Let’s put a stop to the dashcam vigilantes

A grey car stopped next to a traffic island in a tree-lined London street, with a man pointing his finger at him from behind the camera.
Vigilante “Cycling Mikey” intercepts a motorist going the wrong way past a traffic island in Regent’s Park, London

In recent years a genre of videos has emerged on YouTube: compilations of dashcam clips, showing everything from actual crashes, some of which look like they must have been fatal, through hair-raisingly stupid and dangerous driving, via the slightly careless to the merely irritating and harmless rule-breaking. There are several series called “Idiots in Cars”, some of them mostly filmed in the USA and some mostly, it appears, in Russia, which mostly consist of crashes, but in the UK the clips mostly contain irritating driving: people pulling out in front of the driver behind the camera and making him slow down, that sort of thing. Quite often, the motive seems to be that the driver is annoyed at someone else getting ahead of them, and in some cases they are just as much at fault as the person depicted: if someone is illegally riding a motorcycle that shouldn’t be on the road, they still have the right not to be knocked off by a motorist who turns right across their path without bothering to look in their mirror first, yet the videos and the comments underneath cast blame on them. Some of these channels have started telling people to submit their footage to the police as well; others advertise footage of “instant karma” (here’s one example) where a rule-breaker is seen and pulled over by the police immediately, while others roam around on bicycles looking for rule-breakers to film and then rat on to the police.

Much of the behaviour depicted, again, is not dangerous. It’s illegal to hold a mobile phone while driving in the UK (it’s not illegal to use a mounted phone or to use a phone hands-free, as long as you are not distracted). Recently the rules have been tightened up to make non-phone use of multi-function phones illegal, or any holding of them, illegal, and there is a mandatory penalty of six points (twelve usually means a ban). This is apparently because “I was just picking it up” is supposedly a common excuse used by people who were actually using their phones. Yet, someone could have been picking it up because it fell off its mount and was needed for navigation, or for taking calls from the driver’s boss. The penalty is disproportionate for someone who was doing this (or even using it) while in stationary traffic with the handbrake on; there is really no danger in this case, other than of a minor inconvenience to other drivers if the queue starts to move. What is dangerous is using them while in motion. Yet we still have people filming people in stationary traffic with their phones, and sending them to the police and taking delight in reporting that they were fined or received points on their licence.

Nobody should be getting fined for mere rule-breaking if it’s not detected by the police. If laws are worth enforcing, they are worth enforcing properly, not relying on self-righteous, self-appointed spies and vigilantes to do it. I have no problem when the driving is actually dangerous or there has been an accident and someone submits footage, but I do oppose maximising of points and fines by using footage from people with no legal authority, just a camera and too much free time on their hands. The law, also, should be reformed: there is no reason anyone should get six points for using their mobile phone while their vehicle is stationary with the handbrake on, whether they are in a queue of traffic, sitting by the side of the road, at a level crossing or in a car park (all this is illegal); this is idiot law, passed in a moral panic and media frenzy following a couple of high-profile fatal accidents on major roads caused by people using them while driving at high speed, the exact opposite of the situations depicted in this footage and which was always illegal, even before hand-held mobile phones were banned at the wheel. Things should be legal or illegal in this situation depending on whether they cause danger, and how much, not on theoretical principles or logical fallacies such as the “slippery slope” of “if you can use them while stationary, people will use them while actually driving”.

There’s something quite unseemly about this whole genre: people getting kicks out of seeing people get penalties that will cause difficulties in their lives over things which are exceedingly trivial and inconsequential. The laws should be made rational, so that this cannot happen, and these overgrown playground tale-bearers can be cut at the knees.

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