Keep your eyes on the road

New police powers could turn motorists into outlaws.

Austin Williams

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Topics Politics

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to worry about. That used to be a riposte beloved of liberals and illiberals alike in the 1990s to challenge anyone questioning attacks on civil liberties. Whenever there was a half-hearted protest against the authoritarian implications of CCTV cameras in city centres, stop and search, or compulsory breath tests, all that was needed was to allude to the fact that protesters were giving succour to criminality, and the argument was won. Or rather, the protesters went away.

But the question of who decides what counts as criminal activity was never addressed, and now we have lost sight of the argument. These days there is seldom a clear defence of the sanctity of an individual’s autonomy from the state. Nobody seems to really know what rights are any longer, and draconian extensions of police powers are often welcomed as protecting us from ourselves. The forthcoming Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, currently being debated in parliament, gives the authorities the power to stop motorists and forcibly take their fingerprints. New portable technology is currently being trialled in Northamptonshire. And if you are against it, you face the argument that you are giving succour to terrorists. Indeed, we’ve already got used to retinal scans at airports, so maybe it’s not too bad?

Concerns about civil liberties are particularly likely to be brushed aside in the transport sector, where motorists, it seems, will swallow anything. The Department for Transport boasts that ‘Operation Laser’ demonstrates the value of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). This technology, which has been funded from fixed penalty revenue (so it’s nice to see that penalty payments are being recycled into transport improvements), ‘will enable officers in equipped vehicles to identify any vehicles of interest’. What, you may ask, is a vehicle of interest? Presumably, that’s for them to know, and for you to find out.

Indeed, in its latest ‘Roads Policing Strategy’, the Home Office talks of vehicles that are driven in an anti-social manner. Before you breathe a sigh of relief because this couldn’t mean you, it is worth noticing that this ranges from undisciplined lane behaviour and verbal abuse, to ‘generally threatening driving and riding’. This new category of driving will attract police interest and extends the classification of errant behaviour beyond the standard list of dangerous, careless or erratic driving. Have you ever sworn at a fellow knight of the road? An innocent fact of life, or latent road-rage? Well, it won’t necessarily be up to you to decide, given that criminal sanction arises from the perception of events rather than the reality of the situation.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has just established a Road Policing Intelligence Forum that notes that ‘bad driving, even where not leading to a collision, is threatening and intimidating to other drivers’. It is sufficient that this threat is merely perceived by the self-proclaimed victim; the targeted individual will have to prove his or her innocence of the charge. And given that ACPO states that ‘vulnerable and disadvantaged people particularly need proactive road policing’, victims will have moral authority and superior believability.

The Home Office document sees the overall objective to deliver ‘the target of 1.25million offences brought to justice by 2007-08’. But given that ‘bringing someone to justice’ now includes cautions, penalty notices, TIC (supplementary offences taken into consideration), formal warnings and reprimands, the target culture of the police could see a great many erstwhile law-abiding citizens reported in the statistics. The new national policing plan (NPP) states that once identified as a perpetrator, ‘We must ensure that criminals are denied the use of our roads’. We can only imagine what this means. While we may all nod when some chav is barred from driving, his licence revoked and his car crushed, we should be aware that the same state powers are waiting to be used on less obvious targets. Rights are universal, which means that an assault on one, however much we may not like the individual, is an assault on everyone.

Recognising this, the authorities are clamouring to respect diversity and appear even-handed (the new NPP has removed the reference to the Evangelical Alliance as one of the key stakeholders mentioned in the previous National Policing Plan). But more importantly, the police have adopted a more community-centred approach to criminality, which can actually only exacerbate the problem. ‘Target setting’, says the Home Office, ‘should ideally be a bottom-up process so that communities have local ownership of targets’ – presumably implying that locals can determine who should be targeted. If you’ve recently upset your neighbour, look out for police stopping you to inspect your tyre treads. If your leylandii are annoying the local busybody, prepare for an early-morning breath test.

If you think that all this is a bit of an overreaction, and that it isn’t directed against decent right-thinking people, it’s worth noting that aside from the ubiquitous animal rights protesters, the only campaign worthy of direct mention in the new NPP 2005-08 as a cause for concern, is in clause 3.51 which states that: ‘Forces should prepare for the implementation of the Hunting Act.’ Sounds ominous? Not a bit of it. As they say, if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear….

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project (email Austin.Williams@construct.emap.com).

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Topics Politics