Thursday, 4 February 2010

The aggressive driver and the Car Culture

Every cyclist who rides significant distances on the roads of this country will have had the unpleasant experience of being the object of irrational hatred from a stranger. There is no doubt about it; there are motorists out there who hate us because we ride a bicycle.  I have been assaulted by a yob leaning out of the passenger window of a speeding car. I have seen things thrown over and at cyclists. Abuse is on occasion hurled at us, usually incoherent, but sometimes sufficient syllables can be recognised to reveal that the abuser is motivated by a profound misunderstanding of taxation. Although difficult to prove on any individual occasion, it must be the case that at least some of the very bad driving that occurs in the immediate vicinity of a cyclist is a further expression of this irrational hatred.

Many Judges will treat this kind of incident with the seriousness it deserves; see for example the sentencing remarks of Judge Peter Moss in R v Robertson (Guildford Crown Court November 2009) referred to in one of my earlier posts.

Full credit needs to be given to the victims of such attacks who retain sufficient wherewithal, whilst endeavouring to remain alive, to note the details of their aggressor. One such victim was Police Inspector Martin Melvin. The teenage yob, Benjamin Harrison, who had subjected Mr Melvin to numerous assaults from a motor car (accompanied with threats to kill) was however more fortunate in his Judge than in his victim. In Burnley Crown Court this week Mr Recorder Graham Wood QC sentenced Harrison to a nine month prison sentence but suspended it and ordered Harrison to do 100 hours unpaid work. He imposed a two year disqualification from driving.

Our society recognises that people with profound physical disabilities such as blindness or uncontrolled epilepsy cannot drive. The car culture will not however extend this concept to able bodied individuals who have a personality which makes them wholly unsuited to control a motor vehicle. Although disqualifications for very long periods (even for life) have been made available by Parliament, our Courts are often reluctant to impose much more than the minimum. The Court of Appeal has in the past expressed the view that lifetime bans are appropriate only where there is evidence that the offender will be a danger to the public indefinitely and the Court has expressed faith in the efficacy of the extended driving test as requiring the offender to demonstrate to the authorities that he or she is safe ( see eg R v Hopkins 2008).

In other realms, the idea that a man who has pointed a loaded shotgun at a stranger, whom he has threatened to kill, should ever hold a gun licence again or that a paedophile should be employed in a school would be risible. The driver with a personality such that he has an irrational hatred of cyclists would have no more difficulty hiding that from the driving examiner than would a rifleman or sexual deviant from an interviewing panel. One chance is enough for all of the above.

Finally it would have been good in Harrison's case to see the Court exercise its powers to order confiscation and destruction of the car involved. Such would be a genuinely useful car scrappage scheme.


  1. "In other realms, the idea that a man who has pointed a loaded shotgun at a stranger, whom he has threatened to kill, should ever hold a gun licence again or that a paedophile should be employed in a school would be risible."

    Excellent analogies! Except that bad driving kills many more people each year (around 3,000 per year) than gun crime does (around 60 per year).

    In other realms where a licence is needed to perform potentially lethal activities, such as flying, you have to prove your abilities on an annual basis. In other realms where you need to prove competence, such as teaching and engineering, we have "Continuous Professional Development" to encourage people to keep up-to-date with their skills and knowledge.

    In the realm of motoring, you only have to pass a test once, in your teens, and you are deemed capable and safe to drive for many decades - even with dramatically changing road conditions.

    People do not have a right to drive motor vehicles, they do so by licence. That licence has a test, to ensure as best as possible that the people who are licensed to drive are safe to do so. Should any driver show that they cannot, or will not, control a motor vehicle safely, they should lose their licence. They might be allowed to re-test to get their licence back, but only after a period corresponding to the level of danger they caused.

    If we don't do this, there is very little point in bothering with driving licences at all.

    Unless a driver kills, I see no reason why they should go to prison. Just remove their licence to drive.

  2. The saddest thing of course is that when judgement IS passed against a dangerous driver not only do they usually get a lenient sentence but worse still their driving ban is totally unenforceable. I understand that the offense levels of 'driving whilst banned' is very high.

    That is not to say we should not do anything of course, more to say that being banned from driving due to careless or dangerous acts need to be seen as a more serious issue in our society - this must start with harder penalties issued by the judges - not just for cyclists but for pedestrians, children and other road users too.

  3. I'm speaking from an American perspective, but in this instance I don't think it's terribly different from a British one. It's not a great stretch to say that our car-centric culture(s) view car ownership as an extension of the physical body--not to put too fine a point on it, of the male body--and so the idea of removing that appendage is viewed with a particular horror.

    I've observed that it's hard for women to give up their cars (as they get too old to drive, for instance) but that it's damned near impossible for men.

    I'm not intending a feminist screed here (though it's a Freudian one)--I'm just casting about for a way of explaining why our justice systems on both sides of the Atlantic find it so unthinkable to cut these abusive drivers' cars off.

  4. If this was introduced and properly enforced it would do a wonderful job of cutting congestion as well. A significant enough number of drivers would be off the road that traffic would flow freely, and more safely because of the reduced idiot quotient.

  5. It worries me that driving bans are so infrequently issued. It seems like the justice system views driving as a human right rather than a (rather selfish) priviledge. If people have to drive I would much prefer only those most able to were allowed and once someone has shown their idiocy once that is the end for them.

    I would like all of you to observe the other customers next time you go to a supermarket. Watch the complete absence of any spatial perception, awareness of consequences and lack of courtesy that you see in the people who are using the trolleys. What is most worrying is that the vast majority of these people drove to the supermarket, and will drive home.