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PC Mark Milton
Is it a case of: 'one rule for them...'?

 
Introduction

On 18th May 2005, Mark Milton was acquitted of speeding and dangerous driving after driving his new Police car at high speed in the early hours of the morning. Speeds attained included 84mph in a 30mph zone and 159mph on the M54 motorway.

The case has caused an astonishingly angry public reaction. What are the real issues? And how does this case influence the future of speed enforcement policy?

Why are people angry?

There seem to be two fundamental positions that cause anger:

Firstly, some are claiming that 159mph is 'obviously' dangerous and are angry that the court did not choose to punish. Some of this group accept that 159mph on a deserted motorway may have been adequately safe, but argue that 84mph in a 30mph zone is 'obviously' dangerous.

Secondly, some are complaining of a double standard - why is it that Mark Milton got away scot free with 84mph in a 30 when I got nicked at 35mph in a 30mph zone in similar conditions.

Was the judge wrong?

The Judge examined the video evidence, listened to various experts and formed an opinion that Mark Milton's actions were not dangerous given all the circumstances. He found Mark Milton to be not guilty of both speeding and dangerous driving.

We don't have the benefit of the information laid before the judge.

Were the headlights on the Police Vauxhall Vectra suitable to support a speed of 159mph on an unlit motorway?

Expected minimum overall stopping distance (0.9g, 0.75 seconds reaction) from 159mph is about 370 yards. But under normal conditions a safe driver would allow nearly 700 yards (braking at 0.45g, 0.75 seconds reaction). It's hard to be exact, but most main beam headlight systems seem to provide sufficient illumination to support speeds up to about 110-120mph in good conditions. It's possible that Mark Milton had the benefit of other sources of illumination - but the most likely other sources of illumination would be other vehicle's headlights. This would raise the next issue:

Were the roads quiet enough?

In general, the top speeds reported could not be considered safe if any other road users were nearby. It may be possible to justify passing a L1 vehicle in L3 (i.e. with a whole lane of lateral separation) at these sorts of speed on a three lane motorway - but the M54 is a two lane motorway. If the highest speeds were truly to be considered adequately safe there would have to be no other vehicles to pass. This seems highly likely - A driver of Mark Milton's skill and training would slow down considerably from thos sorts of maximum speed to pass another vehicle.

But, but... 84 in a 30?

Most urban situations can never support 84mph in adequate safety, but 30mph speed limits are applied much more widely than they used to be and it's entirely possible to find places (especially around speed limit transitions) where a brief burst of 84mph may not cause any special hazard.

Gaining familiarity with a vehicle

PC Milton's primary justification for his high speeds was that he was gaining familiarity with the vehicle. People have criticized this position on two grounds:

Firstly: If he wasn't fully familiar with the vehicle how could he justify using top speed? Don't you gain familiarity first then build up to top speed? Yes, that's exactly what you do - we fully expect that that's what Mark Milton did too. He probably gradually increased speeds learning the feel and reactions of the vehicle change with speed.

Secondly: Why would a Police officer need to gain familiarity with a vehicle? We think it should be obvious that the opportunity to increase speed progressively would not exist when suddenly required to respond to an emergency call. Handling characteristics change with speed - sometimes for the worse. We clearly do not want our Police officers to discover handling limitations while in hot pursuit!

Was he speeding?

Vehicles being used for Police work are exempt from speed limits according to section 87 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, which states:

No statutory provision imposing a speed limit on motor vehicles shall apply to any vehicle on an occasion when it is being used for fire brigade, ambulance or police purposes, if the observance of that provision would be likely to hinder the use of the vehicle for the purpose for which it is being used on that occasion.
So if it can be demonstrated that observance of the speed limit would 'hinder the use' then no speed limit applies. The court accepted the use and we can't see any problem with that judgment.

Was he dangerous?

If he was driving in accordance with his training he certainly wasn't dangerous. Clearly it was important for the court to determine if PC Mark Milton was driving in accordance with his training or not. We're hoping and expecting that the court made such a determination properly.

Was the verdict correct?

Apart from some fairly serious concerns about the possibility of driving at very high speed with inadequate headlights, and the fact that we are unable to examine the circumstances of the 84 in a 30, we're generally happy to accept the verdict. We know from our own research that the safety of a speed cannot EVER be inferred from the number on the speedo. It's entirely possible to find circumstances were 20mph is a murderous speed and equally possible to find circumstances where 159mph represents no special danger. In fact 159mph is fairly routine and unremarkable on German Autobahns. We're pleased that the judge was able to declare that the speeds used by Mark Milton did not endanger the public.

