Traffic laws going somewhere slowly

Rob Handfield-JONES explains his bewilderment at the misguided protestations of drivers arrested for moving violations at low speeds – it is more than the fact that the law is the law; they are still highly dangerous acts.

I am baffled that people complain about being arrested for traffic offences. (I don’t mean wrongful arrest which unjustifiably deprives people of their liberty, but arrest for good reason.) For years I have heard nothing but agreement with my crusade to have the traffic authorities start focusing on moving violations instead of sitting behind speed traps.

Yet now that the authorities have actually gone out there and started arresting people for moving violations on a large scale, there is a chorus of protest. I don’t understand why – when moving violations are enforced, arrests are often the consequence. What were people expecting – more slap-on-the-wrist fines that haven’t worked in the past?

The traffic authorities are using the offences of reckless and negligent driving to justify many arrests, and quite rightly too. The most recent case in Jan Smuts Avenue, where a horde of motorists was arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road, is a textbook example. The grumblers are complaining that the transgressions were low-speed harmless offences, but that view is flawed in two ways. Firstly, there is a problem of intent and preparedness to commit an offence. Anyone who is happy to cross a barrier line or drive on the wrong side of the road at 20 km/h will be equally comfortable doing so at 120, and the number of people killed in head-on crashes every year stands as testimony to that fact. And, from an enforcement perspective, it’s much easier and safer to apprehend someone committing a moving violation at low speed than at high speed, yet one obtains the same deterrent value.

The second error is that the grumblers seem not to understand why moving violations can indeed be lethal at slow speeds. For instance, when someone pulls onto the wrong side of the road, one might say that the worst that can happen in town is that a car coming the other way at 60 km/h could crash into them. In modern cars with good crumple zones, that’s the equivalent of both vehicles having a 30 km/h crash, which is easily survivable with seatbelts and airbags. The problem is: what if the oncoming car swerves to avoid the first car, mounts the pavement, and wipes out five or six pedestrians? At that point it no longer matters that the person on the wrong side of the road was only doing five or 10 km/h.

I don’t buy the argument that moving violations are “minor” and not worthy of arrest. For instance, we’d surely all agree that someone handling a gun irresponsibly in a public place should be arrested. Well, comparing data from the NIMSS survey and the SA road safety stats, moving violations cause three times more deaths every year than firearms!

Anyone who has passed their driver’s licence test has demonstrated that they are capable of driving to a standard adequate to avoid committing moving violations. It’s their choice as to whether they continue to abide by that standard or not. And if they don’t, the traffic authorities have every right to arrest them before they kill someone.  This will understandably come as a shock to drivers who have, up to now, not really been expected to abide by any traffic law except the speed limit. But the times are a-changing and before anyone complains, they should remember that the keys to the cuffs are in their own hands.


Rob Handfield-Jones has spent 20 years indulging his three passions: vehicles, road safety and writing. He heads up, a company which offers training in economical and safe driving.

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