Among many wonderful scenes in Peter Kay’s recent sitcom Car Share, there is one I’ve watched over and over again online. In it, Kay’s character, John, is singing along to John Farnham’s “You’re The Voice” in his car. As he builds to the chorus, through those emotive lines, “We’re all someone’s daughter. We’re all someone’s son…”, he gets louder and louder and is at full bellow when he notices that the man in the next lane watching his antics and laughing. Embarrassed, he instantly stops singing, gives a sad little look over his shoulder and drives on.
That’s the funny thing about cars – they feel like another room of the house, an extension on wheels, but they are far more public than that. One driver of a red Land Rover discovered that to her cost this week. Pulled up at a red light, the woman took a slurp of milky mush from a bowl balanced on her knees. Unfortunately for her, David Williams was at the same junction on his bicycle, and filmed her with his helmet camera. “Put that down,” he shouts through the window. “You’re on camera.” He then uploaded the footage to YouTube, set about sharing it on social media and handed it over to Surrey Police, whose enquiries are still “ongoing”. At the last count, the YouTube clip had had 356,067 views.
“When you see something this idiotic you just want to share it with the world,” said Williams, a cycling instructor and father of two. Do you? What the driver of the car did was idiotic, potentially dangerous, but that her lapse in road safety was spotted by a fellow road user, filmed for posterity and shared with the authorities and the internet, all before she had started on her mid-morning latte is an uncomfortably Orwellian chain of events.
The cycling cameraman was not a hazard I had to deal with when I took my driving test. Now every day is test day on the roads, as righteous cyclists skim past cars, cameras rolling, waiting for a bit of below-par mirror-signal-manoeuvre action (no one films the cyclists, as they are too busy trying not to knock over the Lycra whizzers).
According to the campaign group Beyond the Kerb, there have been 48 cycling fatalities in the UK this year, six in London. These are appalling statistics, but cyclists filming bad drivers will not necessarily make the roads safer. Indeed, Williams’s own footage implies that it may do the opposite, as he flags down the car behind the cereal monster to share his outrage in the middle of rush hour. No one leaves the house hoping to cause a crash or to become a viral hit, which means the only people likely to benefit from these crusading videos are tinted window salesmen.
Citizen films can be a powerful tool for justice. Take the recent case of Dajerria Becton, a black teenage girl wrestled to the ground at a Dallas pool party by a white policeman, who then drew a gun on her friends when they tried to intervene. Again, the footage found its way to YouTube and the police officer was suspended.
On a different note, Boris Johnson’s altercation with a taxi driver was caught on camera-phone by a passer-by this week. Heckled about the threat that the ride-hailing service Uber poses to black-cab drivers, Johnson shot back “Fuck off and die – and not in that order”, which doesn’t even make sense. Whether you saw it as a mini-rant, a lapse of rhetoric from a typically florid speaker or just a refreshing dose of real talk depends on your view of Johnson. It would be a shame, though, if the Mayor of London felt that he could never have an off-the-cuff conversation with a Londoner for fear of it being uploaded and shared.
Both cases involve public figures of authority, which makes filming them in the street in the public interest. The Land Rover driver on the other hand was not a public figure. She is now.
It’s no wonder, perhaps, that people are using their phones to snitch on others when their phones are, in turn, constantly checking on their owners’ behaviour. If we’re not being ticked off for how few steps we take a day, our Kindle app is making a note of the fact that we never quite got past chapter 10 of that Booker winner, or our Uber driver is marking our passenger etiquette out of five. It’s a wonder we ever knew how to do the right thing before smartphones came along and made mobile moral crusaders of us all.