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6 things your teen P-plater needs to know about RBT and being breathalyzed

We’re not too far away from the Christmas/New Year period and, like every year, we’re going to see police out in force on the roads in an effort to prevent senseless tragedies from occurring. Random breath testing (RBT) units will be stationed on roads across the country and if you have a young driver at home, it’s highly likely that they’ll be pulled over and breathalyzed in the weeks and months ahead. For as much as it called ‘random’, in reality, very few P-platers mange to drive past an RBT unit and not get ushered into being tested.

Victoria was the first state in the country to introduce RBT way back in 1976. It was then introduced across Australia in different jurisdictions during the 1980s (e.g., NSW in 1982, Tasmania in 1983 and Queensland and WA as late as 1988). Since then, trauma from fatal crashes involving alcohol has dropped, e.g., in NSW it has fallen from about 40% of all fatalities to the 2017 level of 15%. It’s a strategy that works and, unlike speed cameras (which some people regard as a ‘revenue raiser’), it has wide community support.

Most young people have had some experience with RBT before they start driving. They’ve either been in a car when their parent or other adult has been pulled over and breathalyzed, or they’ve simply watched the program RBT (which by the way I recommend every parent should watch at least once with a child who is either just about to or has begun driving). Young drivers have a general understanding of what’s going to happen but nothing ever really prepares them for the first time they get pulled over and asked to blow or talk into that machine.

I’ve written previously about some of the more surprising things that may cause an L- or P-plater to fail a breathalyzer even if they haven’t consumed alcohol, but there are also some other things that P-platers, in particular, should be aware of around being breathalyzed and RBTs. Much of what is listed below is not necessarily written down in police manuals but they’re based on my conversations with both young drivers and police officers about their experiences in this area.

  • There are two ways you can be breathalyzed. Firstly, an RBT unit where there will be a number of officers present, hand-held breathalyzers and a ‘booze bus’. The second way is more likely to happen to a P-plater than a full-licence holder (although it can happen to anyone, particularly if they’re driving in a dangerous way) and that’s being pulled over randomly by a police officer. P-platers, due to their inexperience, are viewed by police as being ‘high-risk’ drivers and, as a result, are far more likely to get pulled over in this way and asked to provide a sample of their breath
  • Although police don’t have to give a reason for pulling you over and conducting a breath test, when they do, it’s usually because of something about you, your driving or your car that has attracted their attention. If you’ve broken the law, it makes perfect sense why you’ve been pulled over but, in many cases, young people are quite surprised with what has led to them being tested. Some of the reasons that have been given to them include having headlights on high-beam or simply not having them on at all, going around a roundabout twice and the most likely one for young men, playing music too loudly. Police have told me that they’ve pulled over P-platers because of the car they’re driving (‘hotted-up’ vehicles and luxury brands like BMWs and Mercedes driven by P-platers are more likely to be targeted). Drivers who wear hoodies over their heads are highly likely to attract police attention and, most importantly, the positioning of a P-plate and whether it’s damaged in anyway can also lead to a young driver being pulled over and breathalyzed
  • If you are stopped, the only information that you’re legally required to give an officer is your driver’s licence which contains your name and address. That said, if they’re just asking you about your night and the plans you have, just answer them – it’ll be easier. If you decide to be difficult and refuse to answer further questions, you could be charged with an offence such as disobeying or contravening a police officer’s direction. It’s so important to remember that an RBT should be a very quick process. Even if you’re pulled over randomly and a few more questions are asked, you should be on your way in minutes. Be polite and respectful – it’ll get you so far!
  • If you haven’t been drinking and fail the preliminary test, don’t panic. The officer would’ve already asked whether or not you’d had anything to drink – if you told them you hadn’t but got a positive test (particularly if it is a very low reading), they’ll most likely ask you to wait a few minutes and then submit another breath sample. Police are aware there are many things that can cause a P-plater to fail a test. If you’ve been respectful and polite, they’re likely to do their best to resolve the issue. I’ve met a couple of young women over the years who failed the test 4 or 5 times before finally passing
  • Don’t have alcohol in your car. In most jurisdictions (although it can be extremely difficult to establish exactly what the law is in this area), if you’re 17-years-old and driving, you’re not allowed to have alcohol (opened or unopened) in your car. If you have someone who is 18 or over in the car with you that should be fine but as a general rule, no matter what age you are, if a police officer sees alcohol in your car when you are pulled over, it’s likely to change your RBT experience. They may ask a couple more questions about your night, where you’ve been or where you’re going. My advice is that if you’re carrying alcohol in the car, put it away. If you have a carton of something, put it into the boot and, when it comes to bottles, just put them into a bag of some sort and close it up.

Now that can be a lot for a P-plater, so to summarize the 6 simple things that they need to remember are as follows:

  • You’re more likely to be pulled over randomly by a police officer and breathalyzed than full-licence holders – you’re seen as more ‘high-risk’ due to your inexperience. Be prepared that this could happen and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong
  • Simple things can attract police attention and lead to you being randomly pulled over and tested – playing loud music, not having your lights on, driving too slowly, wearing a hoodie over your head, etc. Try to be as bland as possible!
  • Check the condition of your P-plates and where they’re placed – make sure they’re not damaged. Most importantly they must be able to be clearly seen. Stand next to your car and take 20 steps back – can you see the entire plate and lettering?
  • First impressions count – when an officer approaches the car window, make sure it’s wound down and be polite and respectful. Police are used to dealing with criminals and when they’re greeted in a positive way, it’s likely to make a difference as to what happens next
  • If you haven’t been drinking and fail the preliminary test, don’t panic. Police know there are other things that can cause a P-plater to blow over 0.00. Be polite, stay calm and they’ll do their best to try to work out what has happened
  • Don’t have alcohol laying around in your car – if you’re 17, that’s likely to be illegal and even if you’re 18, it attracts police attention if you get pulled over. If you’re 18 or older, put it away – having a bottle of something rolling around the backseat is not a good look!

Published: November 2023

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