Minor traffic offences warrant no arrest

If a traffic officer stops you, he has three options: to give you helpful advice, to give you a warning, or to give you a ticket.

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What is your thinking on the latest list of minor motoring offences?

Several readers

The age-old saying applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same. On the plus side, it is always good to get an update in a convenient ready-reference summary. The penalty levels for minor offences have changed (inflation and deterrence are given) but there are still surprising anomalies between the real gravity of offences and the fines they carry, both relative to each other and non-motoring crimes. To the best of my knowledge, minor traffic offences are not crimes and are not grounds for arrest!

If a traffic officer stops you, he has three options: to give you helpful advice, to give you a warning, or to give you a ticket. The on-the-spot “sale” of one option as opposed to another is not part of our legal architecture. You and your family should not be stopped 300 km from home in the middle of a long journey and summarily hauled off to a police station or courtroom for several hours. That is “arrest”, which requires the alleged offence to be “indictable”. Minor traffic offences are not. If the policeman does not have a ticket, that is his problem, not yours. If you are served with a ticket – promptly – you can then continue your journey and, without undue delay, plead guilty in writing and pay the fine, citing any mitigating circumstances for the court’s consideration. You do not have to attend the court hearing.

The most crucial missing ingredient in this system is still missing. The message is always about punishment as a deterrent and about money—never about the reason, the purpose, the importance, the advisability or the benefits of the rule. Enforcement also tends to grant itself a level of power to which it is not entitled on a general day-to-day basis.

What is the message when the penalty for a clerical error is higher than for a serious safety issue? What is the message when the penalty for not carrying warning triangles (which most drivers have never used and many will never need to!) is the same as the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving (which is chronically obstructive and extremely dangerous, not just to the driver but also to all other road users)? And on what basis is a slightly wonky number plate fitting five times (!) more serious than that?

What is the message when the “maximum penalty” for not wearing a seatbelt or a crash helmet is Sh500 to Sh1,000 – the lowest fine on the statute? The policy message should be (and the truth is) that the maximum penalty is death! Or even worse than death – crippling and permanent injury that could destroy a family’s lifestyle and budget forever. At least those culprits are endangering themselves, not everybody else.

Presumably, fines are decided by people of technical expertise and wisdom. Indeed, they are so learned that the rest of us mere mortals have great difficulty understanding what they are thinking.

We do try. We list all the offences in order of their fine level. Then list them in order of their direct impact on the safety 1) of the driver 2) of everybody else, and then list again in order of their importance to the efficiency of the overall national road transport system, and then list again guessing the likely ranking for revenue collection (by one means or another). The order is nowhere near the same in any of the lists, and in more than a few instances it is completely inverted!

We do all realise that the administrators have a nigh impossible mission and that the definitions of each offence are perforce “generalised” – an "ill-fitted number plate" could be bent with sharp edges and be near falling off, or could be flat, securely mounted…but slightly crooked; driving on the pavement could be clumsy parking or motoring at speed next to shop doors; failing to renew a licence (whether the certificate of competence to get it was genuine or forged) is usually no more than forgetfulness and has no physical consequence whatsoever; ignoring a stop sign is somewhat different from ignoring a no U-turn sign; having part of your body outside a moving vehicle could be anything from an elbow on a window sill to doing yoga on the roof rack at 100kph, etc. We also understand that the limits on human resources and finance mean the rules have to be designed to suit those who enforce them, and only secondarily for those expected to obey them. And we do also recognise that enforcement is selective, and ranges from draconian to zero in different places.

Not so easy to understand are the penalties for speeding expressed in excess kph. The one to 5kph excess represents less than the probable inaccuracy of the speedometer or the thickness of its needle. And the higher speed fines are the same whether you are on an open highway or a busy city street. Ten kph over on a 100kph highway is a 10 percent error. On a busy city street with a limit of 50kph it is a 20 percent excess, and at least twice as dangerous. But the fine is the same for both limit zones, which have entirely different safety implications. What is the message?

In terms of public education and enabling encouragement (which should have far higher priority than deterrent punishment or revenue collection) the message here is quite a serious misdirection.

Yes, speed kills. If a pedestrian steps in front of a car doing 30kph serious injury will result. At 50kph or more death is increasingly likely. So even in the region of 50kph it could be a life or death issue. At 90kph or 110, it is death or death. Any message that suggests 99kph is intrinsically “safe”, or that the slower you go the safer you are, is bunkum so it cannot be what the wise intend to convey. So what do they mean?

Above all that, the fact remains that minor variations in sheer speed are rarely the “cause” of an accident. The primary causes are risk-taking, often well within the prevailing speed limit. And the primary causes of risk-taking are unduly slow vehicles obstructing the flow or incompetence arising from inadequate tuition and testing.

Minor offence schedules are barely a sticking plaster on those malaises. They are not so much about trying to improve conditions as trying to cope with them. And on that sympathetic basis, their anomalies and injustices should perhaps be tolerated. It would be nice if law enforcers reciprocated that respect.