I am amused at a recent rash of adverts in the local press and online warning that those who use cell-phones while driving face prosecution and fines running into thousands of pounds. The press advert runs to half a page in local giveaway mags, and an online one has a strapline saying something like “Smartphone, Idiot Driver”.
‘Well, good’, you might think, ‘at last the police are taking the problem seriously’.
One little problem though. The courts are not prosecuting, even when there is abundant evidence.
There is a perfect example in this week’s local papers. A story about someone found guilty of motoring offences concludes by saying that a further charge of using a phone while driving was not heard, due to no evidence being presented.
This was odd, because I happen to know that the driver in question has been reported on at least three separate occasions by individuals who would happily witness in court if it kept death off the roads for a while – or preferably for ever.
On at least one occasion this airhead went through a red light while texting and on round a bend, almost ploughing into a group of school kids on a crossing close to a school. Things like this happen so frequently at that particular set of lights that, again to my certain knowledge, parents are warning children not to cross there.
So are the police not bothered? From what I hear, they are very bothered, and have referred this and other worrying cases up for prosecution.
The problem may be that the old police prosecution system (under which junior officers presented their findings to a senior officer and any prosecutions were brought by a prosecuting sergeant) is no longer in use. It seems local judges grumbled at the number of poorly presented cases and insisted that a crown prosecution service be introduced, with cases being argued by a local advocate who had first whittled out any likely losers.
In other words, the police do not decide who is potentially guilty and ought to be tried in court. Government-employed advocates do that, and then negotiate with the courthouse administration system for a court date.
Except that other sources tell me it then gets even worse. Because Manx courts are so busy that, in a vain attempt to clear the books, all likely court cases are seemingly subjected to some sort of points system based on a time and motion study. The end result is that the court administrators don’t think driving-while-on-the-phone cases are an economically viable use of court time.
But OK, the very technology which causes some drivers to be dangerously distracted is itself at the heart of the issue too.
Once, if accused of something, you had your day in court and there were strict rules to ensure you were tried only on the evidence heard in that court on that day. In lengthy cases, the press reported as the case proceeded, but could not assume innocence or guilt until the jury decided that.
If found guilty, effectively part of your punishment was that you were named and shamed in a press report based closely on the judge’s summing up, verdict and sentencing. Similarly, if found innocent the subsequent press reports enabled everyone to learn from any mistakes. This was a pretty fair system.
Now, we are reluctant to report crime, and even more reluctant to take time out of work and report what we saw in court. If mere spectators, we are equally reluctant to wait for the full facts to be heard and justice to be done in a fair way, after submission of all the available facts and arguments rather than what a neighbour is rumoured to have overheard from pub gossip.
How much easier to tweet a folk rumour based on kneejerk prejudice. Accuse, try and sentence someone electronically without the slightest piece of hard evidence.
No, the rule of law is protracted, exacting and hard work, but there is no civilised alternative. It is all that we have, so when threatened by either economic cutbacks or idle Facebook chatter we will need to defend it.