ANDREW BARNES and his friends are probably ruing the day they decided to take their customised hatchbacks for a spin around Newcastle upon Tyne last summer. Barnes and six other young men aged between 19 and 26 lined up their cars, including a Ford Fiesta and a Vauxhall Corsa, on a road, engines revving. A set of pedestrian traffic lights acted as a makeshift starter signal and when they turned green the drivers floored their throttles and roared across the start line.
On the grass verge spectators cheered as the cars tore past them, like a scene from The Fast and the Furious, holding up their smartphones to record the action. Within hours the footage of the illegal street race had been posted on YouTube and viewed hundreds of times. One of those viewers was a police officer.
This month Barnes and six other defendants were convicted of a variety of driving offences by Newcastle magistrates’ court on the strength of the footage, which also enabled the police to track down the drivers since their numberplates were clearly visible. Presented with the footage, Barnes, 19, pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and an insurance offence, and was given a 12-week suspended sentence and disqualified from driving for 18 months.
The seven men were the latest to be convicted under Northumbria police’s Operation Dragoon, a road safety initiative aimed at cracking down on dangerous drivers. The operation includes standard procedures such as educational courses but increasingly it also involves scouring social media sites for footage of drivers breaking the law.
Chief Inspector John Heckels of Northumbria police says the convictions should serve as a warning that police will catch dangerous drivers. “Operation Dragoon was launched to identify and take action against dangerous drivers,” he says. “Once we were made aware of the videos we took action. Now, as a result, six dangerous drivers are no longer on the roads.” (The seventh man was not banned from driving.)
Visit YouTube or Facebook and it isn’t hard to find amateur videos of drivers breaking the law, from clips of illegal street racing and dashboard-camera footage showing other road users performing dangerous manoeuvres to motorcyclists recording their speedometer as it ticks past 120mph. In the past much of the footage has been too grainy or of insufficient quality for police to use, but the higher quality of the cameras on smartphones means it has become far easier for police to use the video as evidence.
“If police are in possession of information recording someone travelling at ridiculous speed or doing a dangerous manoeuvre and have enough to identify who the driver is, they have reasonable grounds for suspicion that he committed an offence,” says Nick Freeman, a solicitor specialising in road traffic law who is known as Mr Loophole. “Police can investigate, go and interview him or arrest him. Once you’ve got something on YouTube, it’s evidence that speaks for itself. You don’t need a confession.
“You also have cyclists and motorcyclists with cameras on their helmets; you’ve got drivers with cameras on their dashboards. We’re in an age of the trigger-happy camera motorist. There are cameras everywhere and it is relatively easy to secure a conviction.”
Northumbria police are not alone in realising the value of social media to help track down and prosecute bad drivers.
Postings on social media sites have become such a rich resource that the Association of Chief Police Officers has published guidelines on how forces could use video footage for evidence. Some forces have even urged members of the public to send them footage of drivers breaking the law.
Last week a biker who filmed himself nearly colliding with a car head-on at high speed was found guilty of dangerous driving on the strength of the footage.
Jack Sanderson, 22, from Cheshire, recorded footage via a helmet camera on the A537 in February, when his motorbike crossed the white line and swerved off the road to avoid an oncoming car before plummeting off a cliff. The road, running between Buxton and Macclesfield and known locally as the Cat and Fiddle, is often named as the most dangerous in Britain. Sanderson’s video became a hit when he posted it on YouTube but it also led to his prosecution after officers used it as evidence.
West Yorkshire police say footage from social media is becoming increasingly important in alerting officers to incidents they would otherwise have been unaware of — especially those where there are no immediate victims. Superintendent Pat Casserly from protective services operations says: “If motorists act in an irresponsible manner, and then decide to post material on social media sites which is brought to our attention, we will direct our resources towards investigating it. There have been prosecutions on the back of such information. Our roads policing unit actively uses its own social media channels to give out more important messages — those of road safety.” Other forces including North Wales and Bedfordshire say they regularly monitor social media.
Driver groups have sounded an alarm over the practice, however. According to the Association of British Drivers, an over-reliance on cameras and video can mean fewer police officers on the roads.
“The only way to ensure all road users abide by the law is to have officers on patrol visibly enforcing the rules of the road,” says the association. “Catching criminals remotely or via YouTube is not a sufficient deterrent. We also worry that video evidence may be misinterpreted.”