The risks between cigarettes and bushfires

NRMA Is it illegal to smoke while driving

From 17 January 2020, motorists caught tossing a lit cigarette will be penalised five demerit points. This is the first time a demerit point penalty has been imposed on this type of offence.

If a motorist commits the offence during a total fire ban, the penalty will double to 10 demerit points and a fine of up to $11,000.

Penalties will also apply to passengers caught tossing a lit cigarette on or near the roadway. They will be fined $660 – this will double during total fire bans.

So far in 2019, more than 200 people have been caught tossing a lit cigarette out of a vehicle in NSW.

NSW Rural Fire Service Association President Brian McDonough welcomed the government’s move to crack down on fire starters.

“This reckless behaviour puts the safety of firefighting volunteers at risk,” Mr McDonough said.

 “I hope this move makes people think very carefully about the consequences of their actions next time they go to discard a lit cigarette.”

Driving and smoking

While we can't assume that a majority of regular smokers consume cigarettes while driving, it is likely that many thousands of motorists across the state do so – and even if only a fraction of those smokers are thoughtless enough to throw their butts out the window, they still represent huge potential for accidental arson every day.

Can a flicked cigarette butt actually start a fire?

The answer is yes – and there’s science to back this.

This is thanks to former University of Technology forensic science student Jennifer Dainer, who studied precisely this scenario as part of her honours project.

She conducted a study under the supervision of officers from Parramatta Fire Station whereby lit cigarettes were thrown into grass by the side of a road in the western Sydney suburb of Prospect.

In three out of the 75 trials, or 4 per cent, the grass caught alight and started to burn, requiring the firefighters to extinguish the flames.

At the time the prevailing conditions were recorded as a temperature of 27C, wind speed of 40km/h from the north-west, fuel (grass) moisture content approximately 12 per cent of oven dry weight and low humidity of 14 per cent.

Subsequent laboratory trials found cigarette butts ignited hay in 33 per cent of cases: ignitions increased when wind speed increased, fuel moisture decreased – though wetter fuels could ignite with the application of wind – and the degree of the contact between the fuel bed and combustion area of the cigarette increased.

Ms Dainer also undertook a survey of Abbott Road in the nearby suburb of Seven Hills over a three-week period.

During the survey, 426 cigarette butts were collected in a 60 square metre area of the median strip.

The wind draught created by a line of passing traffic was also recorded and found to be sufficient to increase the potential for a cigarette butt to start a fire on the roadside, even if the prevailing conditions were calm.

What are the consequences of littering butts?

Police officers and council rangers can issue fines on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency for the offence of aggravated littering, the penalty for which is $450 for individuals and $900 for corporations.

The EPA has received over 40,000 community reports of littering from a vehicle and issued over 24,000 fines in the two years since it set up a community reporting program, which encourages citizens to ‘dob in’ cigarette flickers by reporting their registration details.

The Rural Fire Service (RFS) has its own penalties for the littering of cigarette butts from vehicles and fines under the Rural Fires Act 1997 increase during Total Fire Bans.

The penalty for discarding a lit cigarette is $660 but if it's day of total fire ban, the fine is doubled to $1320.

But if a lit cigarette starts a fire, then the potential penalties skyrocket.

The 2009 review of bushfire arson laws by the NSW Attorney-General declared that if a person recklessly starts a bushfire and that fire unintentionally causes the death of another person, it is possible that the person would be found to have committed manslaughter by criminal negligence.

Where the link between the fire and death is insufficient to establish these charges, then the report states it is likely that the other serious property damage by fire charges under the Crimes Act 1900 would be available – but in both cases, offenders can face up to 25 years in prison.

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