Watch out - it's a turbo-charged traffic warden

An irresistible image comes to mind of a salesman sticking on a wig and dress before setting out on a drive
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The Independent Online

The Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, yesterday elaborated on his plans to create a regiment of "super traffic wardens", who will have the power to slap fines on us for driving as well as parking misdemeanours.

The super traffic wardens will wear a large capital S on their chests, so as to be identifiable to the motoring public. In bad weather, they will be permitted to wear capes. And when hurtling into the traffic to affix a penalty notice to the windscreen of a cheeky little Peugeot blocking a box junction, the super traffic warden will be encouraged to yell "kpow!"

It is a spoof, isn't it, this scheme to unleash a new breed of super traffic wardens? You are having us on, aren't you, Alistair Darling? Do say you are, sweetheart, because the idea of turbo-charged traffic wardens, doubtless working for privatised companies with daily targets to meet, is almost as hateful as receiving three penalty points on my licence for driving through an empty city late at night at 35mph in a 30mph zone.

Now we're getting to the rub. A couple of months ago, at 11pm on a quiet Sunday night in Worcester, I was framed, if only in the literal sense of the word, by a speed camera. For driving five miles an hour too fast I became one of more than 2 million people who last year received £60 fines and three penalty points for speeding.

Now, obviously our roads need speed limits, and some would say that a limit is a limit, that exceeding it by five miles an hour is no better than exceeding it by 50mph. Moreover, we can't expect speed cameras, as sophisticated as they are, to take a good look round and conclude that "fair enough, there's nothing much on the road, he's had a long day and a completely rubbish rail journey with a 45-minute delay just outside Moreton-in-Marsh, he obviously needs to get home for a stiff gin and tonic, and in the circumstances 35mph is really pretty admirable".

On the other hand, it is plainly wrong that such a trivial offence should lead to an automatic endorsement, and I am cheered at least by the Government's recent acknowledgment that the system might be in need of an overhaul.

After all, what is to stop a husband with nine points on his licence persuading his wife, who has a clear licence and is the only other person insured to drive the same car, to take his speeding rap? Not, of course, that we would dream of perpetrating such a deception in our house. But I gather that some people do, and that is why the authorities are also talking about introducing super speed cameras, which not only record a car's number plate but also a reasonable image of the driver. The irresistible image comes to mind of a travelling salesman sticking on a wig and a dress before setting out on a journey along camera-festooned highways, like the transvestite taxi-driver Babs in The League of Gentlemen.

Whatever, the point surely is that existing traffic-calming measures should be perfected before new ones are put in place. No football manager worth his salt would dream of buying an expensive new striker when there are still gaping holes in his defence, and the same principle should apply to self-respecting Government ministers.

Inevitably, these new super traffic wardens will create yet more resentment among regular road-users, who already consider themselves a mightily beleaguered bunch. I have no problem with road-users feeling resentful, even as one myself, so long as the anti-congestion measures they resent are, like any sensible measure, measured.

But allowing traffic wardens to levy fines on moving as well as parked cars is asking for trouble. Some will make genuine mistakes. Others will become power-crazed. Again to use the football analogy, there are good referees who let games flow and referees who love to blow the whistle at the slightest infringement.

Traffic wardens do not nor will ever have the same level of training as the police, so they should not have the same powers, let alone greater ones. And are they not already reviled almost as much as vivisectionists, mass murderers, estate agents and journalists? Why give the public more rope with which to flog them? When Paul McCartney wrote about his "lovely Rita, meter maid", based on a friendly encounter with a traffic warden in St John's Wood, he originally conceived the song as a satire on authority, with his heroine as a hate figure. But later he decided "it'd be better to love her". Some chance now.

As for the Secretary of State, someone needs to tell him what millions of us already know, that Britain would be a much more comfortable country in which to live if for every pound spent on schemes to ease congestion on the roads, 10 were spent on improving public transport. It's what they call a no-brainer.