Friday, March 28, 2008

The Blue Light Rant

One thing that amazes me whilst driving on the motorway is how the apparently law abiding British public never fail to slam their brakes on when presented with anything that vaguely resembles a police car. You'd like to think the police apply a certain amount of discretion when patrolling our roads and hence they'd take a dim view of anyone locking all four wheels in an attempt to haul their repmobile down from 75mph to a thoroughly legal 68mph. Surely nothing implies guilt like the frantic over-reaction we see from people who were barely exceeding the speed limit in the first place.

I am issuing a plea now to everyone who does this to use their eyes. In this era of Gatsos and geriatric do-gooders armed with speed guns it's very rare to see an actual live policeman on our roads. Almost inevitably the car that causes someone to bring the entire outside lane down to 60mph turns out to be a Highways Agency Traffic Officer – a car or van with reflective paint, amber flashing lights and crucially 'Traffic Officer' written in large block-capital letters in the rear window. These are not police cars. They are principally intended to respond to accidents and breakdowns in an attempt to improve traffic flow. They absolutely, categorically, cannot throw you in jail for going past them at 71mph or any other speed for that matter. The same applies to breakdown service vans, electricity board cars, wide load escorts and motorcycle instructors who happen to use the same bikes as the police riders. There is no need to slam the brakes on and bring the whole motorway down to 60mph, just because there is something that looks like a child's drawing of a police car up ahead.

The only people with a legal right to enforce speed limits are the police. They have blue flashing lights and sirens. More importantly they don't have anything like 'Traffic Officer', 'AA' or 'Dave's Motorcycle Training' written on the back.

This brings me onto the topic of emergency vehicles in general. An emergency vehicle can be simply defined as one with blue or green flashing lights. There are sixteen eligible groups in total and for reference these are:

The police
The ambulance service
The fire Brigade
Certain specialist company fire salvage companies
The Forestry Commission for fire fighting
Local councils for fire fighting
Bomb disposal
Vehicles responding to nuclear accidents
RAF mountain rescue
National Blood Service
HM Coastguard
Mine rescue
RNLI for launching lifeboats
Human organ transport
Revenue and Customs for responding to serious crime
Doctors for emergency calls (green lights or blue if accompanied by a paramedic)

According to the Highway Code: "When one approaches you should not panic. Consider the route of the emergency vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass. If necessary, pull to the side of the road and stop, but do not endanger other road users."

All sounds very sensible when you bear in mind that they well may be dealing with life or death situations. What I cannot get my head round is the fact that out of all these, only the police, fire and ambulance services are allowed to exceed the speed limit. How rigidly adhered to and indeed enforced this is I don't know, but I'm fairly sure it would be a good idea to give the relevant people exemptions in the event of say, Sellafield going into melt down. Furthermore, I find it incredible that a trained driver taking a vital organ to a dying patient isn't allowed to exceed 70mph in suitable road conditions.

Why is this? I suppose the law makers would argue there are two reasons. Firstly, although the emergency services are clearly a special case it would still publically allow another group of people who aren't the police to exceed the speed limit. I suspect the constabulary are keen to enforce the idea that it is reckless for anyone other than themselves to do so. Secondly, it is estimated that emergency vehicles are involved in more than two thousand accidents every year. The cost of providing additional training to reduce this number and insurance for when it goes wrong would in theory get worse if more vehicles were allowed to travel at high speed. In reality, the number of bomb disposal technicians or mine rescue workers must pail into insignificance when compared with the police, fire and ambulance services and of course not all of the accidents recorded will have happened at high speed anyway.

A few months back I spoke to a Transplant Service driver and he was equally baffled. Worryingly, this goes back to the idea that the police are keen to limit the number of people allowed to exceed the speed limit, simply so they reinforce their control over it. So, on second thoughts maybe the alarmists on the motorway have got the right idea after all. Maybe they know something we don't.

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