Zero Tolerance. By a member of the Opposition (to cars)

This article was published in 1997, in Newsletter 10.

What passes today for public debate on crime and punishment obscures an original and genuine popular demand for protective law enforcement where none existed. We have nothing to learn from political posturing over the prosecution of street beggars, but could ‘zero tolerance’ not enjoy a useful application to road safety?

Current enforcement of road traffic law best fits the ‘maximum tolerance’ variety. Generally anarchic motoring behaviour, heedless of speed limits or Highway Code, goes not only unpunished but unremarked: the ensuing tragedies are called ‘accidents’, as often as not the culprits escape justice entirely, and only extremely rarely is the obvious sanction – disqualification – invoked.

There can be no doubt that if current speed limits and even the mandatory provisions of the Highway Code were actively enforced, even at present policing levels, there would be either

  1. a dramatic change in motoring behaviour, or
  2. a gratifying reduction of road traffic resulting from the process of separating the majority of drivers from their licences.

The process could be much accelerated by more policing or more robust sentencing within the existing law.

Zero Tolerance does not mean prosecuting every criminal today (it never did), but demonstrating that what has been normal and ‘acceptable’ in the past no longer is. It is usually, and fallaciously, claimed that any attempt to reduce speed limits below those ‘acceptable’ to motorists would overwhelm police resources and leave the law in disrepute. It is in disrepute now, through its non-enforcement, which is precisely why we suffer as we do. Drivers’ perception of the rules is determined by their perception of what they can get away with. The success of drunk-driving legislation (in contrast to every other ‘road safety’ initiative) rests not on increased policing but on the knowledge that a first offence means loss of licence – qualified only by the perception of risk of getting caught.

Zero Tolerance of bad driving obviously means Road Danger Reduction. And what of bad cycling? If that’s the pay-off, then ZT to that too; though it should be fairly obvious who stands to lose the most.