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Aug 03, 2012

There is no sound basis for speed trapping

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Imagine the classic scene in a city library: people sitting quietly poring over books while others are quietly looking for books on the shelves. Then a fellow comes in with a saxophone. A few moments later, he launches into a loud rhythmic jazz number. As he dances around the tables, the people look up, amazed. After a few minutes, a librarian goes over to him and orders him to stop playing.

Why, he asks, the music is great. She replies that, yes, the music is great but the music can potentially affect people’s concentration. That then means that those studying for exams may fail the exam. Those looking for important infor- mation may miss the critical piece that they were looking for. So, she points out, although the sax playing does not seem to have done harm now, it may do harm to others in the future and, therefore, he must stop.

To make sure that this does not happen again, the authorities put up a sign saying ‘No Saxophones Allowed’. In fact, they do not even want people playing a sax outside a library window, so the sign is put up outside as well, and the law states that you may not play a saxophone within 20 m of the library.

In fact, to be really safe, the law says that you may not even carry a saxophone within 20 m of a library. A week later, a fellow walks past the library carrying a saxophone. He is immediately stopped by the police and fined R500. The officers explain that this was necessary because he may possibly have played the sax and may have disturbed people.

A few days later, a saxophone teacher is caught walking past the library, carrying two saxophones. This is really serious. He is fined R1 500 because he may possibly have disturbed even more people if he had played both saxes at the same time, or if his pupil had arrived and played as well.

A week later, a music shopowner and his assistant are returning from a music- instrument auction and are carrying ten saxophones between them. Gee! This is serious. They are arrested, locked up and the newspapers speculate that the fine will be R50 000. Just imagine what a guy could do in a library with ten saxes.

All this sounds silly. Now let us make a comparison. There is a concept of ‘speeding’ on the freeway. If someone is travelling above the speed limit, the authorities say the driver could cause an accident, and that accident could injure people. If the driver is travelling even faster, he or she may cause some bigger accident, so that is worse. If the driver is going faster still, that is much worse, and so it goes until one is travelling at about 400 km/h and that must be a crime against the whole of humanity.

So, because driving at high speed may cause some incident, which may be bad, the driver must be fined. One needs to think about this concept.

In Pretoria, some days ago, a father and son were trapped racing Porsches on the N1 on a Sunday morning. The son was trapped at 188 km/h and the father at 234 km/h. The son admitted guilt and was fined R1 500. The father still has to go to court, but speculation is that he will get a fine of R50 000. After all, a radio DJ was recently trapped at a speed of 182 km/h and was fined R10 000.

The two were charged with ‘reckless and negligent driving’ and also an alternative charge of ‘exceeding the speed limit’. So a person carrying saxophones by a library could be charged with ‘erratic and incompetent music playing’, even though he or she did not actually play any music, and with an alternative charge of ‘carrying a saxophone near a library’. That seems serious. The authorities bay for blood.

In the case of the Porsche drivers, a traffic police official, upset at the R1 500 fine being so low, said: “The public is concerned that people who so carelessly jeopardise the safety of others . . . can get off so easily.” Actually, the public were not asked for their opinion, as far as I am aware.

Let us get something clear right now – I do not support people who break the law. On the other hand, there is something wrong with this speed trapping obsession of the police.

People racing Porsches are unlikely to be driving ‘carelessly’; they would be driving with full concentration. They are also unlikely to be driving ‘recklessly’ or ‘negligently’. They were probably exercising total concentration; after all, they were trying to win.

It was also a Sunday morning when they were trapped, on a very wide good-quality road. The traffic density was low. In fact, the engineering authorities never chose the speed limit for those conditions; they chose it for a normal work day, with many cars and less-than-perfect conditions. So, to blindly apply the speed limit on a Sunday morning is silly. This is like hammering the sax player carrying two saxophones because he just may play both of them at the same time.

From a science point of view, there is also not a linear relationship between speed and accidents. A person travelling at 100 km/h is not twice as likely to cause damage, compared with a person travelling at 50 km/h. A person travelling at 200 km/h is not twice as likely to cause damage, compared with someone travelling at 100 km/h. In fact, the authorities say that 243 km/h is about five times worse than 182 km/h, which, in turn, is about 20 times worse than getting caught at a speed of about 140 km/h. This is rubbish.

I have been watching the newspaper crime reports and people get a fine of about R5 000 for serious assault and breaking someone’s arm, and R2 000 to R5 000 for housebreaking. So, travelling at a speed of 182 km/h is apparently two to five times worse than breaking into a house, even though the person travelling at 182 did not actually cause any harm, but only had potential to do so.

Imagine what they would do to a sax player who drove past a library carrying a bakkieload of saxes. Firing squad!

There is something wrong with this speed trapping, particularly when there is never an officer on point duty during rush hour on a Monday, when traffic conditions are dangerous, but one is always available with a speed camera on a Sunday.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
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