Do the Road Rules Apply on Private Property?

Brace yourself for a shock. The law doesn't differentiate between public and private property when it comes to where the road rules apply. This can have startling, and sobering, consequences. Just below is an example that relates to being on a camping trip in a 4X4, but the same principle applies in the car park of a major shopping centre.

Let’s say you’re in the bush. Let’s say you’re camped on an outback station, on private property that’s open to the public. Legally. A place where recreational camping is allowed. Encouraged, even, as a source of revenue for the grazier. The sun’s setting. You’re on the bank of a choice creek. It’s been a textbook day. Half a dozen fresh fish on the barbecue plate (bad day for them; a good one for you), and you’re swapping lies with mates, with a few beers to chase them down.

A light chill is creeping in as the sun sets. You decide that maybe there isn’t enough firewood at hand to keep you all toasty until you fall into your swags. Thankfully, you noticed a dead, seasoned log about 400 metres down the track, on the way in. So you jump in your 4X4, back up to the log, cinch it with your drag chain and haul it back into camp.

Now, we both know you wouldn’t drive on a public road after a few beers. But this isn’t exactly driving, you’re on private land, so it’s hardly a public road, and you feel it’s reasonably safe. So you just jump in and do it. No big deal, right?

There’s a few other campers around, and it’s no great surprise that another vehicle pulls into camp behind you. You’re thinking they’ll struggle to set up camp before the sun sets proper. But it’s the local copper. And he’s not acting that cheery. In fact, he makes you submit to a breath test. You fail – mid-range DUI. He hits you with a summons to appear at the local court, and says you’re looking at the loss of your license and a big fine. Hang on a minute, you think – you’re planning to be half the country away by then. And you weren’t wearing a seatbelt, he says, so you cop a hefty on-the-spot fine.

And all the while you’re thinking: but I’m on private property. What’s wrong with this picture?

Sadly the main thing that’s wrong with the picture is that ignorance of the law is no defence. Unfortunately most people don’t know where the road rules apply, and where they don’t. And, when such errors are made, they usually assume the rules don’t apply in situations where really they do.

So, let’s clear the air on that.

The Australian Road Rules (ARR) apply to ‘vehicles’ and ‘road users’ on ‘roads’ and ‘road-related areas’. Each of these terms has a defined meaning – of which ‘road’ is the most commonly misunderstood.

According to the ARR, a road is “an area that is open to or used by the public, and is developed for, or has as one of its main uses, the driving or riding of motor vehicles”. A road-related area is “an area that divides a road” plus footpaths or nature strips adjacent to roads, public cycleways, and places open to the public that are used for parking. It pays to read these definitions a couple of times.

The first thing that screamed out at me when I did that second read is that the rules don’t distinguish between public and private property. And that means, for example, that practically everywhere you drive is a road. Beaches allowing 4X4s are all, technically, roads (“has as one of its main purposes the driving,” etc…) So are tracks on private property, potentially, and crown land. And that means any time you drive your 4X4 on a beach, it had better be registered, and you had better have a license, not be drunk, be wearing a seatbelt, use headlights and indicators, give way at T-intersections, etc.

There’s more. The car park at Woolies (or Coles, Aldi, IGA, etc.) is a road. So you would be advised to follow the rules there, give way to pedestrians when turning at intersections as discussed last month, etc. By logical extension, then, the car park at the RSL or pub (or the Maccas drive-through) is a road. So you’d better not decide to move your 4X4 to a safer parking spot at the club before jumping in a cab after one too many beers. (The first time I was made aware of this was in a conversation with a solicitor – and no, not from behind bars – who pointed out the whole ‘pub car park is a road’ situation. I was thunderstruck.)

In fact, any two-wheeled rut not blocked by a locked gate pretty much qualifies as a road. If you drive like a goose on it, you could go for driving in a manner dangerous, or some other serious offence. It also means you can’t allow people to ride in the trays of utes, or hang onto the running boards.

And, okay, once you get beyond that last espresso machine it’s hardly as if there’s a copper hiding behind every stick of mulga. But if something goes wrong, say if someone gets hurt, there’s a whole book of rules they can throw at you because you really were on a road at the time.

At least you can’t say you didn’t know that any more…