I had just enough time to swear before it smashed into the side of the taxi. Apart from my friend, who hurt his back, no one else appeared to be injured.
One of the occupants of the other vehicle, a small white van, walked over. He looked about 17 years old. "Are you all right? Mad man, really mad." I asked what they were doing on the wrong side of the road.
"It's all our fault. She's a really bad driver. I cross myself every time I get in the car with her." The driver, also about 17, was still sitting in the van. The taxi driver was grilling her for information.
The taxi driver's officious approach and her friend's comments made me feel a little sorry for her. But the taxi was a write-off, my friend might have been injured and she had just come close to ending my life.
About a fortnight later Surrey Police sent me a five-page witness questionnaire. The first question posed a moral dilemma: "Do you wish the police to prosecute in this matter?" The implication was that my answer would determine the driver's fate. Although she had committed an offence, I didn't want to be responsible for sending a young woman to court. My friend also found this question difficult. But he thought he should answer yes if he was going to make a successful claim against her insurance company for whiplash. I decided to do the same.
A few days later I happened to get a lift with the same taxi driver. I asked him if he had heard anything about the police investigation. He told me the driver had had a drink but "was not over limit. She was an inexperienced driver who was going too fast." He said I should let the police decide.
I phoned the Surrey Police administration of justice unit and spoke to the administrator. I told her I couldn't complete my statement without knowing how my answer would be treated. A lot of people had telephoned the unit to say they were troubled by this question, she said. "It is a funny question, I know. The next time we have a meeting we are going to raise this issue and see if it can't be taken off."
But I still had to answer it: "I'm really just ringing to ease my conscience," I said. "Will you prosecute if I answer yes?"
"If it makes you feel any better, there are four other witnesses, so it won't be all on your shoulders."
That didn't help. So I spoke to her supervisor, who has the final say in recommending a prosecution to the Crown Prosecution Service. He informed me that although it is a standard question it isn't appropriate to all accidents: "We have to see whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. But if the box is ticked yes it doesn't automatically mean action will be taken. We still have to have evidence of an offence. There shouldn't be any pressure on you."
I suggested it would be much better to leave the question out so that the CPS could make its own decision as to whether a prosecution was in the public interest. If I witnessed a murder, I told him, I wouldn't expect the decision to prosecute to rest on what I thought should be done.
But he refused to budge. After all, he said, I was one of only two independent witnesses.
It was beginning to dawn on me that I am the member of public to whom the public interest requirement refers. In effect, the police are saying, "You were there. Was it bad? Do you think that person deserves to be punished?"
But this requires the judgement of Solomon. How can I make that decision without first talking to the woman concerned? Is she contrite? Has the trauma of the crash been punishment enough? And does she drive more carefully now?
Because I still hadn't returned my statement, the police sent me another and urged me to hurry. I finally decided to follow the police lead and pass the buck. I answered N/A and sent it back. What a relief to let someone else worry about the public interest.
ROBERT VERKAIKReuse content