Head to your favoured social media platform and at some point you’ll come across footage or photos of poor and illegal behaviour on the UK’s roads. Among the inevitable comments of outrage and armchair verdicts will inevitably be a discussion about whether the police saw this footage, and if so what action they took.
But with 45 police forces operating across the UK, the biggest problem most people will face is an inconsistency of approach both over how to submit evidence and which forces will accept it.
In Wales, however, submitting evidence will be much easier since the launch of Operation Snap on Wednesday.
The operation is a joint initiative run by the four forces operating in Wales: Dyfed-Powys Police, Gwent Police, North Wales Police and South Wales Police, and supported by the Crown Prosecution Service. This operation means the public can report road traffic offences they have witnessed using camera footage (including helmet, bar, dash or mobile) and still imagery through a single portal. Forces will then take action where a crime has been committed.
“Police officers cannot be everywhere, as much as they try, but with Operation Snap the police could be anywhere,” notes Inspector Steve Davies of South Wales Police.
“The aim of this initiative is to change driver behaviour and their mindset behind the wheel,” explains Davies, “We want drivers to ask themselves two questions: firstly, am I being recorded? And secondly, do I really want to take that chance?”
Operation Snap is the first time police forces have agreed a common standard. And if these four forces can agree a common standard and create a single portal, what’s to stop the creation of one for all forces?
Across England and Wales, road traffic policing has dropped by nearly 50% outside London, while overall officer numbers have only fallen by 12%. Cash-strapped forces need to be smarter with how they use their limited resources, so taking advantage of new technology and citizen reporting makes sense.
A single standard and portal would take the burden of finding the right force away from the witness, while also creating desperately-needed consistency for evidence submission. It would also be a step towards addressing apparent inconsistency in the interpretation of the law, not just by different police forces but also within the same force.
An example is the differing approaches taken by Essex Police in two recently reported cases.
The video footage in one recent case shows a cyclist passed extremely closely by an oncoming driver, who then turns around and appears to drive into the cyclist moments later. Once on the ground, the cyclist is then assaulted by the driver.
The footage prompted widespread outrage when the force appeared to do very little in response. Essex Police said on Twitter that the driver admitted to “assaulting the cyclist by punching him in the head” and has paid £200 to the cyclist “as a way of resolving the matter” following a community resolution, although the victim says he never agreed to that form of resolution.
Chris Boardman, cycling and walking commissioner for Greater Manchester summed up the feelings of many with his reaction on Twitter: “@EssexPoliceUK I try not to get involved in these but this being dealt with in the way it was was [sic] a real failure in your duty of care. Evidence of dangerous driving and assault handed to you on a plate. Very sad.”
Conversely, in a separate incident which showed a car swerving into a cyclist in Colchester in May, the police successfully followed up with a prosecution that will see the driver sentenced for dangerous driving, causing actual bodily harm and common assault.
These two incidents encapsulate the subjective nature of our current laws on careless and dangerous driving. For a cyclist, close passing at speed is downright dangerous, but for most people who do not cycle regularly, such behaviour might not even register as careless. The need for objectivity and consistency across the UK is why the law needs to be changed.
The government recognised this back in May 2014, when then justice secretary Chris Grayling (now transport secretary) announced there would be a complete review of all road traffic offences and sentencing. Almost four years on, we are still waiting for the review.
A cycle safety review is scheduled for the new year, which promises to look at cycling offences as well as other measures to make cycling safer. However, if the government is truly serious about protecting all road users, then it would make sense for this review to sit within a wider review aimed at protecting all road users, not just targeting one type.