Rise in dashboard cameras recording drivers’ mistakes

The popularity of dashboard cameras has led to a surge in motorists sending evidence of dangerous driving to police

Rise in dashboard cameras recording drivers' mistakes

Rise in dashboard cameras recording drivers’ mistakes

After a Vauxhall Vectra crossed two solid white lines and sped past Steve Warren on the wrong side of the road on a foggy, damp morning last month, the 48-year-old business consultant didn’t beep his horn in rage, flash his lights or even look round in the vain hope that a police officer had been watching.

Instead, Warren, from Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, pressed a red flashing button on a small video camera attached to his windscreen, storing the previous minute’s worth of footage. Later that evening he uploaded the video to a website where it was reviewed before being forwarded to local police as evidence of dangerous driving.

A few days later Warren received a phone call from the police: thanks to his footage the Vectra driver had been traced and was to be prosecuted for dangerous driving.

Welcome to the brave new world of citizen traffic cops, where every car on the road is a potential spy and no traffic violation goes unrecorded. Unlike other types of vigilante, however, these drivers have the support of police forces, which are increasingly using evidence from members of the public to prosecute road offences.

The trend is being driven by the popularity of dashcams — video cameras attached to the dashboard that record footage of the road ahead. Originally adopted by drivers as protection against being victims of a “crash for cash” insurance scam, the cameras’ potential to record other incriminating manoeuvres on the road was quickly spotted.

Police Witness, a company that sells dashcams, rapidly introduced a function on its website that allows drivers to post footage of bad driving. The videos are reviewed to ascertain the strength of the evidence then forwarded to the relevant police force.

Alan Featherstone, assistant chief constable of Northamptonshire police before retiring four years ago to set up Police Witness, says the website receives at least one video a day, and that dozens of motorists are thought to have been punished as a result. “There is virtually no chance of a motorist being dealt with by a police officer at the side of the road nowadays,” says Featherstone. “Patrol officers don’t pull drivers over any more and traffic officers are restricted to motorways and dual carriageways.

“For any police service in the country to reject the assistance of the public in this way would be ludicrous, especially as this is not a trivial subject: motoring standards are very, very poor.”

According to the company, drivers in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Essex and West Yorkshire have been prosecuted using evidence primarily from dashboard cameras. One motorist had a vehicle seized for driving past a queue of traffic up the middle of a road; another is being prosecuted for careless driving after manoeuvring a car down a cycle lane. A third motorist received a fine and penalty points when caught parked in a bus stop.

Some police forces are setting up their own systems for processing the footage. The Metropolitan police in London have developed a website that allows drivers to upload footage directly after a major incident, while Northamptonshire police say they have officers dedicated to assessing and reviewing footage sent in by the public, which can then be used in prosecutions.

Chief Inspector Mark Bownass, from West Yorkshire police’s roads unit, says: “The use of dashboard cameras can be a valuable aide to securing convictions for road-related offences. If people are willing to provide us with a statement and the accompanying footage identifies a suspect vehicle and is of sufficient quality, we will always investigate any incident we are made aware of.” Police, however, usually have only 14 days in which to take action.

The trend for recording traffic offences was started by cyclists, who took to wearing cameras mounted on their helmets to record car drivers who cut them up. The footage was posted on websites such as YouTube in an effort to shame the offending motorists.

However, police began to take a serious interest in such amateur footage only in the wake of the London riots in 2011, according to Guy Dehn, a barrister who is behind Witness Confident, a charity that encourages the public to report more crimes.

“The power of ‘crowd sourcing’ is something the police are recognising as the future,” he says. “You can see how effective it was during the London riots, when police encouraged people to send amateur footage of rioters to them so they could use it to identify criminals. Video from cars is a logical next step. As more people now have compelling evidence, the police and courts need to make it easier for witnesses to use it.”

Yet to many people the growth in the use of cameras to capture the misdemeanours of others is unsettling. Critics say it is creating a climate of fear, where even minor mistakes are recorded by an invisible army of curtain twitchers. “If this is being used to catch serious offenders then it is a good thing, which will keep our roads safer,” says Paul Watters of the AA. “The problem is if everyone is spying on everyone else you could see a flood of prosecutions and fines for relatively minor misdemeanours or genuine mistakes.”

Police say they are merely following government guidelines when they encourage motorists to report dangerous driving. In a 2010 report entitled Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting Police and the People, Theresa May, the home secretary, said: “It is not just the state that can cut crime. The role of the public has been clear since Sir Robert Peel stated ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’. Individuals and neighbourhoods with active citizens can help prevent crime and antisocial behaviour and help the police to keep their area safe.”

Matt Stockdale, the co-founder of the Police Witness website, says the police are grateful for any help they can get. Forces are already wondering how they are going to use their powers to issue new fixed penalty fines for offences such as tailgating, lane hogging and undertaking at a time when traffic police numbers are falling. The latest Home Office figures reveal that there are 4,675 dedicated traffic officers on roads in England and Wales, down 4% from last year, when there were 4,868.

“We act as a filter because police don’t want to receive thousands of videos of what people perceive to be offences,” says Stockdale, whose website charges a £59.99 annual membership fee (free for anyone buying a camera from the site). “But it also helps prevent road rage. Instead of getting mad at a driver, motorists with a camera can feel a sense of satisfaction — they can just smile, wave and deal with it later. We’re not talking about vigilantes: just people who care about their own property and who want to travel safely.”

How do drivers who report other motorists see themselves? “I’m not a wannabe police officer,” says Warren, who drives a Volkswagen Caddy van. “I’m just fed up with being cut up and seeing dangerous driving. If I was a vigilante, I would have reported dozens of drivers by now for speeding or minor mistakes. But I’ve only reported the one driver: he could have killed someone if they had been waiting in the middle of the road to turn right.

“If the cameras make these drivers think that they might get caught if they drive dangerously, then that’s fantastic.”

 

Taking action

THE INCIDENT
Drivers with a dashboard camera who spot a motorist breaching the Highway Code can send footage directly to a police force or report the incident through a dedicated website such as Police Witness.

THE UPLOAD
Police Witness asks for the incriminating evidence to be uploaded to YouTube using secure settings so only individuals with a specific link can view it.

THE FORM-FILLING
The person uploading the video fills in an online form on the Police Witness site describing the incident and giving the secure YouTube link.

THE REVIEW
Staff at Police Witness review the evidence and if it is thought that it could support a prosecution, the relevant police force is identified and the footage sent to it.

THE STATEMENT
The person who filmed the incident may be contacted by police and asked to provide a witness statement.