The RSA, Speedwatch, and Marco Reus: Media Perceptions and Community Initiatives

[caption id="attachment_36947" align="alignright" width="417"]Traffic junction in Irish Village - Photo via Flickr psyberartist Traffic junction in Irish Village - Photo via Flickr psyberartist[/caption]

Cian Carton looks at the media perception of road safety, along with the rise of community-based initiatives to reduce speeding

The Department of Transport recently issued new guidelines on speed limits which will give new powers to local authorities to reduce speed limits in their areas. The debate that this has provoked allows one to look at the current developments on road safety in Ireland, along with some international incidents on the topic. These reveal an ongoing media perception of road safety and the rise of community-based initiatives in the area.

Recent speed controversies in Ireland are centred on calls to reduce speed limits in urban areas in the form of safe zones. These would be a “self-enforcing, reduced-speed area with speed bumps, markings or other traffic calming treatments”, according to the Chief Executive of the Road Safety Authority (RSA), Moyagh Murdock. She was quoted in the Irish Independent as encouraging people to pressurise their local authorities to create safe zones.

Road safety issues often come as a by-product of other activities. This can be seen when its sphere collides with others, with the world of sports being a prime example. Nick Freeman is an English solicitor who is better known by his nickname of “Mr. Loophole”. A celebrity defence lawyer, he is famous for getting sports stars off of traffic related incidences. When sports stars are up in court for speeding in England, Freeman is usually involved. Even when these well-known personalities are convicted, the message it sends out is not always straight-forward.

German footballer, Marco Reus, received a record fine of €540,000 for driving without a licence at a court appearance last November. The size of the fine, the biggest one ever given in Germany, attracted the headlines. If Reus had of received a small fine, people would have said that it was pointless, given his earnings. Yet, the average person who read that story would not be able to comprehend such an event occurring in their lifetime. It could be said that this detracted from the serious message at the centre of this story.

However, a closer look at this story reveal a more intriguing situation. It has been claimed that Reus had received at least five speeding tickets over the past four years, each of which he paid on time. This came from a man who had never taken a driving test. This fact arguably takes away from the reckless behaviour on display, as one could say that if he had of been caught the first time, this scenario would not have occurred. Irregularities surrounding the story were further propagated when a German model, Jordan Carver, publicly offered to be his driver. These factors helped to take the attention away from Reus’ actions, with the story becoming just another day in the perceived life of a footballer, perhaps.

The reality of speeding and road safety can be better captured with reference to the “Speedwatch” system that has been spreading throughout England over the past few years. The initiative is a partnership between local community groups and police forces. It aims to “educate” drivers about the dangers of speeding, according to the website of the Cambridgeshire Police Force. It says that Speedwatch is not an “enforcement tool but about educating motorists and raising awareness of the dangers of speeding”. Volunteers are given high vis-vests and sent out with speed monitoring devices to blacklisted areas. Those recorded breaking the speed limited are sent a letter by the police, warning them to slow down. Those who fail to curb their speed are then in line for a visit from the police.

For a volunteer and collaborative based initiative, it is excellently managed. The Community Speed Watch group (CSW), has its own twitter page, which gives daily updates on the number of speeders caught. For example, the Speedwatch group in Storrington caught 31 speeders on the 27th March. Its website is also updated and provides statistics on the total number of speeders caught over the past thirty days, and over the last year. The project is an excellent method for strengthening the links between local communities and the police. Nevertheless, if one looks at pictures of the volunteers involved, a clear age disparity is on display. This is not something for young people.

However, the operation has been questioned, and Speedwatch is not above criticism. Last year, one man caught by the volunteers was Martin Carter. In a piece by the West Sussex County Times, he expressed his anger at the system. His criticisms of it go straight to the core of such projects. His problem at the system is the fact that “some anonymous volunteer is able to generate information for the police to hold and ‘investigate further’ under certain circumstances”. He said he was in favour of measures which are “not in such a threatening manner based upon information gathered by a non-police officer”.

The initiative also recently made the news for potentially comical reasons. A Tory councillor, Goff Beck, attended a community meeting about setting up a Speedwatch group in a local area. He told the group that that he broke the speed limit on purpose to show that speeding drivers get caught by the volunteers. His admission shocked the room into silence. If a local representative has to go to the point of speeding just to prove that the system for catching speeders works, then surely the system has some flaws.

It is possible that there will be calls to implement a similar system in Ireland. Proponents of it should beware that it may mirror its application in England, and possibly attract over-zealous individuals or people just looking for a day out. It will have to balance the ideals of road safety with the willingness of volunteers to stand at the side of a road with a speed gun for several hours. The beginning of this may be seen from the RSA’s aforementioned call to action through Murdock. Community-driven initiatives may be the way forward for promoting road safety in Ireland, but the focus on the media perception of the issue should also be queried.