19 August 2009

Take care and pay attention

The plan to allow police officers to issue fixed penalties for careless driving simply cannot be allowed to happen.

This isn't just because some accidents should cost the culprit a charge of dangerous driving, and therefore far more than a meagre sixty quid and three points, though that is more than reason enough in itself. No, more worryingly, it would mean a hell of a lot of innocent people would also be fined and endorsed.

Careless driving - or driving without due care and attention, to label it correctly - is one of those offences which relies almost entirely on interpretation, especially if only one vehicle was involved in the accident. Too often, however, a driver who feels he did all he could to prevent an accident will take the conviction in court because he hasn't time or funds to prove otherwise.

If the police turn up 20 minutes after an accident, they simply cannot assess who, if anyone, was at fault at the scene and issue a fixed penalty. Sometimes, simply, nobody is. Accidents happen, and I've always understood that an absence of blame is included in the definition of 'accident'. But rather than fill in a deluge of paperwork, they'll give a fixed penalty and the driver, knowing that refusal would take them to court and all the strain that goes with it, will accept it.

Careless driving has to be dealt with by a court in all cases. Other offences dealt with by fixed penalty are not interpretative offences - exceeding the speed limit, having defective tyres or lights, parking on the hard shoulder without due reason. You can observe the offence as it happens. Careless driving involves argument and debate and evidence, something which no police officer will have time, or inclination, to listen to when dealing with a car or cars caved in at the side of the highway.

I worked in courts for a long time and witnessed a lot of people who, unrepresented by lawyers, pleaded guilty to careless driving offences that didn't seem to exist once the prosecution had outlined their flimsy cases. They admitted it because they couldn't go through the process of a trial for an offence which didn't entitle any defendant to legal aid. But in court you at least have a chance to put your side of things. Diverting the judicial process solely into the hands of police officers will create more miscarriages of justice than ever before.

I also have had two serious road accidents in my life, the first of which was my fault but not to any criminal level. Fortunately, the CPS agreed with this and I received no summons. But I'm in no doubt that the cop who took my statement as my windscreen and wrecked car lay in the middle of Huddersfield's ring road would have fined me on the spot had he been permitted to do so.


Charles Nove said...

Bang on, dear boy!

Sadly, the mentality of "someone must be to blame" has kicked in at a high level, not least thanks to the efforts of Richard Brunstrom, the ACPO traffic obsessive (now retired, but his dreadful legacy lives on) who pioneered the renaming of RTAs to RTCs (accidents to collisions) on the grounds that "the A word" carried a connotation of blamelessness. He was also behind the move to treat accident locations as Crime Scenes, thus justifying the closure of major roads for hours, even days, after a crash.

The Joined up Cook said...

I couldn't agree more with you.

I see it as a cheap way to cut costs too.

I should imagine the police won't like it since it puts them in a postion they shouldn't be in; judge and jury.