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Stop, get ready, go: let common sense begin

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Stop, get ready, go: let common sense begin

Post by Admin on Fri 8 May 2009 - 1:46

Stop, get ready, go: let common sense begin
Personal responsibility is lost in the red stop-lights of an overregulated world. We must start thinking for ourselves again
Libby Purves

Sometimes, when the columnist's conscience adjures the owner to sit down and think soberly about Hazel Blears and pig flu, the mind wanders off elsewhere in search of a universal truth. Since Saturday I have been unable to stop musing on the revelation that the London Borough of Ealing is going to make some of its minor traffic lights go Dutch.

The idea - in case you missed it - is to turn off certain traffic lights, leaving drivers to negotiate crossings by caution, eye contact and mutual consideration. In one town in the Netherlands this system resulted in crashes falling by more than three quarters, and speeded up journeys because nobody had to stop at red for non-existent crossing traffic. Other evidence comes from periods here when lights failed and all went well. Thus, some lights would be replaced by “give way” signs, and there is talk of the European night-time system of having all lights flash amber, signalling “caution!”. Care for pedestrians could be covered by button-operated crossings nearby.

Over the weekend I tried out this theory on four professional drivers - one private hire, two cabs and an HGV man. To my surprise, they all said it would be perfectly safe. “Nobody wants a bloody crash, know what I mean?” said the latter. “As long as its clear that there's an orange flash or a give-way, you'll look out for yourself.”

“You couldn't do it at the big, fast junctions,” said a cabbie. “But there are plenty where you could. And nobody minds stopping at a Pelican if there's someone actually crossing.” I probed further: wouldn't there be ill-mannered drivers? “Yeah, but even tossers don't want to spend a day in the body shop or the A&E. It's self-preservation”.

“Funny thing is,” added the private hire man, “if you think about it, hardly anyone's a real idiot. And if you were really bad they'd do you for careless driving. P'raps they should put CCTV cameras instead of traffic lights”.

The consensus was that people are perfectly capable of making sensible judgments, and if they didn't there were enough deterrent laws about careless, reckless and dangerous driving.

So I found myself wondering whether society itself has more automatic traffic lights than is good for it. It is plain that we need the big red lights: don't kill, hurt, imprison, steal or cheat. There is also an obvious role for general offences, on the model of “careless driving”. We have plenty - insulting behaviour, conduct liable to provoke a breach of the peace, outraging public decency, harassment, causing public nuisance, child neglect, endangering safety, littering. Yet month after month, year after year, micromanaging regulations are added, refining things down and creating pointless red lights.

The new hate-crime legislation is one example: I can think of nothing in the plethora of diktats about racial, sexist, ageist, religious or homophobic language that could not equally well be covered by a two-line ruling that all these - if serious - constitute insulting behaviour or harassment. This might save the police from wasting time ticking people off for making jokes about the Welsh or putting china pigs in windows where Muslims might walk by.

Or take the workplace. I have cited before the example of the rural bike-repair business that couldn't take on a lad because it can't provide an employee toilet or guarantee that the working shed is at regulation temperatures. Given that any apprentice would probably rather have a job, wear a fleece and use the farmhouse bog, you might think that, rather than stall the business at an automatic red light, you could have one simple system for employees to complain without risk and have a local authority official check it out.

Other detailed regulations cover what an individual (even a huge strong one) may lift, whether a light bulb may be changed by an uncertificated person, and whether one may wear headphones in an audio studio without supervision lest one miss the fire alarm (fat chance). They are meant well, but many are simply an affirmation of the debatable theory that we are all fools, that nobody can look out for themselves and that employers don't give a damn if their workers conk out.

Perhaps - taking the parallel of the CCTV camera replacing the traffic light - it is always better to have general laws and let people think for themselves. This used to be the culture: my husband always says that the best form of food safety is the ability to look the butcher in the eye, and that in his youth the health of Sheffield was safeguarded by the obvious fact that one fishmonger's shop was clean and that the other was a “mucky bugger and everyone knew it”.

There are limits. I can see that. But two points about this dreamy theory strike me. One is that the more detailed the rules, the less responsible people feel for their own honour and common sense.

All the MPs who have palpably abused the allowance system self-righteously say that they were “working within the rules”. This is the equivalent of a boy racer shrieking across the junction on the green light, even though he can see the stalled car in his way. If politicians had to ask themselves “Is it fair to get the taxpayer to fund my rockery/bath plug/third home?”, they might hesitate. But the rules make it OK. The same applies to food regulation: all manner of disgusting slurry has been foisted on the consumer because it is legal, while perfectly edible vegetables are repudiated for being the wrong shape. As for education, don't start me: the intricate target culture has done little but harm, and independent (and Welsh) schools that ignore it show no sign of suffering.

The other point is more depressing. The traffic system works in the Netherlands, but that is a well-mannered and kindly driving culture (despite the rare, tragic lunacy at the royal procession). Likewise, generalised regulation used to work in Britain when we trusted the police and had a broad consensus about public behaviour. It is notable that the greatest impatience with picky regulation is to be found in areas of greatest social cohesion - provincial and rural ones. In the complex, angry cities you more often hear the old cry of “There oughta be a law!”.

And government loves to make new laws, even though most are unenforceable. And perhaps we have indeed travelled too far down the road to chaos, and can no longer trust ourselves or the police. I hope not. But it's worth thinking about, at the next red light.

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Re: Stop, get ready, go: let common sense begin

Post by sheffph on Mon 11 May 2009 - 1:45

Good article, we are a nanny state


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