Be Prepared

Vehicle users should be warned that the Department of Transport is hoping to get through Parliament a new Bill altering existing traffic laws and imposing stiffer penalties for infringement. We are reminded of this by the sight of a police car parked on the wrong side of the road in our nearest large town while its driver painted strange hieroglyphics on the kerb — if you can identify the place, drive through it carefully from now on!

Two big changes are included in this Bill. The existing offence of reckless driving would be replaced by one of dangerous driving, and cameras would be accepted as the sole source of evidence required for speeding or traffic-light prosecutions.

At present there are both "careless" and "reckless" driving clauses, and it is surely easy enough to differentiate between them. Carelessness might happen innocently, such as when a novice makes a turn without signalling or a motorist is caught out by a defective vehicle which has somehow slipped through an MoT test; recklessness is something else entirely, albeit sometimes indulged in by police chasing get-away cars.

But there is no distinction, apparently, in the eyes of Dr North of Jesus College, Oxford, who has spent five years advising the DoT on new legislation. So how will careless, as distinct from dangerous, driving now be defined?

It is proposed that the new offence of dangerous driving will carry obligatory disqualification, as well as minimum fines of £2000 and up to three years' imprisonment. But can anyone accurately assess another's driving skills? It is the old story of the racing driver (or trained police driver, if you insist) being safer at nine-tenths that auntie is at five-tenths. Hard luck on the skilled motorist reported by a non-driving constable, perhaps at the suggestion of a non-driving citizen!

As for the impersonal video cameras, they will trap the car, not the driver at the time of the alleged offence, whom the owner will he responsible for locating. Bully for fleet-owners and hire-firms! And then there is the question of how accurate are cameras aimed at blobs on a road, or from bridges ...

There are other ways in which new legislation might deflect the course of justice. Delay in the delivery of summonses will no doubt increase under the new video regime, making it more difficult to prepare a defence. Moreover, drivers will no longer necessarily be able to question police at the time of an offence.

It does seem curious, too, at a time when many authorities consider our speed-limits too low and the old adage that speed kills is dying slowly, that the police risk spending more money and time on using cameras against speeding drivers than on sending out more experienced patrols which could at least try to determine who is driving dangerously. Accident prevention should be the highest priority.

Before being adopted, this drastic Bill must he very carefully considered and intelligently discussed — ignoring the way in which such pills are coated with promises of kinder treatment for lesser offenders — to be amended as common sense requires. The most recent opinion polls showed the Conservative Government still in favour with the electorate. With problems such as the food scare, poll tax, water privatisation and the NHS shake-up to occupy her, we sincerely hope that Mrs Thatcher will not let revision of the traffic laws appear unfair to the vast army of road users.