Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Rough Justice?

Michael Thompson, 64, has been prosecuted by Police in Grimsby, North Lincolnshire, for “wilfully obstructing a police officer in the course of their duties” , when he flashed his lights at oncoming traffic to warn them of the speed trap they were approaching.

I can’t endorse speeding, it’s illegal and potentially dangerous in the wrong circumstances. Many would suggest that occasional speeding to at least some extent has become an occupational hazard if you spend much time behind the wheel. Nevertheless, a law is a law, whether it’s right or wrong. Where I sometimes have a problem is how these enforced. Were North Lincolnshire Police right to prosecute Mr Thompson? 

Let’s start with the case for the prosecution. Speed kills, we are told, and reducing road casualties is a must. The Police will use any means at their disposal to prevent speeding, whether it be using cameras or radar speed traps to intercept speeding motorists. In the case of speed traps, a police officer holding a radar gun will take a speed reading from an offending motorist, and then signal to his partner to pull the car over. It is then up to his discretion what happens next, a warning, a prosection, inspection of the car for deficiencies etc. It’s an extremely efficient way of doing things, motorists who are speeding (and therefore committing a crime) are pulled over, and those who abide by the law continue on their way.

By warning oncoming drivers to the existence of the trap, Mr Thompson was effectively influencing their behaviour. Those cars that had been speeding would, had they interpreted the flash as a warning, undoubtedly have slowed to a legal speed as they approached the trap. You could argue that their original intent of those cars had been to continue at their extra-legal velocity. Therefore you could allege that, by changing the behaviour of these oncoming cars, Mr Thompson was perverting the course of justice.

On a BBC Radio 2 phone-in discussing the issue, supporters of the line that the North Lincs constabulary took on the matter used a variety of analogies to put their point across. They argue that, by warning a motorist that they were about to be caught speeding, he was aiding and abetting a criminal. He was harbouring a person or persons with criminal intent. He was preventing people who would otherwise be caught, from getting caught. They likened it to standing outside a bank robbery in progress, warning the robbers that the police were on their way. Their view was that Mr Thompson was providing a service helping law-breakers evade detection. Phrases like “looking after each other”, and “honour among thieves” were mentioned.

I will now move on to the defence, remaining impartial despite how bollocks the prosecution is. Mr Thompson's explanation, on being accused of warning motorists of the speed trap ahead, was that he wanted to prevent people braking too heavily. It’s a shame he said this, but we all say ill-advised things when put on the spot.

The UK highway code stipulates that a flash of the headlamps says nothing more than “I am here”. It is used to warn other road users of your presence on the road. Any other meaning of the flasher has to be down to personal interpretation. So, in my view the Police were wrong to accuse him of warning other motorists of the speed trap, in the eyes of the highway code he was only warning them of himself.

Next we have to ask what’s wrong with warning people of the speed trap anyway? Is a speed trap a true deterrent to speeding? I would have to say no, it isn’t. A speed trap, or a speed camera does absolutely nothing to prevent you from speeding, it serves only to punish you if you’ve actually been speeding. In the case of cameras you can be totally unaware of your crime until notification comes through your letterbox in a few weeks time. Up until then you continue driving, probably still speeding, in blissful ignorance.

What we need is methods of discouraging people from speeding first, before we can begin punishing them. On roads with fixed location speed cameras you will often find signs warning of the camera ahead. It informs people that driving within the limit might be a good idea otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll get caught. It’s a quite effective deterrent, especially if you don’t know the roads well. In fact, they still install speed camera warning signs even on roads with no cameras. On an unfamiliar road, seeing a speed camera warning sign summons up a sense of fear and license-preservation and you reduce your speed accordingly. Whether there’s a camera there or not is largely irrelevant.

Why are speed traps any different? If the police are true in what they say, they don’t actually want to catch people speeding. They don’t want people to speed at all. Cases like Mr Thompson’s begin to throw weight onto the case for that being a big lie. If you put a sign on the edge of the village to warn people that there is a speed trap, everyone will slow down for the fear of being caught. Everybody will suddenly adhere to the law and drive through the village at 30mph. The police should be delighted.

How is that any different to what Mr Thompson has been doing? By warning oncoming motorists of the speed trap ahead, potential speeders were persuaded to slow down, and therefore not get caught speeding, because they weren’t. But the prosecution of Mr Thompson tends to indicate that the police actively did want to catch these people. That’s not very sporting, is it? Why could they not just be happy with the fact that the motorists weren’t speeding any more?

Surely, by warning oncoming motorists, Mr Thompson was helping the Police towards their core objective? Given warning of the speed trap in advance, the driver knows of the impending danger to his license and wallet and will therefore drive through the village gingerly so as to avoid any opportunity to law-break. Without the warning the driver would have continued speeding through the village God knows how fast, right up to the point of being caught.

On the subject of the legality of him warning other drivers, motorists have been pre-warned as to the existence of speed cameras for ages. Most in car GPS devices are programmed with locations of permanent or known portable speed cameras. It’s all legal because it’s classified as a driver aid. As far as I know, and this may have changed, the location of non-permanent speed camera sites has to be publicised in advance in local media. This rule may only apply to speed cameras, not radar traps, but the concept of having to warn motorists of law-enforcement operations is an established one, but not one that means a great deal.

In the Q&A section of the Suffolk Safety Camera Partnership website it reads:

“..Why do you publicise where the cameras are, why don't you just catch the speeding motorists?
Our only objective is to reduce accidents, not to catch people out. We want people to make a conscious decision to stick to the limits at all times….”

When they say publicised they mean that the locations are mentioned discretely in a local paper, and mentioned at the end of the traffic reports on the local radio station. After that you’re on your own. By “publicising” their locations they are therefore free to say “we did warn you” when you get caught. It also means that they don’t have to erect signs warning of the camera ahead. Obviously, if they did warn people, and everybody slowed down, nobody would get caught. Overall the end result would be the same as if everybody had read about the locations in the paper, both approaches would result in the same reductions in speed on that stretch of road.

What about my position? I live in a town where speeding is rife. A lot of it is the usual kind where you drift slightly above the limit for a while, we all do it, it’s illegal but I have no real umbrage to it. However, I also frequently see people driving with utter contempt for the speed limit, driving at twenty or thirty miles per hour above it.
I have got into the habit of flashing motorists who do this. I hope it will encourage them to slow down.

I couldn’t care less if there was a speed trap or not, I don’t want people driving at fifty through my town. More often than not they will brake after I’ve flashed them, whether out of confusion or the belief that I’m warning them of police activity ahead.
The truth is I don’t want to warn these people at all. I want them to get caught speeding, get punished and maybe learn something from it. If they brake after I’ve flashed them and there does happen to be a speed trap there, then they’ve been lucky.

But if they’ve successfully evaded the speed trap they must have not been speeding. Surely, then, by discouraging them from speeding I have achieved the very thing the speed traps are supposed to do, if we are to believe the propaganda.

The Police want to reduce the number of instances of speeding on British roads, they use all manner of methods to achieve it, and if they happen to make thousands of pounds in revenue when doing so, so be it. I suspect that, secretly, the police are actually quite keen on catching people and making revenue from it. I suspect that the police might be quite protective of this little industry, and might take offence when people like Mr Thompson spoil their plans.


  1. great post!, where i live (uruguay), police also seems to be trying to catch people and make revenue instead of making people obey the laws of the road

    it's kind of sad.

    p.s. sorry about my writing, we speak spanish here...

  2. Thanks, Fede. As much as we enjoy driving, it's important that we remember that somebody out there is intent on spoiling it. Here's hoping that 2011 can be the year of common sense.