Laws are meant to be broken except when they're not

A year or so ago my dad was driving K, my mum and me around a Witney car park. He kept having to brake suddenly, largely because he wasn’t indicating, and other cars were cutting him up. That’s nothing unusual for Witney, but they were actually doing so because they genuinely didn’t know what he was up to. I pointed out to him that it’d be safer and easier if he indicated, but he replied that legally he wasn’t required to indicate in a car park, and carried on lurching his way—our way—to the exit.

I’ve found that if you tell a bad driver that they’d be safer if they did something other than what they’re doing, there’s a good chance they’ll start talking about what is and isn’t legal, especially if they’re not actually that hot on what the law says. Both times that I learnt to drive—the first time as a precocious seventeen-year-old that was best kept off the road—I had to correct and then re-correct my dad on the national speed limit on a single carriageway in the UK. I think he still thinks it’s 70mph to this very day.

I think that bad drivers treat the notion of what’s strictly legal as a defence mechanism. If they’re being inconsiderate, unobservant, ignorant, selfish or borderline aggressive, then as long as they’re within the law—or even as long as there’s not a specific, narrowly worded law that you can point to, and that doesn’t include easily dissembled phrases like “reckless driving”—they feel they’ve won the argument to carry on doing it. Besides, ostensibly arguing about the same thing while shifting the value system to a field in which your opinion is more likely to win is an old rhetorical trick: someone says you should change your driving habits because they rank poorly when rated on, say, consideration for other road users; you can reply by saying no, they’re wrong, it actually ranks highly, but you need to score it on how quickly you get to your destination. It can often be used as a patronising weapon to silence the other person as well, because you can make it sound like you’re correcting an honest yet naive mistake, and it’s no trouble to do so, no need to thank me.

I’ve no idea whether it’s legal not to indicate in that particular car park and I don’t care. My dad certainly has no idea what bye-laws might hold in that communally shared space, but he didn’t care either, albeit in a different way. The real irony was, though, that it had been only three or four months beforehand that his previous car had been essentially written off—minor damage, but to a hard-to-refit part of the car—while parked in some other car park in Spain. You can speculate forever as to how that damage came about—it wasn’t captured on CCTV or anything—but I like to think someone did it when they swerved to avoid another car, which was in turn driven by someone who hadn’t felt the need to indicate.

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2 Responses to Laws are meant to be broken except when they're not

  1. looby says:

    This reminds me of an experiment they did in some enlightened Scandinavian city (the reference would be in an old copy of The Pedestrians’ Association newsletter) where a traffic engineer suggested taking all the road markings away from a busy and dangerous intersection. Result: cars slowed right down, unsure of the precedents by which they should be behaving; accident rate fell and it was easier for pedestrians to use. But then your dad doesn’t live in Copenhagen.

  2. sbalb says:

    I’m not convinced by that experiment. By which I mean: I accept that it worked that one time; but I don’t think you can abstract anything from it.

    Any signage, road painting or bollarding is initially commissioned because of an incident: indeed, it’s often difficult (anecdotally) to compel councils to set aside the budget to change road furniture, until someone actually gets hit by a car. So while I’m happy to accept that the sum total of many small iterations might eventually be more dangerous, I don’t accept that all of those iterations, each a safety improvement in itself, should therefore be reversed.

    Dangerous habits come from being habituated to one’s surroundings: people speed round blind corners because beyond them has always been clear in the past; nobody indicates between the houses on Manor Road near here and the Tesco’s at the end of it, because it feels like they’re still on their driveway.

    So I think the experiment worked because it so starkly discomforted the drivers, and drivers are simply not used to discomfort. The junction became, for a short while at least, entirely other and put them on their watch. It needn’t still work if every junction was similarly changed, and it needn’t work forever.

    I’d love to know what happened months later when the regular commuters had all worked out precisely what passive-aggressive techniques helped drivers to stiff pedestrians the easiest.

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