Confessions of a traffic cop
From how to avoid getting pulled over for speeding, to the surprising quality a traffic officer needs, a retired police driver reveals all...
Introducing our tame traffic cop
Shaun Cronin served in the Dorset Police service for 30 years. And for 20 of those years he was in the Traffic and Operations Division, in cars and on motorcycles.
He retired in 2016, and recently sat down with What Car? to answer your questions.
So, how do you avoid getting pulled over? How do you avoid crashing? And what are his experiences of policing our roads?
*Pictures used are for illustrative purposes only
Q: What qualities does an effective police traffic officer need?
A: Believe it or not, a keen sense of fair play. Not everyone deserves a ticket and no traffic officer takes pleasure in booking someone. Many drivers respond well to a few words of sensible advice. It’s only a few that need a little more persuading…
Q: So can I avoid getting a ticket?
A: Every police officer has discretion. For example, I might have stopped a driver with a defective light bulb, but if they were genuinely surprised to find it was blown, I’d have been the first to change it for them.
Q: What makes an officer single out someone for a ticket or a talking to?
A: In my case, I enjoy and am interested in cars (I owned MGs and helped a mate restore a Sunbeam Tiger and a Frogeye Sprite), so I quickly developed a ‘nose’ for a bad car and when to pull someone over.
Q: But you were targeted to pull over a set number of cars, weren’t you?
A: It’s a myth that police officers have these sorts of targets. You’re not there to tick a box.
Q: What would guarantee a driver a ticket?
A: Using a phone while driving, with texting particularly bad. You soon learned to spot people doing that, even when they had it low down in their lap. Their body language would give it away.
We’d book them for not being in proper control. I was pleased when using a handheld phone while driving became an offence attracting a penalty of six points and a £200 fine. It should be as socially unacceptable as drink driving is now.
Q: What was the single factor at the root of most accidents you attended?
A: Drivers arriving at a situation far too quickly – in other words, their speed on approach. They’d say, “The other car just suddenly pulled out.” The truth was, it was always there to be seen if only they’d been going slower and had looked.
Q: What other mistakes did you witness drivers making?
A: You’d see a driver itching to get past a slower truck, for example, but he’d be right on their tail – what we called the ‘jock strap’ position. He couldn't see around the truck for a clear overtake so would waste the opportunity or, worse, move out and risk a collision.
Q: What’s your best advice for drivers?
A: Give yourself time and space, and share the road equitably. How many times do you see drivers close up where two roads merge, to stop someone getting in? Instead, be polite, be friendly and let them in.
Also, where it’s safe and you have a clear view, open up the road by relaxing your lane discipline and positioning the car so you have an even better view and can straighten out corners.
Concentration and good observation make you a safer and more efficient driver. And remember it’s inappropriate speed that kills, not speed alone.
Q: Are cars at fault, too?
A: When I started, you could probably say many crashes were caused by defective vehicles, but not anymore. Cars and roads infrastructure are getting better but drivers aren’t. The number of road deaths is static.
People drive too fast and too close. They should learn to value space, which gives you time to observe and react. If there was a large spike in the centre of the steering wheel, that would soon change drivers’ attitude to speeding.
Q: What was the most serious incident you attended?
A: It wasn’t a driving offence but a woman who, as she left a pub, pushed the pushchair containing her baby into the path of a car. I have an abiding memory of a single child’s bootee in the middle of the road where it had to stay while we conducted our investigation.
I’ve attended thousands of crashes and incidents but those involving children stay with you forever.
Q: Apart from spikes, what can be done about bad driving?
A: I’m concerned that we’re teaching people simply to pass a 45-minute driving test. I would start youngsters driving at 16 with the proviso being they can’t have a full licence until they’re at least 17.
During that one-year gap they’d undergo courses in various aspects of driving. I’m a fan of this type of graduated driving licence, such as they have in Australia and some US states.
Q: What do you think of the reduction in the numbers of traffic police? There has been a 24% fall since 2012
A: One of the easiest areas of policing to cut is Traffic. But while speed cameras have filled some of the gaps in terms of speeding and road tax offences, I believe nothing can replace the interaction of a police officer with a driver.
Remember, we police by consent in this country, and every encounter is an opportunity to reinforce that agreement.
Q: What do you think of the new generation of speed limiters due to become law in 2022 that will automatically restrict a car’s speed to the prevailing limit?
A: Around 50% of casualties survive being hit by a car travelling at 30mph, but none survive being hit by one travelling at 40mph, so anything such as a speed limiter that slows cars down to the prevailing limit has to be good.
I accept the majority of drivers break the speed limit accidentally. Often without them realising, their speed creeps up. I saw it all the time as a traffic officer. They still hit pedestrians and other road users, though, with the same consequences as those who speed deliberately.
Q: How do you suggest drivers get their thrills in a world of speed limiters?
A: Book an experience day on a track or alternatively, get out a good road map and look for some great corners! There are few feelings as good as entering an open corner with a clear view, at the right speed and in the right gear, and accelerating out the other side.
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