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14 April 2015

What Is It About Driving?

Two people are walking down a busy High Street. They are reasonably well adjusted, unexceptional members of society. Use your imagination to attach further details as you think appropriate. Anyway, one of these people, perhaps glimpsing something in a shop window or distracted by their mobile phone, fails to spot the other and they bump into each other. No harm is done to either of them. Now, the outcome of this scenario, played out hundreds of times a day, is almost always both people apologising to the other, sentiments along the lines of “Sorry” or “oh don’t worry” and each eager to repair any upset caused.

Now contrast the above with what happens when essentially the same scenario occurs but with each person driving a car. Lets say one changes lanes at a roundabout without seeing the other. A collision results. No harm is done to either, but there are some dents and scratches to the cars. Both drivers will pull over and each starts to blame the other for the collision “you changed lanes” - “but you were in the wrong lane”. What initially starts out as an exchange of views soon deteriorates into a shouting match with personal insults being thrown. One threatens to call the police. In due course insurance details are exchanged and the matter goes off to Insurers to sort out. If neither side concedes or no agreement can be reached as to an appropriate apportionment of blame, then the matter will eventually result in a court hearing many months, sometimes even years, later.

Why are people’s reactions so different to a momentary lapse in concentration when cars are involved? Of course partly this is explained by the fact that cars are expensive and cost money to repair, but that doesn’t go all the way. We ascribe the worst of motives to driving mistakes. Consciously or subconsciously the innocent driver thinks that the fault driver has deliberately done something to get him. The mechanical shield of the car is a barrier to the usual human emotions. But there is something more, something deep rooted, that for most people drowns any feelings of forgiveness or reconciliation.

I am not suggesting that we should forgive bad driving that puts lives in danger. People who speed in built up areas, habitually use a handheld device or otherwise put life in danger should rightly be condemned. However in most cases I have dealt with we are not dealing with drastically bad driving. It is just that someone made a mistake, as all drivers do, and it caused a collision. In my time at the Bar I have dealt with numerous road accident cases. I have also dealt with criminal cases. The allegations put in criminal courts are, on any view, the more serious and socially unacceptable. However, Defendants in the criminal courts will often admit to having committed varying degrees of violence, theft or dealing in drugs. Parties in road traffic cases will never admit to being a bad driver. In the criminal courts the stigma of sexual offences means that Defendants rarely plead to them. Bizarrely, in the civil courts, being labelled a bad driver seems to hold more stigma.

This all ends up in a short hearing before a District Judge who wasn’t at the scene of the accident and has heard hundreds of such cases before. By now the parties often hate each other. I have seen parties yelling abuse at each other before, during and after such hearings. I have had to restrain a client as he went to attack the other driver after a judgment had been delivered. The passions and emotions aroused from a disputed liability road traffic accident are often hard to contain in the narrow confines of a District Judge’s hearing room. Whilst trials for murders and rapes generally pass off with decorum and civility in the Crown Court, the veneer of civility often fails to remain intact at small claims road traffic cases.

Of course, somebody always leaves court feeling hard done by, there has to be a losing party. But how often, to put it bluntly, does the court get it right? Is it any better than flicking a coin...

Peter Harthan

The original of this article can be found on Mr Harthan's blog

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