Saturday, January 15, 2011

UK Speedtraps Not For Safety

In the UK, speedtraps, GATSO's, speeding cameras - call them what you will - have been marketed as a way to reduce road deaths, by reducing speeds at accident blackspots, and thus increasing safety. However, a Magistrates Court in Grimbsby has charged someone with wilfully obstructing a policewoman in the execution of her duty for slowing people down. The crucial point? He was slowing them before a speedtrap.

I've been driving a bit over 13 years, and in my youth I was a little fond of speed (even if my cars didn't fit hte standard definition of 'fast'). I had a few 'discussions' with police officers over my speed, and one ticket (in September 2000, for going a bit fast down the completely deserted M57 on a Sunday lunchtime). I understand speed, why we have speeding laws, and why we have speeding cameras. I also understand that they can also be used in a positive way, or in a very negative way.

I'm not the only one that understands that, of course - it's plain for anyone with a brain - which is why the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) produced a handy guide on the whole topic back in 2002 (which can be read here) So, we come to a case in Grimsby where a man was not only arrested, but charged AND CONVICTED of "wilfully obstructing a policewoman in the execution of her duty", by warning drivers about a police speedtrap by.... flashing his headlights.

Now, we all speed (I've still got a speeding endorsement written on my driving license, that I picked up in September 2000), no-one is doubting that. Speed checkpoints are supposed to be sited so that it either prosecutes people traveling at a speed unsafe for the situation (the typical job of a manned unit) or helps enforce a speed limit in a accident blackspot (typically the case with automated units). The point of them is to try and get people to go at a more sensible speed; before the fact with warning signs, or after the fact through tickets and fines and points. Regardless, the aim is not prosecution, it's education and speed safety.

That's what makes this case so interesting. 64-year-old Michael Thompson was only doing what the police were trying to do, get motorists to slow down. In this, he was actually aiding the police, in that he was helping to prevent 'crimes'. Further, all he was doing was blinking his high-beams. That has numerous meanings to it, as well as the Highway Code (the UK rules of the road) one of warning 'I'm here' (rule 110). It's often used to indicate someone can pull in front (especially on motorways, when it's often used to signal to overtaking truckers that their back-end has cleared your front end in case of emergency swerving being needed); It can be used as a greeting to a passerby, either a pedestrian or another motorist. However the three police officers that testified clearly felt that the ONLY meaning was to prevent officers from making an arrest.

Yet that also begs another question. Were those cars he flashed (and let's take the police's assumption that the flash was to indicate a speed-trap) speeding in the first place? If they were not, then his flash obstructed nothing, because it made zero difference. The police can't prove that, however, because if they could prove the cars that were flashed were speeding beforehand, then they already had the evidence they needed, and his flash obstructed nothing, because they already HAD the evidence.

Either ay you look at it, the police have very little case. Speeding is unlike many other laws, in that ex-post-facto evidence is very difficult to apply. Actual evidence of speeding must be recorded. The ACPO report listed above even states that if there is doubt about the accuracy of the speed measurement, discontinue.

So, the case against Mr Thompson boils down to this. The police officers were assuming oncoming cars were speeding, but can't prove it, because Mr Thompson encouraged them to reduce their speed. This reduction of speed caused an inability to ticket drivers, and thus the officer was obstructed in her duty. However, at the end of the day, a simple flash of the headlight managed to do the same job as a police team, at a fraction of the cost. The only loser ends up being the police, who have spent resources, but failed to get detections, convictions or other statistical points for their performance targets (which are a frequent subject of discussion over at Police Inspector Gadget)

Thus, we come back to the issue, that the point of the speed trap was about issuing tickets and bringing in revenue from fines. There is no other explanation. Also, because it was the police doing it, and not a 'camera partnership', guidelines on pre-trap visibility (such as how signs must be posted, high-vis jackets, well marked vans parked conspiquously, etc) don't apply. Had this been a partnership vehicle (often dubbed 'Talivans') no flash would be needed, as the partnership would have done the job for him. As a side note, many people might suggest that a speeding stop might lead to something more serious. Yes, that's the case in the US, where a police officer would need probable cause to pull someone over, but in the UK, no such requirement exists. The police can pull someone over at any time, just on their own suspicion - it's a point frequently made on TV shows such as BBC's Traffic Cops.

By an amazing co-incident, a similar case was brought in Texas a week earlier, where a man has been deliberately and overtly doing the same thing at speedtraps in and around Austin for a number of years. He was arrested for wearing a t-shirt warning of a speedtrap ahead (a year or two earlier, he'd been ticketed for holding a sign that might be seen as a traffic control sign, so he went to the t-shirt). In court, the arresting officer claimed he was told to find something to arrest him on, and that he had the support of the judge doing so, a claim the municipal judge denied. The charges were eventually dropped, and a settlement reached with the city.

Of course, it's a good thing neither man lived in Ohio. There police officers can write tickets, with no evidence needed except their own eyes. No radar, Laser, VASCAR or any other method except the officers judgment needed, according to the Ohio State Supreme Court.


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