The first driver to be prosecuted under the ‘Road Hog’ laws introduced in 2014 was convicted by Leeds Magistrates’ Court last week – Ian Stephens was fined £940 for driving without due care and attention in the middle lane of the M62 between junctions 22 and 23 near Huddersfield last August.
Stephens, a 47-year old painter and decorator from Wigan, Greater Manchester, was pulled over by police on the M62 and charged with the offence, for which he could have opted to pay a fixed penalty of £100.
Perhaps the biggest error Mr. Stephens made, though, was to not represent himself in court, and so allow the Magistrates to make their decision in his absence. Stephens, who is self-employed, apparently did not want to lose a day’s work to attend court as he believed that the video evidence from the patrol car would be sufficient to clear him. On the day of the offence, he claimed that congestion on the M62 (which is notorious for its steep gradients) was sufficiently sticky for all lanes to be moving at roughly the same speed, and that he was reluctant to pull into a ‘small gap’ in the left-hand lane as, in doing so, he would ‘lose momentum and struggle to pull back out into the flow of traffic to overtake HGVs.’
To a certain degree, he has a point. His own vehicle, a Citroen Berlingo diesel, isn’t the quickest vehicle on the road, especially not when laden with tools and equipment, and I’ve driven across the M62 on a Friday afternoon enough times to corroborate his contention that it was, most likely, extremely busy – but, then I wasn’t there, so I can only sympathise insofar as I think he was made an example of a little too harshly by the authorities.
Here, though, is why I believe the ‘Road Hog’ law is fundamentally (and even dangerously) flawed. Sure, it’s annoying when the driver in front is pottering along in the incorrect lane, oblivious to traffic conditions and what’s coming up from behind, and there are some motorists out there who are truly shocking when it comes to observation – but, having a hard and fast rule with no apparent discretion can discredit good drivers, who are genuinely aware and thinking about their road position.
A few years back, I did two advanced driving courses. One was private tuition paid for by my then employer, as I had a job that involved frequently driving powerful cars on test tracks (well, someone had to do it…), the second was a well-known road safety qualification available to anyone and based on training given to, and dictated by, police officers.
On both courses, I was told that, on an empty motorway, the safest place to be was the middle lane because the single biggest thing you can do to improve your road safety is give yourself space. It’s logical – hazards can come from either side (road debris, animals…) and, in giving yourself room to manoeuvre, you’re minimising your exposure to risk. Every time I drive down the motorway at night, or in quiet traffic conditions, you’ll find me out there in the middle lane road-hogging away. However, in fairness, I always pull in if a faster vehicle is approaching from behind. In reality, then, I’m not hogging the lane – but I am breaking the law. And I’m not going to stop doing it any time soon.
Similarly, how is the law interpreted? Frequently, for example, I incur the wrath of other road users tailgating or flashing their lights at me because, in their minds, I am hogging whatever lane I’m in by travelling more slowly than they desire – yet, in reality, I’m cruising no more slowly than the vehicle directly in front. All I’m doing is keeping a safe braking distance between my car and the one ahead, not actually holding anyone up or delaying their progress and, with impatient so-and-sos such as them behind me, I’m actually quite keen to get over and out of their way as quickly as possible. Again, though, how does the law translate?
On the above basis, I can’t help but feel an inkling of sympathy for Ian Stephens. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see what happened. So all of the above is my own rambling hypothesis. But my argument is that we shouldn’t need laws like this on our roads, if only we were to educate our drivers better in the first place…