Suppose you have had a few beers — maybe a few too many — and you remember that you left your car in the driveway. You grab your keys, stumble to the car, start it, and drive it into the garage. As you are staggering out of the garage, a police officer who happens to be driving past your house notices that you are having difficulty walking in a straight line. The officer stops and asks if you are having a problem. You answer that you are fine but your speech is noticeably slurred.
The officer concludes that you are under the influence of alcohol and asks if you have been driving. You admit that you drove your car, but only from the spot in the driveway where you had parked it into your garage. The car was always on your private property, never on a public street.
To decide whether an act of driving violates the Road Safety Act 1986, the starting point is the language that defines the offence. Section 49(1)(a) makes a driver guilty of an offence if he or she “drives a motor vehicle or is in charge of a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or of any drug to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the motor vehicle.” Nothing in that language (or in the rest of section 49) requires that the driving occur on a public road.
Sometimes the statutory definitions of terms give additional meaning to the statute, but that is not the case here. The definition of “drive” tells us only that “drive includes to be in control of a vehicle.” Motor vehicle is defined as “a vehicle that is used or intended to be used on a highway,” but the intended use of a vehicle does not necessarily limit laws that address the way in which it actually used.
Guidance about the meaning of a law can sometimes be provided by understanding the law’s purpose. The purposes of the Road Safety Act include “to provide for safe, efficient and equitable road use” and “to set out the general obligations of road users in relation to responsible road use.” That language might reasonably suggest that offences are confined to acts of driving on a road. The courts in Victoria, however, do not agree with that interpretation.
In Carr v. Walukiciwick, the Supreme Court of Victoria considered the case of a driver who was trying, with little success, to drive his car in a grassed area between a railway embankment and a fence bordering a road. The driver may have been driving on the road and found himself in the grassed area after losing control of his car, but the police did not see that happen. The driver failed a breath test and was arrested. The magistrate who heard the case dismissed the impaired driving charge because there was no evidence that the driver had driven on a highway while under the influence. The prosecution appealed on the ground that the statute does not require proof of driving on a highway.
The Full Court examined portions of the predecessor to the current Road Safety Act, which included the current definition of “motor vehicle.” The Court concluded that the intended use of a motor vehicle did not limit the Act’s application to acts of driving that occur on highways. The Court determined that parts of the Act, including motor vehicle registration and regulations concerning equipment and roadworthiness, apply only to vehicles that are driven on a road. The Court saw no reason to apply that same limitation to all other parts of the Act. According to the Court, the requirements that drivers be insured and that commercial drivers limit their hours of driving are equally important whether the driving occurs on a highway or on private property.
Sometimes a court will limit a law if its extension will lead to absurd results. The defense made that argument here, suggesting that extending the law to areas other than highways would make intoxicated driving of a power-driven golf buggy on the fairway of a private golf course an offence, as well as intoxicated driving of a riding lawn mower on the driver’s own lawn. The Court did not consider that such examples illustrated an absurd application of the law.To the contrary, the Court regarded it just as absurd to immunize from charge an intoxicated driver who is racing a car on a privately owned racetrack. The Court ultimately concluded that the offence of impaired driving does not require proof that the driving occurred on a highway.
While the Court has not expressly considered a prosecution involving driving in a vehicle owner’s private driveway, a decision of the Supreme Court of Victoria that addressed a vehicle owner who started a car that was parked on private land behind a gas station interpreted Carr v Walukiciwick as determining that the intoxicated driving law imposes no “limitation confining the driving to a highway or other public place.” While not binding in Victoria, the Supreme Court of Tasmania decided in 2009 that driving under the influence of an intoxicant on a private driveway (although, in that case, not on the driver’s own land) constituted an offence. Given the state of the law, prudent drivers should take care to avoid driving under the influence, even if they confine their driving to their own driveways.