Those of you who follow this column regularly will no doubt be aware that I occasionally have a lot to say about travel conditions and driving standards on our roads. Currently I could probably fill this entire page with my thoughts on the conditions at busy times on the highways in our state capital, but that will have to wait for another day. Instead I'd like to say we're not alone when it comes to traffic and driving problems. They have them across the ocean, too, and part of their efforts to tackle the problem is an initiative called "Operation Tramline."
It sounds like a military exercise, but instead it's a project sponsored by Highways England, a department of the British government with responsibility for all major highways in the country.
What the department decided to do was to buy three semi-tractor units. These are painted white with no identifying logos, although they do have hidden, blue emergency lights and are capable of high speeds if necessary. They are crewed by police officers and carry fixed, wide-angle video cameras. One police officer drives the unit while the others operate the video cameras as they cruise the highways looking for wrongdoers. Once an offender is identified and filmed, an unmarked police cruiser following behind pulls the vehicle over.
A spokesman said the high vantage position offered by the tractor units gave the officers an excellent position to see what is going on in the cabs of other trucks and also enables them to see into smaller vehicles. It was suggested that this would enable them to see people who are breaking the law but who would normally escape detection and the results seem to justify this assumption.
In the past 12 months, these three units have recorded more than three 3,000 law-breakers, resulting in the police issuing 462 "penalty charge notices," the equivalent of our traffic tickets. A further 2,533 drivers were reported for various offenses and these would be required to attend a police driver education course or risk losing their license.
The most common offense the police recorded was when someone in a moving vehicle was not wearing a seat belt. This amounted to one in three of the events recorded and in Britain the law is that almost everyone is required to wear a seat belt. If you're caught without one you get to pay a fine of around $130, raising to a maximum of $650 if you have to go to court. If the person not wearing a belt is under 14 years old, then it is the driver who has to pay the fine.
The second most common offense recorded by the semi-tractors is the use of cell phones. I guess all of us who use the highways have seen people with their cell phone pressed to their ear and, for the most part, that is what the police in Britain recorded but some of their videos showed drivers doing the most astonishing things.
One of the worst offenses was the driver of a 35-ton, fully loaded semi who was filmed with his cell phone in one hand and his credit card in the other as he made a payment while driving along the British version of an interstate at 70 miles an hour. Presumably he is going to need to use his card again to pay a huge fine after his appearance in court.
Two other drivers became video stars as they drove along at speed with both hands off the steering wheel. One was driving a pick-up truck when he was seen on a motorway near Manchester with his phone in one hand while he tapped in a text message with his other and the second was in a van whose driver was seen using one hand to change gear in a stick-shift while he held a cell phone to his ear with the other.
These two, along with many others, will be joining the credit card driver in court where the standard fine for using a cell phone whilst driving is a $250 fine and six penalty points on the offender's driving license. A total of twelve points would mean the driver losing his license for six months, but only if it's a first offence. Second time offenders lose their license for a year.
Seat belts and cell phones account for more than two thirds of the detected offenses and, among the remaining thousand or so are some that make you wonder what the people who were caught were thinking. Among these are several who were found to be reading a book, newspaper or map while driving. There were some that were seen brushing their teeth and at least a couple who were found to be watching TV or a DVD.
At this time there are only three of these video trucks but their results have been so good that they are in demand everywhere and have been moving around the country every few weeks. Both Highways England and the police are very pleased with them and senior police chief Anthony Bangham is quoted as saying, "Operation Tramline is a great success and we remain committed to tackling those who take unnecessary risks with their own safety and the safety of others on our roads by allowing themselves to be distracted while driving. The consequences of these actions are often devastating and we will be continuing with the operation and will be prosecuting drivers who ignore the risks."
The operation seems to have been very successful in Britain and you can find some of their videos on YouTube but, despite its success, I have not heard that it would be used here. Highways England has another initiative though. It's called "Don't be a space invader." It uses images from the old space invaders video game and is aimed at people who like to tailgate the vehicle in front. Now as one who drives I-64 regularly that really is one I would like to see introduced here.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.