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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 10:47 GMT
The unlikely traffic cops
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Pearl Knight and Jean Naylor
The Wild West (Sussex)
Villagers in Sussex are so exasperated by speeding motorists they are catching them themselves.

Sixty-nine-year-old Pearl raises her shooting arm, takes aim and pulls the trigger.

"Forty-one. Get him, Jean," she says.

The Peugeot is about 100 yards away and slows down as the pair's yellow jackets come into view.

But it's too late and her colleague scribbles down the number plate as it passes, unaware of the stony-faced stare from the driver.

Pearl Knight takes aim
Drivers slow down when they see the yellow jackets
After speed humps, cameras and sleeping policemen, this is the latest initiative to try to curb fast drivers and it could soon be operating on a street near you. After all, it doesn't cost a penny.

Twenty-two volunteers in the West Sussex villages of West Hoathly and Sharpthorne have been trained and equipped by police to report on drivers travelling above 37mph. Offenders get a ticking off from police but cannot be prosecuted based purely on this data.

Pearl and Jean have braved a bitterly cold morning to do their weekly, hour-long shift on their own street, which they say has become a rat-run for drivers trying to avoid East Grinstead.

Paperboy-free zone

Pointing at her fence, which resembles a defeated Formula One crash barrier, Jean says until East Grinstead gets a by-pass, the risk of someone being killed in West Hoathly will remain high.

Waiting for a break in the traffic to cross what is essentially a village street can take a few minutes, and Jean's fears are shared by others.

If they get used to the fact people in yellow jackets have speed guns, they might think twice about speeding through a lovely part of Sussex
Sue Williams
Shop owner
"I've lived here for 70 years and it's changed beyond all recognition," says villager David Knight. "Ducks used to walk up the main road, it was just a country lane and it was treated like a country lane.

"You can't blame the people using it, but I wish they would have some consideration.

"You can't have papers delivered because no parents are idiot enough to have their children deliver them down this road. We have no pavement and it's a death-trap walking out of the house."

Despite these frustrations, the volunteers say they are not anti-motorist and the point of the exercise is to deter high speed rather than catch people.

Some drivers smile or wave and most take it in good spirits, says Jean, although other volunteers have experienced minor abuse.

Speed gun reading / speed limit
Drivers get plenty of warning to cut speed
One man in a white van does a U-turn and, clearly puzzled by the appearance of who has clocked him, pulls up to ask them what it is all about.

After a minute of Jean's charm - the anger management lesson from Sussex Police was hardly needed for this pupil - he apologises for going too fast and admits his own village could do with some self-policing of its own.

To find the willing hands for such a project requires a strong sense of community spirit and that's as abundant in West Hoathly as the stunning views of the South Downs.

One elderly passer-by, who approaches to say what a difference the initiative is already making, leaves with a lift to the shops arranged for later in the week.

'Neighbour v neighbour'

No such charity for the 11 drivers Pearl and Jean note in their hour. The top speed is 42mph, which is 12mph slower than one caught in the project's first two weeks.

But is the village's non-volunteer community as enthusiastic about its new quasi traffic cops? A debate on that very subject soon ensues in the village shop.

There are five to 10 accidents a month, says Sue Williams, who runs Hilltop Store.

The scheme has created local headlines and could be rolled out
"This is a start - and it's a good start - but I don't think it's going to solve the problem. When people drive through the village, if they get used to the fact people in yellow jackets have speed guns, they might think twice about speeding through a lovely part of Sussex."

The ones that crash aren't local people, says Richard Harber, 20, who also supports the scheme and doubts if a by-pass will ever happen.

But not everyone is in favour. "I'm against it because it sets neighbour against neighbour," says Suzan Johnstone, 48, who has lived here nearly 30 years.

"I know someone who's been caught twice and I think it makes people fall out with each other. If you were my neighbour and you caught me three times I would fall out with you.

"I don't want it to end with a brick through someone's window."

A selection of your comments appears below. The debate is now closed.

I've just bought off eBay an ex-police handheld camera to prove to the police that vehicles pass a blind junction with speeds in excess of 70mph where accidents have occurred, but not enough people have died!!!! to qualify for a camera... It is said that police use the road for speed training their officers and the local car dealers love to show off the cars, especially the Ferrari dealer... NOT for much longer!!!!!
Steve, Sutton Valence

I wouldn't trust anyone in my village, let alone any other village, to be impartial. There's no control to prevent two "friends", as the ladies described, from spotting a car speeding only to discover it's "Mrs Smith" from their WI group and so forgetting to note down the number plate or pass it onto the police. This is just another example of lazy policing, getting the public to do their job for them because they are incapable of doing it themselves.
Matt Roots, Sandhurst, UK

At long last - just the presence of somebody will hopefully slow people down. The government has eventually realised that people want to do something about speeders and the police can't be expected to be everywhere at once.
Oliver, Oakham, Rutland, UK

Firstly, I would like to say I am a motorist and that I wish these villager and everyone like them my best wishes. With regard to the critics of speed restrictions and their enforcement, it amazes me why so many people seem to think moving one or more tonnes of metal, etc. (i.e. a car) at illegal and dangerous speeds is acceptable.
John, Sheffield, U.K.

This project looks like another useful way of persuading people to obey the law, and should make a small positive contribution to saving lives. This isn't targeting motorists; it's targeting those motorists who break the law. I don't see why prosecutions can't be brought on the basis of credible independent evidence.
Martin, Stepney, London

My village could use this kind of scheme, and I'd be only too happy to spend an hour or two a week helping out. Speeding seems to be "socially acceptable" in this country, with moaning about speed cameras coming second only to comparing house prices / schools as dinner party talk. People breaking the law - especially where dangerous, as with speeding - should be caught, and I'd love to help do it.

If you don't want to get caught, then don't speed. It's very simple really. Speed kills.
Meriel Swain, Banbury

Instead of providing a bypass to the village to make life better and safer for the residents and the motorists, they con residents into policing for them. Shades of Big Brother all over again. And all this is because the existing public transport infrastructure is too cumbersome, dirty, unreliable, inconvenient, unpleasant and expensive for most motorists to stomach.
Spokey, UK

There are far more important things to worry about than a few motorists doing 37mph in 30's. Why don't people group together to tackle real problems like drunk and disorderly yobs, drugs, and graffiti that affect communities. I think this relentless targeting of motorists is getting ridiculous.
Ben, Leatherhead

Why are we so slow to catch on? In the USA, the speed restrictions outside schools are, in many instances, policed by parents who can issue fixed penalty tickets. Also, because the 15 mph limit is only active when the kids are going in & out of school, the rest of the public is not inconvenienced by humps, bumps, chicanes and meaningless speed limits for the 95% of the year that they are not required!
Kevin W, Reading, UK

Fair play to them. Where I live we have the signs which flash up with the speed to warn drivers they are going too fast. Sadly almost all ignore them. The highest I witnessed this weekend was 67mph - this is in a 30mph residential street.
Jan, Guildford, UK

Once again, war on the motorist and abdication of sensible traffic policing by the authority which is meant to do it - the POLICE. Get rid of these silly schemes, and endless cameras, let's get back to some sensible, effective traffic policing and the roads will get safer.
Alan, Northampton UK

It's about time that the community was given the opportunity to control such issues. Because it is a voluntary and 'sincere' service it will be taken more seriously by motorists, unlike the police who have abused and betrayed the prevention aspect of the whole speed camera initiative for the purpose of generating vast incomes.
Richard Williams, Birmingham

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