Thursday, March 02, 2006

Truck Stop

We hardly ever see cases involving defective vehicles these days, although they used to be regular fare. Sensibly, most private cars with faults are given a Vehicle Defect Rectification Scheme (VDRS) which gives the owner a set time to get the car fixed or to scrap it. Defective HGVs are given a GV9 notice to take them straight off the road. It wasn't always like that. I think that my personal record was to deal with about twenty separate faults on a car, including odd-sized wheels on diagonally opposite corners, an insecure battery (an easy pull, and worth three points) and, as cherry on the cake, having no water in the screen washers.

We saw one Irish 8-wheeler tipper driver whose battered Volvo had been stopped and who had collected a snowstorm of tickets. I can still see the man holding his folded copy of the Sun like a baton and tapping his temple with it as he tried to remember things. It took a long time to detail the separate offences, but one or two of his replies were classics. "Mr. Murphy, the nearside headlamp was defective in that it only worked on main beam". "Sure, isn't half better than none then?" "Mr. Murphy, the nearside rear position lamp, that's the back light, was defective". "No, sir, the light was fine as soon as I put a bulb in it". And so on and so on.

The trouble with this approach was that the fines all had to be scaled back to stop matters getting entirely out of hand, so to get to a total that might conceivably be payable we were fining a fiver here and a tenner there.

Now traffic is increasingly being centralised into a few courts because of pressure to get on with trials as soon as possible. Traffic courts were never popular among JPs, but proceedings were sometimes enlivened.

One owner-driver had been stopped in a roadside check, and tests showed that one pair of wheels had no working brake. The owner seemed like a genuine chap, and produced full service records for the vehicle in the two years he had owned it, including a service ten days before the stop. A cam in the brake mechanism had broken and stopped it working. Of course in such a heavy vehicle there is unlikely to be any difference in the feel of the brakes, so we decided that the fairest course was to impose an absolute discharge with no points (there was case law to hand about latent defects). We though he would be pleased, but he still looked worried. "Can I ask a question sir?" "Of course". "I have still been convicted haven't I?" "Yes, but there is no fine and no points". "The trouble is sir, that the Traffic Commissioners will call me in to explain and I could lose my 'O' licence". "I see", said the chairman. "Madam clerk, would you be able to write a letter for this gentleman explaining the bench's decision?" "Yes sir, certainly".

So he was promised a letter in the post and went away happy. That's the thing about a court: it can take commonsense decisions like that, which is more than you will get from a fixed penalty system run by bureaucrats.

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