IN THE DOCK
IN THE DOCK -
Casla Circuit Court, 19th May 2015
I said to the Clerk of the Court, apologetically, ‘Tá brón orm, is Agnostic mise’, and I wasn’t being ironic. I really was sorry to force the clerk of the court to retrieve the bible from my hand, hastily, as if I or she were verging on blasphemy.
The Judge said, in perfect Irish: ‘You may affirm the truth’. I nodded and began, in my own words, also in Irish: ‘I affirm…’. But that wasn’t enough. There must be a precise formula uttered, that for which the clerk was foraging busily among the papers on her desk.
The Clerk said to the Judge: ‘I can’t find the Irish version; there’s only the English one’. Clearly, Bible-deferring is an unusual occurrence in the District Court – even if it is in the Conamara Gaeltacht where most people speak Irish. The Judge frowned, then asked me if I was agreeable to affirming in English.
‘Of course,’ I said and repeated after the Clerk the English words of affirmation. But my apprehension grew.
Would this count against me, declining to swear on the Bible? Would the police prosecutor sitting behind me deduce that this was proof I would lie, unhampered by religious scruples? How would he know that since childhood I have been hardwired with a sense of guilt; scruples were driven into my psyche with threats of hellfire. And I have not had a motoring accident for fifty years.
This being the Gaeltacht, only a mile from my home, I thought all the proceedings would be in Irish, especially as the judge is a fluent native speaker. In our consultation, my solicitor – the only Irish-speaking one I found - had asked if I wished to argue that the Notice of Alleged Offence had not been issued to me in Irish and therefore might be unconstitutional in this Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area – language rights and all that sort of thing. I stoutly said no, that this was not about the language but the inertia of the State and its servants. I would rather be represented on that substantive issue.
The solicitor’s expression could be interpreted as good-humoured pity. He spoke to me frankly: Listen. The judge only deals in facts. The laws and bylaws are there. It is your obligation to observe them. Was the law broken? Did you break it? Thousands appear before her with the same excuses. They plead ignorance of the law, emergencies, illness, row with the wife, headache, they didn’t realise, etc. Unless they are blind, deaf, dumb or dead those excuses don’t wash. What you need is a unique technical point, one that separates yours from other cases.
Technical points I had none. To change the subject I asked what would be his bill.
He thought for a second before quoting a worrying figure.
“I’ll consult the wife’, I said. The ultimate bill he sent was actually a third of his quote. In his wisdom, he had been testing my resolve to go ahead with what experience told him was a lost cause.
I appeared to have no excuse other than that it was a dark and dirty, rainy November night of low visibility when the incident happened. I had been travelling on the only stretch of this road which permitted the speed of 80KPH. I was blinded by the headlights of a convoy of oncoming cars. I missed the solitary sign ordering me suddenly to brake from 80kph to 60kph.
But I’m well prepared for the court this morning.
I’ve spent six months researching the situation, driving endlessly up and down the R336 from An Tulach to Bearna, counting every speed sign, the distances between them, the ten changes of speed demanded – one every 1.5 miles - within that 15 mile stretch; the signs’ inconsistency, the 89 boreens and their default speed signs of 80 KPH - on some boreens there are two signs with both 80 and 50 facing you; on three of them the sensible citizens have used white paint to turn the 80 into 30kph – a non-recognised speed. Such inconsistency brings the law into disrepute. I counted 52 houses on one of these boreens; the vast majority of the population (including three of my small grandchildren) live, not on the main road, but on the byroads, happy-hunting grounds for boy racers.
Members of the latter group are the only ones who have shown initiative. A couple of them photographed the registration plate of a speed camera van, made up copies and fixed them to their own banger. On several nights they drove outrageously fast up and down in front of the speed camera van. Somebody should make a film about it.
I had read every relevant report of the Dept. of Transport, Road Safety Association, Automobile Association, even an M.A. Thesis from Trinity and probably knew more about the subject than the new Minister himself. I had even made a photographic album of evidence to show that the present signage was inconsistent and inappropriate and that the local authority was delinquent in its duty to care for citizens. Finally that the above State bodies had agreed with my assessments since 2009!
