Technology

Watchdog Says Australia's Traffic Enforcement System Has Hits Hundreds Of Drivers With Bogus Fines

In Australia, the government has automated traffic enforcement, letting the machines do the work. It’s also automated the limited due process procedures, giving aggrieved citizens the chance to have their complaints and challenges ignored at scale, as The Newspaper reports.

At least 397 motorists in Victoria, Australia, lost their right to drive because the state government bungled the handling of speed camera fines. In a report released Wednesday, Victoria Ombudsman Deborah Glass blasted Fines Victoria, the agency responsible for overseeing the handling of citations. The report reviewed 605 complaints from members of the public about how this year-old state agency handled their situations.

“Many complaints were about delay in the processing of nominations, completing reviews and implementing payment plans,” Glass said in a statement. “The impact of these issues should not be underestimated. People had their licenses wrongly suspended, or were treated as liable for substantial fines, when they had committed no offense.”

Automating the back end and the front end results in this sort of thing — just one of several personal anecdotes the Ombudsman collected from angry Australians forced to deal with the user-unfriendly system. From the report [PDF]:

Dan contacted the Ombudsman about infringements incurred by his late son who had died in tragic circumstances. Dan said he made multiple attempts to call Fines Victoria, but on each occasion the phone went to an automated service, or he was on hold for a long time.

Dan also said he had sent through multiple complaints online but had not received a response. We contacted Fines Victoria, providing a copy of the Coroner’s ‘confirmation of death certificate’ for Dan’s son. We followed up several times after receiving no response. Fines Victoria said later they had not received the email from us.

Dan received further enforcement letters which he said was extremely stressful and upsetting. He became increasingly concerned the Sheriff would go to his son’s home which he had shared with housemates.

Fines Victoria put all 27 outstanding matters, totalling $7,636.60, on hold pending their withdrawal. The enquiry process, however, went for close to 40 days. This is despite Dan providing all relevant information to Fines Victoria a number of times before contacting us.

That’s one of the possible outcomes of Fines Victoria mishandling its end of the complaint process: law enforcement showing up to seize property and auction it off to pay fines. All of this is set in motion automatically via date triggers. From the report, it appears Australian citizens can spend every day of their challenge periods on hold without ever reaching anyone who could help them with a resolution.

Even the lucky few who manage to speak to a live person aren’t going to receive much help. The multiple failures detailed in the report received responses from Fines Victoria ranging from “not our fault” to “we’ll try not to screw so many people over in the future.”

One citizen sums up the Fines Victoria experience succinctly:

When we make a mistake, we pay. When they make a mistake, we pay.

Some of this could have been prevented if Fines Victoria had used all of its allotted time to ensure proper functionality before bringing the system online. Instead, the government decided to rush implementation, leading to a spectacular run of failures that stripped people of their licenses, hit them with bogus fees, and otherwise made their lives miserable.

On 31 December 2017, Fines Victoria began operation with only partial IT functionality. Problems with IT functionality, and related procedural and processing issues, have been apparent since the inception of the agency…

It was not clear why, with a default commencement date of 31 May 2018, the decision was taken to commence earlier than this on 31 December 2017. This decision was perplexing considering Fines Victoria was reporting that significant IT challenges were affecting its operation from the time it commenced.

This rush job led directly to Australians being punished by a system that was much, much worse than the one it replaced.

Complaints received about Fines Victoria in 2018 represented a 74 per cent increase from the number of complaints received the previous year about Civic Compliance Victoria.

All the new system added was “significant IT challenges,” significant hold times, and a much lower chance of having problems resolved.

In addition to the rise in the number of complaints, Ombudsman staff observed a change in the nature of the complaints. People were expressing frustration about delays and being unable to make contact with Fines Victoria much more frequently than with the predecessor agency. There was also an increase in complexity about the administration of infringements which meant many complaints could not be resolved through a quick series of enquiries.

It’s not just the software. It’s also the people. The Ombudsman notes that the problems in the system were made worse by the government employees fielding complaints, who often seemed to go out of their way to push problems back on drivers.

Enforcement at this scale isn’t possible without at least some automation. But the government’s botched implementation shows it cared more about maximizing revenue than minimizing error. And when everything goes this wrong this quickly, it’s the citizens who end up paying for both the end results of a broken system and the costs involved in fixing it.

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