No one is forced to break the law

road blockSince the fine for shooting a red light shot fivefold to $100, it has been noticed by every law-abiding driver that the number of people taking a chance and jumping the traffic lights has diminished significantly, making the roads safer for everyone.

So the only people likely to complain about a surge in the level of admission-of-guilt fines are those guilty of breaking the law; if no one broke the law no one would be asked to pay a fine. And no one is forced to break a traffic law.

Most of the traffic offences recently approved by Parliament take effect today; be compliant. We have little sympathy for those who complain that fines are unaffordable; we simply offer the advice that they stop breaking the law.

But other suggestions have been made and some have merit. The most obvious is to equip the police traffic units with simple video cameras. These are now cheap, the object being to record the crime, not make high-class movies. This can stop a lot of arguments and perhaps more importantly, allow a more senior officer to adjudicate a dispute or allow a court to make a determination.

Every driver who has glanced at the Highway Code knows that amber and red signals at traffic lights mean stop. The amber signal at the beginning of the stop cycle is to allow vehicles in the intersection to clear it and to allow vehicles at the border of the intersection to clear it.

Motorists are not supposed to have to make an emergency stop at a traffic light, but on the contrary, they are supposed to be prepared to stop if the light changes colour and to stop on amber if they can safely do so.

There is obviously room for dispute over what is the safe stopping distance and a junior policeman stationed well downstream of the lights is possibly not in the best position to decide this. A short piece of video footage would allow a more experienced policeman to make a better decision and would allow a magistrate if it came to a court appearance to make a final one.

Such videos would also end disputes over stopping at Stop signs. Long grass, untrimmed trees and other obstacles make it impossible at most intersections to see if anyone is coming if you stop on the stop line. Most drivers need to move forward a bit to see. Some police disagree. A video would allow the dispute to be decided better.

A second problem is lack of enforcement. Other increased fines have had little effect on dangerous driving. The fine for going over a solid white line near an intersection was doubled to $20. This, in theory, should have stopped the bad habit of drivers making last minute lane changes or creating an extra lane on the verge, kombi style, so as to overtake in the most dangerous way possible, cutting in front of people who were correctly placed for a left-hand turn.

The reason this change has not stopped breaches of the law is that it is very rarely enforced. It does not matter what a penalty is if no one is ever charged.

Finally, there is the danger of fines being seen as a source of revenue rather than a deterrent against wrong-doing. Reports from Chitungwiza suggest that municipal parking fines have reached this point, with plain clothes staff trapping motorists.

Enforcement officials should not be used for this.

They can watch for breaches, but they should not act and be part of a breach.

Law enforcement officials and officers should remember that it is better that there is zero fine revenue, because everyone obeys all laws, than there is a large flow of such revenue, because lots of people are caught.

So in the end the new fine levels will work if police enforce the law fairly, carefully and preferably with video or photographic records of offences to reduce disputes.

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