Crime, Punishment & Education!

One of the greatest components of accidents causation is excessive speed, and even a very small excess of a limit will have a substantial effect of braking/stopping distances, which may mean the difference between crashing into someone or something.

However, speed in isolation is not necessarily the reason why there is a probability of having an accident, but coupled with poor weather, increased traffic density, distraction, tiredness, alcohol/drugs, etc, the list goes on…is potentially the lethal mix of contributing factors. For that matter, even travelling as high as the speed limit is not necessarily the safest speed.

Drivers and riders learn their skills from a mixture of: authorised learning centres and from general experience and from subsequently learning as they go…after they have got their licence to drive or ride. Unfortunately in many cases, many will slowly but surely fall into bad habits, ignore prior learning or start to believe that their driving skill is better than it actually is.

There are ways to tackle this. With education, further training, advanced training, public information broadcasts, road safety and speed awareness campaigns, etc, which will address certain skills and habits and the ultimate goal is to realign behaviours and change attitudes.

Another way for minor infractions to be dealt with is for drivers to be punished either by a driving offence fine, some form of points system which if too many points have been gained will cause a suspension or revocation of that licence (this varies from country to country), and in some cases rehabilitation courses are offered to drivers instead of facing the other forms of punishment.

Clearly if drivers or riders are exceeding the limit, then by definition, they are breaking the law. However at what speed over the limit does it change from a relatively minor infraction or road offence to an offence which it is deemed to be a clear safety risk to other members of the community or it is so excessive that it requires an immediate driving ban or suspension of licence, or in some cases this may even result in a criminal conviction leading to a custodial sentence. This varies in countries and indeed regions according to the local laws and the enforcement of those laws.

However if we consider the ‘minor speed infringement’ only, is there a case that driving re-education is short lived when only punitive measures are adopted? Instead of law enforcement officials issuing speeding fines or making the attendance of a speed awareness course mandatory, should they focus their attentions on roadside education without punitive measures, and would this be an effective tool instead of the current system? Will the attending of a speed awareness course ( to avoid gaining points on the licence) be an effective tool to change behaviour and attitudes in the long term…research would say it does not!

The sound argument is that for some drivers and riders the only true educational deterrent will be from amassing convictions which will change their behaviour so that they do not get caught speeding in the future, but do they ever change their behaviour because they have seen the light…‘the safety light’

For other drivers, a mere chastising on the roadside by a police officer would suffice to change their attitude and behaviour. However, more and more these days, how many police officers ‘let off the offender’ with a warning? How many police officers and police forces, these days consider their role as purely enforcement and not to educate the drivers and riders? How many police forces are so target driven (even though many will deny this ever takes place) that they actively seek out gross and minor offenders of road laws with the use of speed enforcement cameras or by speed traps or by covertly measuring driving speeds with radar guns. How many always fall back on the safety angle to justify the speed enforcement methods even when in many cases under the right environmental conditions and vehicle speed that there isn’t a considerable risk or increase in probability of having an accident.

The following are two opposing scenarios…(of which there are many to choose from)

  1. A vehicle is travelling on a wide road on the outer edge of an urban area. The speed limit is 30mph and at the time of 10pm there are no other vehicles either stationary on the sides of the road or in motion on the road and there are no pedestrians in the vicinity. Ahead, the road speed limit is sign posted to increase to 40mph and the road surface is in excellent condition, dry and there was good visibility. The vehicle was in good working order all around and the driver momentarily, for various reasons of distraction, starts to increase speed to 40mph. At which point a police officer with a radar gun, emerges from the side of the road and gestures to the driver to pull over.
  2. A vehicle is travelling on a road in the middle of a busy urban area, the speed limit is 30mph and at the time of 08:30am the traffic density is very high with many road users and pedestrians in the vicinity. The weather was poor with rain and limited visibility and the driver, for various reasons of distraction, is able to momentarily increase speed to 40mph. The vehicle was in good working order all around and a police officer, using a radar gun is able to measure the speed at 41mph and immediately emerges from the side of the road and gestures to the driver to pull over. 

Although the scenarios are poles apart, they do share the same speed limit and speeding offence. However, should they share the same punishment and do they share the same risk to safety and the same probability of accident causation?

Could scenario 1. be treated as an infringement that could be effectively dealt with with a verbal warning which ‘educates’ the driver so that they adhere to speed limits?

Could scenario 2. be treated as a similar infringement as scenario 1. or should it be dealt with more severely as there is a considerable risk to other road users and pedestrians?

Would police officers and the legal system thereafter consider these two offences in the same way or would they consider them differently? More importantly, do you consider them to be different and should be treated differently, or do you think they are the same and the risk is the same?

If we as drivers and riders are likely to make errors from time to time, and proactive education does not take place, then we are likely to reoffend in the future. If law enforcement would focus on proactive education and roadside education of minor road offences, without punitive measures then we as drivers and riders are more likely to fully appreciate increasing risk and accident probabilities, we are more likely to adjust our behaviour and attitudes and ultimately are we more likely not to reoffend?

I fear most people who are caught for minor speed offences will feel a certain sense of injustice of their punishment and their future adherence to speed limits will be short lived only to avoid being caught again, but ‘real learning’ has not taken place.

I fear there is a growing perception that certain law enforcement methods are only concerned with the ‘black & white’ aspect and less with the individual interpretation of a scenario or with the remedial education of a driver and potential hazards.

We can all learn and change our behaviour in many ways and the education can be delivered in various ways. Collectively, across agencies and organisations we all can reflect on what is deemed safe and appropriate. We can learn from our mistakes and those of others, but there has to be consistency, fairness and there has to be appropriate justification of enforcement. Otherwise drivers will continue to view minor road offences as an inconvenience to their licence state or their wallets as opposed to a having an appropriate understanding of driving behaviour and an unacceptable risk to other road users and pedestrians.

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