Please police me

I very much enjoy your column. I am a retired Superintendent from the Hong Kong Police. My last 5 years service was spent in charge of a large traffic police unit covering half the territory. Having come from a general policing background, I was an unusual choice for the post, but they had 'problems' and I was a motorcycle enthusiast. Given that I was un-promotable and almost un-sackable at that stage of my career, I was in a unique position to take an independent approach to the job. In Hong Kong, it was never admitted that speed enforcement was a revenue-gathering device... but it clearly was. Just as in UK, the old adage that 'Speed Kills' was the simplistic mantra. I found that, contrary to policy, but in accordance with the public belief, officers indeed had 'quotas' of tickets to fulfil. An examination of the figures showed that around 97% of tickets were for speeding, almost entirely by automated cameras. The remaining tickets were mostly the result of an investigation after an accident. The officers liked this system, because they did not have the unpleasant confrontation with an upset motorist that usually results from other enforcement. It’s just a letter through the post. Worse was that most of these tickets were for a speed within 10kmh of the speed limit, and on roads where there was no evidence that speed was an accident factor. Indeed, the overall percentage of accidents where speed was considered a factor was 7%, even smaller than I had imagined. Since our role was, first, to reduce accidents, and secondly, reduce congestion, I took a very simplistic approach. I told my officers (250 of them) to enforce those transgressions that were identified as being an accident-causing factor, and furthermore, they should concentrate on those places and times where these things were happening. I cancelled all quotas and encouraged advice and warnings wherever suitable. We made maximum use of publicity to emphasise our approach and give driver education. The result was that speed enforcement dropped by around 50%, although it was still the most common ticket. The biggest cut was in speed enforcement within 10kmh of the limit, which I only allowed where there was direct evidence of its danger, such as near schools and in busy pedestrian areas. Lane discipline enforcement rose from almost no enforcement to second place, if you combine 'failing to keep left unless overtaking', and careless driving charges arising from tailgating and careless lane changing, into one category. Over a period of 2 years, injury accidents dropped by a third. I then moved to another area, and having more experience of how to implement the changes, managed to half the injury accidents in less than 1 year. I never had any opposition from my superiors, but on the other hand, no attempt was made to copy any of my methods after I retired, so the system is gradually returning to its previous standard. If the same was done with crime figures, there would be an uproar. As a result of this experience, I believe a ruthless pursuit of accident causation factors is the only justifiable approach. This does not have to be by ticketing, as often a warning and advice will do more good. Driver education and reminders to keep alert are essential (we used cut-out policemen and signs warning motorists of police enforcement to keep them alert, and like you, honest!) What takes place in most countries that I have looked at is the same as UK. It’s not the unfairness of a ticket for somebody who is doing no harm that really matters. It is that motorists are dying or being injured because the focus of enforcement is skewed towards revenue collection, a shameful state of affairs.

Asked on 11 July 2009 by

Answered by Honest John
Many thanks for that. Very interesting. I noticed the speed cameras on the road to and from the airport. The bus and taxi drivers know where they all are, so simply slow down for them, then speed up again. And, of course, there is relatively little traffic on Hong Kong Island because of the huge cost of keeping a car there. A taxi driver told us he Toyota Crown was about £12k, but the licence to run it was £120k. Very pertinent that your methods of traffic control significantly reduced the accident rate and this is a valid stat because it covered a relatively small area and before and after stats are also available.
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