September 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
It was never planned, nor is it official government policy, but police work is being crowdsourced.
1) The rapid uptake of cheap dashboard cameras is putting hundreds of new ‘eyes’ on trafic behaviour:
After a Vauxhall Vectra crossed two solid white lines and sped past Steve Warren on the wrong side of the road on a foggy, damp morning last month, the 48-year-old business consultant didn’t beep his horn in rage, flash his lights or even look round in the vain hope that a police officer had been watching.
Instead, Warren pressed a red flashing button on a small video camera attached to his windscreen, storing the previous minute’s worth of footage. Later that evening he uploaded the video to a website where it was reviewed before being forwarded to local police as evidence of dangerous driving.
A few days later Warren received a phone call from the police: thanks to his footage the Vectra driver had been traced and was to be prosecuted for dangerous driving.
Welcome to the brave new world of citizen traffic cops, where every car on the road is a potential spy and no traffic violation goes unrecorded. Unlike other types of vigilante, however, these drivers have the support of police forces, which are increasingly using evidence from members of the public to prosecute road offences.
The trend is being driven by the popularity of dashcams — video cameras attached to the dashboard that record footage of the road ahead. Originally adopted by drivers as protection against being victims of a “crash for cash” insurance scam, the cameras’ potential to record other incriminating manoeuvres on the road was quickly spotted.
Police Witness, a company that sells dashcams, rapidly introduced a function on its website that allows drivers to post footage of bad driving. The videos are reviewed to ascertain the strength of the evidence then forwarded to the relevant police force.
The trend for recording traffic offences was started by cyclists, who took to wearing cameras mounted on their helmets to record car drivers who cut them up. The footage was posted on websites such as YouTube in an effort to shame the offending motorists.
However, police began to take a serious interest in such amateur footage only in the wake of the London riots in 2011, according to Guy Dehn, a barrister who is behind Witness Confident, a charity that encourages the public to report more crimes.
“The power of ‘crowd sourcing’ is something the police are recognising as the future,” he says. “You can see how effective it was during the London riots, when police encouraged people to send amateur footage of rioters to them so they could use it to identify criminals. Video from cars is a logical next step. As more people now have compelling evidence, the police and courts need to make it easier for witnesses to use it.”
Yet to many people the growth in the use of cameras to capture the misdemeanours of others is unsettling. Critics say it is creating a climate of fear, where even minor mistakes are recorded by an invisible army of curtain twitchers. “If this is being used to catch serious offenders then it is a good thing, which will keep our roads safer,” says Paul Watters of the AA. “The problem is if everyone is spying on everyone else you could see a flood of prosecutions and fines for relatively minor misdemeanours or genuine mistakes.
The latest Home Office figures reveal that there are 4,675 dedicated traffic officers on roads in England and Wales, down 4% from last year, when there were 4,868. “There is virtually no chance of a motorist being dealt with by a police officer at the side of the road nowadays,” says Alan Featherstone, assistant chief constable of Northamptonshire police before retiring four years ago to set up Police Witness. “Patrol officers don’t pull drivers over any more and traffic officers are restricted to motorways and dual carriageways.
How do drivers who report other motorists see themselves? “I’m not a wannabe police officer,” says Warren, who drives a Volkswagen Caddy van. “I’m just fed up with being cut up and seeing dangerous driving. If I was a vigilante, I would have reported dozens of drivers by now for speeding or minor mistakes. But I’ve only reported the one driver: he could have killed someone if they had been waiting in the middle of the road to turn right.
“If the cameras make these drivers think that they might get caught if they drive dangerously, then that’s fantastic.”
2) Everyone’s a Parking Warden – for a fee
Any member of the public will be able to set themselves up as a parking warden, report drivers breaking the rules and take a cut of ticket revenue by using a new app.
The Spot Squad app, which is being produced by a team of Canadian software developers, will be launched in Britain next year and could land thousands of drivers with parking charges initiated by fellow motorists.
The app, which the company claims is the world’s first “crowdsourced parking control”, encourages users to send details of incorrectly parked vehicles to car park operators.
Designed for use on private land such as supermarket car parks, rather than council-operated pay-and-display bays, the app is downloaded to a phone. It allows the user to take a picture of a car that has outstayed the time on its ticket, say, or parked across two bays.
The image, along with the location of the car and its registration number, is then submitted to the car park operator. If a ticket is successfully issued and the motorist pays up, the app user can claim up to 40% of the fee.
“We came up with the idea because the on-street parking outside our office in Winnipeg is always being abused, so our customers can’t park there,” said Chris Johnson, the project director. “We wanted to harness the power of the crowd. And we are talking to parking companies in North America and Europe.”