Step forward Apple Woman. She will go down in tabloid history as the woman who drove to work while holding a Golden Delicious. Of course, that wasn't the offence she was charged with. But that didn't stop the headline writers. Many pointed out that it had cost `thousands' for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to bring Apple Woman's case to court. The figures varied, but she certainly found herself on the wrong end of a rather expensive legal process by opting to challenge her Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN).
Spotter planes, police helicopters and video cameras were all used ? allegedly - in an attempt by the Northumbria Police to secure a conviction. `Motorist feels the full force of the law for holding an apple' was how one normally responsible broadsheet put it. Up to a point, Lord Copper: the words `while driving' were conveniently left out.
Now, I too am a fruit-loving motorist - even as I write I am enjoying my mid-morning Granny Smith - but the worst thing that could happen to me right now is getting some juice on the keyboard and irritating the bloke from IT. Eating an apple while driving a car is a bit more serious. Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do routinely. Shouldn't we give it a bit of due care and attention and perhaps leave the snacks until we get to the office?
So this is the principle at the core (sorry) of the case: as drivers, we should be in full control of the vehicle at all times.
In a typical year the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) area alone sees more than 600 reportable incidents involving "turning left injudiciously"; it was doing a left turn when apparently Apple Woman came a cropper.
`Apple holding' is not recorded in the official MPS statistics as a specific driving offence. There is no need: the Construction and Use Regulations for this prosecution are sufficiently flexible for the police to issue FPNs for a wide range of violations affecting driver safety.
Not just food and drink, either. That one-armed menace, the mobile phone user, is bang to rights under these regulations, if a police officer sees somebody trying to drive while clutching a hand-held phone. Also, in some circumstances, reading a map or a newspaper while driving could be covered by the same catch-all regulations. Apple Woman's case highlighted that, in extremis, you can only really justify removing your hands from the wheel in order to change gear or indicate.
But surely, I hear you say, it all depends on the situation? Yes. And that is where the discretion of the police officer is all important.
If you fail to see the police car pull up beside you because you are trying to eat your apple, or it's rolling around on the floor, what does that say about the level of concentration and the quality of your driving at that point? Not a lot. Despite the furore over the costs incurred bringing the case to court, the magistrate agreed. "In holding an apple while negotiating a left-hand turn we consider you not to have been in full control," Apple Woman was told.
I am sure that, with hindsight, all the parties concerned wish that events had unfolded differently. For starters, the driver put the apple on her passenger seat. Why? It's bound to roll off. So then she "had" to eat it.
And then there is the policeman concerned, who, thinking that the driver was using her phone, did the right thing pulling her over. But perhaps a quiet word would have done the trick.
Road safety specialists are great believers in "education" rather than "enforcement". This bizarre case is a reminder why.
The writer is a spokesman for the Institute of Advanced MotoristsReuse content