment, the severity of which also varies if it's a public holiday, whether you committed your crime in a school zone, or by the type of licence you've got.

All of which is why, for most people, being stopped by a police officer or pinged by a safety camera means the worst kind of lucky dip – one in which every gift is an increasingly crappy surprise.

Exceed the speed limit by 10km/h or less in NSW? That'll be one demerit point. Unless you're on your Ls or Ps, then it's four points. Unless you're on your Ls or Ps and it's a school zone, which is five points. Unless you're not on your Ls or Ps, but you are in a school zone, which is three points. Unless it's a double-demerits public holiday, in which case you might as well start walking immediately.

But forewarned is forearmed, so read on for the most common demerit offences in Australia's most populated states, how you can check demerit points you've accrued, and what to do if you're nearing the limit.

Demerit points-NSW

While by far the most generous state, in that it offers its drivers an extra point before the sin bin, NSW's long and complicated list of penalties is also the most confusing. NSW drivers are allowed to accumulate 13 demerit points, while professional drivers (like taxi or courier drivers - yes, seriously, taxi drivers) can accrue 14. P2 provisional drivers get seven points, while Learner and P1 Provisional drivers are can accrue only four.

Common offences (based on full licence, not in a school zone):

Speeding 10km/h over the limit or less: One point

Speeding 10km/h – 20km/h over: Three points

Speeding 20km/h – 30km/h: Four points

Fail to stop at red light: Three points

Use phone while driving: Four points

The one you didn't know was an offence:

Bad parking: in NSW, park too close to a pedestrian crossing, and you'll cop more than a fine - it's an offence worth one demerit point.

How to check your point balance:

NSW drivers can check their point balance here.

Demerit points-Victoria

Infamously, living in Victoria is akin to a mobile Hunger Games, with car-hating authorities forever dreaming up new and inventive ways to catch drivers doing the wrong thing, be it hiding speed cameras under camouflage netting (really, this happens), or secreting them under bridges, pedestrian overpasses or in the back of unmarked vans. If you live and drive in Victoria, you have probably already lost your licence, but just in case you haven't, drivers can accrue 11 demerit points, while P- or L-plate drivers get four.

Common offences (based on full licence, not in a school zone):

Exceed the speed limit by 10km/h or less: One point

Speeding over 10km/h – 25km/h: Three points

Speeding 25km/h – 35km/h: Four points

Not stop at red light: Three points

Use phone while driving: Four points

The one you didn't know was an offence:

The high-beamer: in Victoria, failing to dip your highbeams when passing an oncoming car isn't just a dick move, it will also score you one demerit point.

How to check your point balance:

Victorians can check their point balance here.

Demerit points-WA

Western Australia's demerit-point rules are the most generous in the country. Low-range speeding offences carry no demerit points (praise be!), while mid- and high-range offences both carry a lower demerit hit than NSW and Victoria.

Common offences (based on full licence, not in a school zone):

Speeding, by not more than 9km/h: Zero points

Speeding 9km/h - 19km/h: Two points

Speeding 19km/h – 29km/h: Three points

Not stop at red light: Three points

Use phone while driving: Three points

The one you didn't know was an offence:

Driveway danger: When you're leaving your driveway in Western Australia, check for pedestrians walking along the footpath. Pulling out in front of someone will earn you three demerit points.

How to check your point balance:

Drivers in WA can check their point balance here.

Demerit points-QLD

While Queenslanders would have you believe their state is some kind of lawless Wild West where men hunt and women join One Nation, the reality – on the state's roads at least – is a little different. The Queensland demerit-point system is about on par with the rest of the country, with fully licensed drivers allowed to accrue 12 demerit points, with L- and P-plate drivers allowed just four.

Common offences (based on full licence, not in a school zone):

Speeding 13km/h and under: One point

Speeding 13km/h – 20km/h: Three points

Speeding 20km/h – 30km/h: Four points

Not stop at red light: Three points

Use phone while driving: Three points

The one you didn't know was an offence:

The island life: On Fraser Island, it is illegal to drive a hire vehicle (yep, specifically a hire vehicle) with a load on its roof. Doing so will earn you three points.

How to check your point balance:

Queenslanders can check their point balance here.

Demerit points-South Australia

Another land of the hidden speed camera, South Australian drivers often have no idea they've committed an offence until the fine arrives in the post. Drivers can accrue 12 points, while L- and P-platers can accrue four. Once you've reached the maximum number, you'll be awarded the opportunity to experience South Australia's world-class public-transportation system. For how long depends on how many points you've accrued: 12-15 points is a three-month suspension, 16-20 points is four months, while more than 20 will see you crying on the bus for five months.

Common offences (based on full licence, not in a school zone):

Speeding 10km/h and under: Two points

Speeding 10km/h – 20km/h: Three points

Speeding 20km/h – 30km/h: Five points

Not stop at red light: Three points

Use phone while driving: Three points

The one you didn't know was an offence:

The warning flash: You know how, when you spot a police car waiting to book cars travelling in the opposite direction, people flash their high-beams to warn other drivers - because it's just the right thing to do? Well, in South Australia, they call that "using your headlights to dazzle others", and it carries a penalty of one demerit point.

How to check your point balance:

Drivers in South Australia can check their points balance here.

What to do when you've hit your demerit point limit

Don't worry, all is not lost. Each of the above states has what they call a good-behaviour option (hello again, kindergarten teachers/being treated like children), or what's colloquially known as the "double-or-nothing gamble". The details vary slightly depending on where you live, but the basic set-up remains the same: if you reach the maximum number of points allowed, you will receive a letter giving you a choice between taking whatever suspension you're facing, or to continue driving, but without incurring another demerit point for a specific period, which is usually 12 months. Break the rules within that period, - and we're talking just one point - and the government will double that original suspension period.

Yes, the whole system does paint the authorities into a role as your Kindy teacher, or perhaps a not-very-benevolent nanny, but this is what we've allowed to happen. And the more you know, the better chance you've got of staying on the road.

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