Matters of Moment, January 1960

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Britain must not become a Police State!

No fear of that, you may say. If you are a motorist, do not be so sure! There was the case reported in a reputable national Sunday paper recently of a driver being suspended for dangerous driving because he was said to have caused an on coming car to have to swerve as it approached his car. Where did this happen? In some far-away police state? Not a bit of it; the convicted driver was motoring along a main road in Hampshire. Who reported him? An off-duty policeman who said he saw the incident and who some days later called on this luckless motorist to inform him that he would be charged with dangerous driving. According to the newspaper report the driver and his passenger remembered nothing of the incident. But on the evidence of one man the motorist was convicted and relieved of his licence, although no accident had occurred and the other motorist never showed up.

The serious implication of this case will be apparent to all who rely on motoring for pleasure or as a means of livelihood. We say now, as we have said before, that we do not for one moment condone inconsiderate, let alone dangerous, driving. But we also say again that it is quite impossible for one person to judge another’s driving ability unless they are with him in the car, and not always then. What is going to happen if one witness can cause a driver to be deprived of his licence for some action of which he isn’t aware and about which no other complaints have been made, passes comprehension.

This remarkable case reminds us of another very dubious episode in which we were involved not long ago. A careless pedestrian ran across a main road and collided with a motor scooter. Going to see if help was needed we arrived in time to hear the pedestrian accusing the rider of the scooter of excessive speed. This was plainly ridiculous so we offered our name and address as a witness. The scooter was damaged, the pedestrian intact and the scooter owner foolishly omitted to obtain the name of his assailant. Some time later a policeman called on us to take a statement. We enquired if the pedestrian was bringing a case. “Oh no,” said the constable, “the police are.” “Against the negligent pedestrian?” we asked. “No,” came the reply, “against the rider. He reported the accident so we know he knocked someone over and he is likely to be charged with dangerous driving. We cannot trace the pedestrian, so you are the only witness.” After hearing our statement, the policeman remarked that as we were on the rider’s side the case would probably be dropped.

Here are two instances which prove how readily the police will bring a case against the motorist. Many more will be found in reports of motoring cases in local papers and in the growing number of letters which Motor Sport is receiving on the subject.

They explain why, after the car owner has put his vehicle away in the garage, a policeman is someone who helps his children across the road, is the person he rings for in an emergency, who protects his womenfolk from the growing number of thugs and murderers who roam this country but who, while he is innocently driving his heavily-taxed car represents an undesirable contact, a virtual enemy. This disastrous state of affairs, this antagonist relationship between motorist and police, is very much the fault of the latter and should form a major part of the enquiry which is at present being conducted into the relationship between the police and the public. As should a study of injustice which results from motoring charges being brought before magistrates who have absolutely no knowledge of present-day motoring conditions. Incidentally, the cases referred to above emphasise very strongly the importance of motorists hanging together; however inconvenient it may be to act as a witness, when an accident or incident is observed in which a fellow motorist is innocent, offering yourself as a witness may make all the difference to whether he is or is not convicted.

The growing hostility between motorists and police is exceedingly bad for the country and the feeling on the part of car owners that they live in a police state must be stopped. There is every reason to believe that policemen are encouraged to obtain motoring prosecutions—technically called “processes”—in order to raise revenue from fines, instead of being taken off the beat for a good record in keeping traffic flowing and congestion to a minimum without bringing many drivers into court; at present it appears that the reverse is still the rule with certain Police Commissioners.

Lest we are thought to feel hostile towards the traffic police on account of our close association with fast cars, let us say that in the past we have at times received every courtesy from them. We recall a policeman who not only showed us marked sympathy after a near fatal accident arising from a skid on black ice but who sportingly overlooked an unsigned driving licence and also our statement that we had been doing over 30 m.p.h. in what he now told us was a built up area. But he was a country constable with the wisdom and sound judgment of his kind, not a town “gestapo” with that sense of callous power which sometimes comes from being given a sleek black Wolseley to drive. Needless to say, this village policeman received no bribe other than our warm appreciation.

If more of this spirit existed Mr. Marples would be likely to achieve his ideal of road users co-operating with the police in keeping roads clear and accidents to a minimum. How far away we are from this is reflected in a recent case in which a sober soldier who had volunteered to drive back to barracks some drunk colleagues was fined for not displaying L-plates when surely a caution would have sufficed—one would have thought that initiative in a soldier should be encouraged but perhaps it is only demanded when there is a hazardous situation to be faced, as in some future atomic war?

The new Minister of Transport is at least trying to get things moving but his Pink Zone parking plan has meant work for a large number of police who should be occupied with preventing crime. This highlights the fact that it is high time special Traffic Wardens or Motoring “Specials” were recruited to relieve the police of motoring duties. We suggest that much good work could be done by members of motor clubs enrolled as special motor patrols, who could either be given power to move on parked cars but not issue summonses or who might operate accompanied by existing special constables. Just as ordinary people did valuable work as Air Raid Wardens during the war, so could keen motor club members assist materially in keeping the traffic flowing, doing traffic control duties and aiding drivers in fog or in the event of an accident. What is more, by going to the clubs for recruits the authorities would have at their disposal experienced motorists able to differentiate between skill and mediocrity, carelessness and crime, which so many magistrates who decide motoring cases, are unable to do.

Naturally, careful sifting would be necessary to get the right sort of material, but we are sure that amongst the motoring clubs of this country potential “Motor Specials” exist who could accomplish useful work on a voluntary or spare-time basis.

We appeal to the Home Secretary to consider this possibility and we particularly appeal to him to take steps to see whether motorists and police cannot exist amicably if not in harmonyremembering that much of the present antagonism may well stem from high-ranking members of the Force and not so much from the constable on the beat or the peak-hatted patrols in police cars.