The wider picture

Even if Mark Milton did 'push the envelope' too far the fact remains that this case leaves no room for doubt that more modest speeds - say 120mph on a motorway in good conditions, with a suitably trained driver, in a suitable vehicle - should NEVER automatically be regarded as dangerous. Clearly this undermines the entire principle of 'speed kills' road safety. Speed cameras are especially affected because they have no ability at all to consider the circumstances of the offence.

Use it or lose it

The skills required to drive at very high speeds on a public road are volatile skills. Without practice they degrade quickly. It is absolutely essential that Police drivers are permitted to drive at high speeds in safe circumstances when they are NOT responding to emergencies. If they were not, when an emergency need arises they would be less well equipped, and possibly dangerously so.

But surely they could practice on a test track?

It's not obvious to people not skilled in the art, but track skills and road skills are almost entirely non overlapping. Track skills major on vehicle handling and maximizing grip. Road skills major on safely controlling interactions with other road users. On the road it's rare to approach the limits of grip - in fact approaching the limits of grip would usually only happen after a failure of the usual safety skills. Police drivers' high speed skills are centred on observation, anticipation and planning. The focus, concentration and confidence required are quickly lost without practice.

Who says what?

It's very interesting to note that people with training or experience at high speed public road driving have few concerns about the verdict.

With very few (possibly no) exceptions the vocal criticisers of the verdict have not have the benefit of high speed or higher level training. I think it's fair to assume that they know little of the high speed process - they probably believe that road hazards 'suddenly' materialise in front of them without warning. (And if you, dear reader, are thinking 'yes they do' then may I PLEASE recommend some further training? I assure you that it's extremely rare for hazards to 'suddenly' appear - if your experience is that they do suddenly appear, then I'm afraid that means that you don't observe or anticipate the road ahead properly.)

Many people who have suffered the injustice of speed camera fines are clearly extremely angry that they were not afforded the same opportunity to explain themselves as PC Milton. We think it's perfectly understandable that someone who may have been banned from driving for 102mph on a clear motorway would feel very deeply offended that a Police Officer, was given no penalty for 159mph. It's no wonder they they are complaining: "It's one rule for them and another for us."

What are the long term effects?
 
  • Clearly 'speed kills' road safety policy has taken a damn good kicking.
  • How many motorists fined for modest speeding in the future are going to cry 'foul' and cite Mark Milton's case?
  • How much damage has been done to the Police/public relationship by the widely held belief that this case demonstrates a dangerous double standard?
  • We can expect further restrictions to be placed on future Police driving with the effect of a further lowering of individual officer responsibility and a further lowering of skill standards. Safe Speed predicts that such changes will increase Police crashes.
Interesting and important questions:

Why was the conclusion of the trial delayed until after the General Election?

Call me a cynic, but if this media frenzy that's resulted from Mark Milton's case had taken place before the election on May 5th, the motorist's vote may have been ignited and the election result may have been different. 

Did the government desire the verdict?

You might think not, but wait... The government has long been blissfully and ignorantly wedded to 'speed kills' road safety policy. Policy clearly isn't working and now they need a divorce. Possibly a quickie divorce. Certainly a face saving divorce. This case is giving much credence to the idea that speed limits should not be blindly enforced without regard to the conditions. More than that. It's pretty close to proof that 'speed doesn't kill'. Is this verdict a critical event on the timeline of the complete collapse of speed kills road safety policy? Let's hope so. Is it engineered to benefit the government's as yet unannounced new policy? Well, it certainly could be. 

Can the government really influence the outcome of such cases?

Well, let's hope not. But there's a smell in the air and it isn't very pleasant.

Safe Speed concludes:

The 18th of May, 2005 was an excellent day for UK road safety. The verdict in the case shocked some and annoyed more people - but this is part of a 'truth will out' process. People are talking and the anti speed zealots are sounding less and less credible.

People are angry - and rightly so. It never was reasonable to fine responsible motorists for exceeding a speed limit by a few miles per hour in good conditions. The authorities with their beloved speed cameras have angered many - but most have accepted the road safety claims. This case throws those claims into further doubt and will move thousands or millions of drivers from the 'accepting' camp to the 'angry' camp.

Speed cameras have put a great deal of pressure on the Police / public relationship, and this case increases the pressure. Our Police have enjoyed the reputation of being the best in the world, but these trivial motoring matters threaten their crown. Smart Chief Constables will take immediate action to reduce the damage - probably by withdrawing support for greedy camera partnerships.

It's great to receive this strong affirmation of the old adage: "speed in itself is not dangerous". It's a trustworthy and vital road safety fundamental that has been forgotten for far too long in this crazy 'speed kills' era.

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Copyright © SafeSpeed 2005
Created 20/05/2005. Last update 20/05/2005
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