But the local authority still allowed hapless drivers – without appeal – to be punished for its’ own inertia. The road section engineers seemed to agree with my assessments and blamed the Councillors for the inaction; three Councillors – I wrote to nine of them – told me that the Council officers were to blame. Ultimately they all maintained that they were at the mercy of the National Roads Authority. This was a misconception: the local Councils have absolute power to change the signage on regional roads as they deem necessary. The buck-passing almost made me feel sorry for those public servants. However, I learned, it would cost only E7 million to correct the national signage. The cost of installing and operating speed cameras nationally over five years is estimated at E65 million; the income from them is estimated at E75 million – all of which income goes to Central funds in Dublin, none to the local Councils. Drivers are a cash cow for the State.
Of course I first appealed to the Gardaí. They said that unless I was an ambulance driver or a doctor in an emergency I could not appeal. It appeared my only recourse was to ignore their Penalty Notice and be summonsed to court. And thus it happened.
And here I am.
The solicitor’s opening gives me the chance to present my case. He questions the driver of the speed camera, a decent man with whom I have previously chatted and who is ‘only doing his job’ but now whose alarming bulk has me worrying when his tiny chair may collapse with a whimper. The man concedes that the weather on the night in question might have been normal for Conamara i.e. wet and windy.
My solicitor asks me to respond.
I launch into a précis of my research.
I pointed out all of the inconsistencies: how three schools had 50 kph signs and three had 60kph; how one pub had 50kph, another 60kph and a third 80kph. How one supermarket had 50kph and another 80kph. How, outside the latter, my sister-in law had been hit by a car and died instantly; how her son had appealed to the County Council to move the speed sign back 200 metres; how they had ignored his appeal.
I have brought photos showing the illegibility of the signs not only when driving west at sunset and east at sunrise but especially at night when you meet a convoy of cars with headlights blazing on a Sunday, the busiest day of the week for motor traffic on our roads. Nowadays, cars here drive in convoy for fear of missing a speed sign or meeting the dreaded speed camera! I have counted and photographed many examples of these convoys, night and day.
Finally I could show that every relevant body agrees with my findings and have done so since the first RSA report in 2009! I sent my findings both to the County Council and to the Department of Transport. I received acknowledgement from neither body.
I could have gone on for hours but knew this would weary the court so I rested my case. The Garda Prosecutor took over – the only one who did not speak in Irish to me.
Did I know the laws, the by-laws as they exist? Had I not broken the law? Was I actually telling the truth, that I had not seen the appropriate sign? I had to assure him I was telling the truth. It was unnerving and I knew from his tone that my case was not only weak, but non-existent.
However, the consolation was that I had got the chance to air even a précis of the outrageous situation. My job was done. Then my solicitor, with perfect timing, decided to introduce what I had told him was my last resort, only to be used if the case was clearly lost.
‘Have you recently visited an optician?, he asked casually.
Reluctantly I told the Judge that I had not really wanted to introduce the subject (nobody, not even a near-octogenarian, wants to admit incipient debility). However, I admitted that, trying to rule out every possibility of my own part-guilt, I had recently had my glasses and eyes tested. I told her that the optician said my prescription was out of date, that my peripheral vision could be distorted by the old spectacles; he added that there were traces of cataracts in my ageing eyes, one of whose side effects could be to intensify the glare of bright lights.
My solicitor had cleverly identified a much-needed technical point – compassion.
‘Have you got new glasses,’ the judge asked me. Proudly I displayed them. Then she pronounced that she would not go into the politics of the matter but was quashing my penalties on those latter grounds alone.
Smiling at me, she added: ‘Maybe you’ll make a film about it?’
‘No’, I answered sadly, ‘I have been forcibly retired.’
PS. In March, two months ago, the latest Minister ordered the removal of the idiotic 80kph signs from boreens and byroads. Not one of them has moved, at least not in these parts.
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