In justice’s blind spot: my dogged fight against Revenue NSW to preserve a clean driving record

When I was pinged for a nonsensical red light offence and fined $469, it wasn’t about the money, it was about the principle. Well, and the money

The flash at the traffic lights felt sickening – a lifetime of law-abiding driving down the toilet.

Last year, I got my first traffic fine. After 10 years of being able to brag that I had never partaken in (or at least been caught) speeding or touching my phone at the wheel, or so much as receiving a parking ticket or a faulty blinker, I finally got stung.

I was in a rush to make it to futsal in inner-Sydney, when I accidentally accelerated through a red light at a complicated five-way intersection, not realising the light that just turned green didn’t apply to me.

A second later, I realised my error and braked hard. I’d stopped just past the line, and then reversed back behind the line to wait for my green light.

But that didn’t matter. A few weeks later I received a ticket in the post – $469 and three demerit points.

My life as a driver flashed before my eyes. All those years of close calls – hovering at the speed limit due to my consistent lateness, resisting WhatsApp notifications behind the wheel, staring down police officers behind their mobile speed guns.

I had more than just a reputation for safety – this was my persona. Zipping around Sydney in my metallic blue Mazda 2 roughly as long as I am tall, I am someone who makes road laws work for me. Friends come to me for my encyclopedic knowledge of free parking and school zone-free routes as if they’d gone to Bunnings for DIY advice.

What would happen if I lost my green apron?

I quickly logged on to the Revenue NSW website and requested the images of my offence. The two pictures captured by the traffic camera backed up my version of events, showing my brake lights half illuminated in the first picture and fully illuminated in the follow up.

Elias Visontay’s Red Light Camera Incident
The two red light camera pictures used to justify Elias Visontay’s fine, with clearly visible brake lights on right. Photograph: Revenue NSW

The timestamp usually indicates fractions of a second between the light turning red and the camera flashing. In my case, since I had stopped on red then inadvertently responded to the wrong light turning green, it read 48 seconds.

I figured this all made a compelling case. Clearly I was not a rowdy hoon drag racing the industrial back streets of Alexandria.

On a personal level, I was fuelled by the sense of injustice. While I like to think I project an easygoing air, those who know the real me will attest to my Larry David-like proclivity to collect and maintain grudges.

I knew I had a clean driving record, and with almost $500 and increased insurance and licence renewal costs at stake, I was ready to fight this.

Searching for a human to speak to

Initially I requested a review with Revenue NSW – a simple but frustrating process that allows drivers to submit a written statement bound by a tight character limit explaining if they believe a mistake has been made, or, if they admit the offence, why they deserve leniency.

This felt like I was being asked to compose a tweet which, if punchy enough to go viral, could save me $469 and my safe driving blue tick. Alas, my E-grade Twitter celebrity should have been a sign of what was to come.

Within a month, my request had been rejected. A letter from a nameless “commissioner of fines administration” acknowledged my comments about stopping quickly and reversing – the fact I hadn’t actually proceeded through the intersection.

There was no acknowledgement of my clean driving record. Perhaps I should have typed #safedriver for Revenue NSW to recognise what I was saying.

The only reason given for rejecting my review was bizarre. “Leniency is inappropriate for a school zone offence as it is considered serious due to the safety risk to children, pedestrians and other road users,” the letter said.

This was clearly an error, as the offence occurred after 6pm, when no school zones are active. But I had hit the end of the road with Revenue NSW. There is no way to reply once your review is rejected.

This was infuriating. If only I could speak to an actual human being to straighten this out. Revenue NSW seemed impenetrable. Heck, by this point I’d even settle for an overseas call centre with egregiously long wait times – at least you get to shout at someone.

Next, I wrote about the school zone error to my state MP, who in turn wrote to the finance minister, whose response was almost as automated as Revenue NSW’s glitchy web process.

While acknowledging the school zone mention was a clear error by Revenue NSW, he said leniency could never be considered for someone proceeding through a red light, which is such “a serious offence because of the safety risk to children, pedestrians and other road users”.

This despite the fact I didn’t actually drive through the intersection.

Not ready to back down, there was only one avenue left to me – taking the matter to court. I’d always been told to avoid entering the legal system at all costs. After all, I could ultimately take the financial hit of the fine.

But while tossing up my legal options I happened to be reporting on a court case over several weeks and struck up conversation with a senior constable sitting in on proceedings.

During one of the breaks, I told him about my fine. He urged me to take it to court, criticising the automated Revenue NSW process. He thought I would win, and explained what I had to do.

He had fanned the flame inside me and justified my rage. The NSW government had picked a fight with the wrong guy, and I had just found my jousting stick.

Be humble

Before electing to go to court, drivers should seek legal advice. I spoke to Samantha Lee, acting principal solicitor at Redfern Legal Centre, who was keen to point out that most traffic offences are “strict liability offences”.

“It’s not about intent, it’s about whether you crossed that line or not. So it’s not a defence to say that you didn’t intend to do something.”

Once you take a matter to court, what’s at stake is no longer just a fine.

If you decide to go ahead you’ll need to enter a plea before your matter is listed. Drivers’ options are to plead guilty, and explain why their financial circumstances, driving record, or need to keep their licence – such as for their job or to support their family – mean the punishment is too severe. Or they can plead not guilty.

However you plead, Lee stresses that drivers should be humble and “go in with your vulnerabilities on your sleeve”.

Lee says she has “found that generally the courts are more lenient than Revenue NSW or the equivalent in other jurisdictions”. She also put my experience with the online review in a new light.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that they have a guidebook to say there are some matters they just won’t consider for leniency, such as high-end speeding and matters in school zones.”

Driving history was a big factor in how a case is determined, Lee said.

Buoyed by my sparkly clean record, I felt ready to go back into battle. As I’m pleading guilty, I can do so via a written notice of pleading – meaning I don’t have to attend court for my hearing.

The intersection where Elias Visontay was fined for running a red light
The driver’s perspective of the intersection in question that Elias Visontay provided to the court to show the lack of signage. Photograph: Elias Visontay/The Guardian

I wrote about why I believe my fine should be waived, including images of my brake lights illuminated in the speed camera images. I even revisited the intersection in daylight and took photos showing how the signs had confused me.

I also mentioned my Kafkaesque experience to date dealing with Revenue NSW, and how I felt terrible wasting the busy court’s time.

Writing about my ordeal in a formal setting was cathartic, but I braced myself for a bad result. It never came.

I received an email a few days after my hearing date.

“Without proceeding to conviction the matter is dismissed,” the registrar said.

While I had been hoping for pages of reasons tearing Revenue NSW and the finance minister to shreds, I still felt victorious.

Putting the David and Goliath comparisons to one side, I can’t help but reflect on how the appeals process is more arduous than navigating any five-way intersection.

There can be no real winners from a seven-month legal battle full of rage, character limits and government bureaucracy – even if I managed to walk away smiling, with my safe driver blue tick intact.


Elias Visontay

The GuardianTramp

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