Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 17, 2015

Enforcement on Northern Ireland’s Roads

In the 1920 the USA made the sale of alcohol a criminal offence. But the USA was geographically so huge, its population so high and alcohol so easy to hide that law enforcement agencies found it very difficult to enforce the ban. The result was that by the early 1930s alcohol consumption was at almost 80% of the level it had been before the law came in to force. In 1933, the ban was repealed, for two reasons. Firstly, because the widespread flouting of the law suggested it did not have the support of the population as a whole. And secondly, because it had proved impractical to enforce.

The experience of prohibition in the USA demonstrates the distinction between legislating laws and enforcement of laws. While it is easy for Westminster and Stormont to pass laws to govern Northern Ireland, enforcing those laws is an entirely different matter. A few months ago a cow got loose on the M1 motorway, causing traffic chaos. I commented in jest on Twitter that the cow should have known better since animals are banned from motorways by law! Clearly, the passing of a law alone is not enough if it cannot be enforced.

Human society is made up of fallible human beings, some of whom are very well-behaved and some of whom are criminals. Most lie somewhere in between. It is therefore not only possible, but certain, that a level of lawbreaking will go on in any society. The role of enforcement is both to detect lawbreaking, and to deter it in the first place. It is clearly impossible to eliminate lawbreaking entirely. Societies which have attempted to do so, such as the former East Germany, have found that even by having a vast proportion of the population involved in detecting lawbreaking, the state is still unable to stamp it out, and indeed the process of attempting to do so is hugely destructive to human society.

Most states use law enforcement agencies, such as the police, to detect and deter lawbreaking. Because it is impossible (and clearly undesirable) for law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on every member of the population at all times, enforcement usually involves a more pragmatic approach of only actively enforcing laws from time to time – spot checking – the idea being that if the general public see other people being being detected breaking the law with enough frequency, that will deter them from breaking the law.

Hence TV license officers do not check every house in the country every day to see if they are using a TV without a license, but rather conduct spot checks on a few selected properties each day. TV license agencies are keen to promote figures of the number of people detected breaking the law in this way so that the general public get the impression that there is a reasonable chance that rule-breakers will be caught. By this method, compliance with TV licensing laws remains quite high (95%) despite the fact that in a given day, the chance of an individual being caught is actually very low.

Even in this “spot check” approach, a balance has to be struck between:

(a) spending so much time and resources detecting lawbreaking that it becomes prohibitively expensive and intrusive, and

(b) spending so little time and resources detecting lawbreaking that the less scrupulous elements of the population realise that they are highly unlikely to get detected, and hence lawbreaking increases.

Risking The Social Contract

Enforcement clearly cannot drop off to zero. There is a point at which enforcement drops below a critical level beyond which lawbreaking starts to become much more widespread. This is often described through the idea of a social contract, the idea that by obeying laws citizens of a country are agreeing to give up certain freedoms in order to achieve greater benefits. For example, most people choose to stop at a red traffic light, despite it delaying their journey, on the basis that it creates order from which they ultimately benefit. Similarly, most people agree to pay taxes, because they understand that if everyone else does so too things like the NHS and schools can be funded and they will ultimately benefit.

However, it’s vital to note that the social contract is a contract. The public is only one side to it, with law enforcement as the flip side. If the public starts to see that the government is not enforcing the law, and hence others are profiting from lawbreaking with impunity, they start to question why they themselves are obeying the law. If I was to pay my taxes, but everyone else did not, and got away with it, I would very quickly start to ask why I should pay taxes. “Why shouldn’t I keep my taxes and spend them on myself like everyone else?” So while every free society must, by necessity, tolerate a certain level of lawbreaking, a critical point can be reached if law enforcement diminishes to the extent that the social contract breaks down and the wider public starts engaging in lawbreaking on the basis that everyone else is too.

We now turn to the rules of the road. The rules of the road are an example of laws that are generally enforced in a “spot check” manner, i.e. by actively enforcing them only from time to time in the hope that this will happen often enough to deter the public more generally from breaking the law. Typical examples of these laws are speeding, careless driving, illegal parking, running red lights and driving in bus lanes.

One can tell from spending even a few days on our road network in Northern Ireland that enforcement of all these laws is not occurring very often. Anecdotally, road users in Northern Ireland have been saying for some time that lawbreaking is on the increase. Could it be that enforcement has reached such a low point that the social contract is breaking down?

Enforcement on Roads in Northern Ireland

Enforcement of traffic laws in Northern Ireland is generally the responsibility of two agencies.

Firstly, the police (PSNI). While any police officer can of course stop a driver who is committing an offence, there were 178 officers specifically assigned to traffic policing in 2014 (source). This has reduced from 292 in 2001. If we assume, as a back of the envelope exercise, that one third of these officers are on active duty at any one time, and if we further assume that these officers must work in pairs, and if we further assume that they can spend 100% of their time patrolling the roads (which they surely are not) that leaves 30 traffic policing units on active duty across the whole province at any one time. There are about 25,000 km of roads in Northern Ireland, so that is one traffic policing unit for every 830 km of road. Clearly the PSNI cannot hope to manage more than sporadic spot checks with this level of coverage. If we look at greater Belfast/Lisburn alone, there are only 26 traffic police officers assigned from stations in these areas. Using the same sum as above, that leaves just four traffic police units to cover the entire city. Clearly, then, it is impossible for there to be any meaningful enforcement of things like speeding or bus lane infringement, and we should not be surprised that it is mostly not happening. Those who believe that they can break these laws with impunity are largely correct.

Secondly, traffic attendants, who deal with parking issues such as breaches of Urban Clearways, parking in bus lanes, over-staying in car parks etc. There are currently 107 traffic attendants in Northern Ireland Monday-Saturday, of whom 25 operate in Belfast (information correct Oct 2014). There are 873 km of roads in Belfast City Council (pre April 2015 boundaries) so each of these traffic attendants is effectively managing 35 km of roads. Clearly it is not possible for one traffic attendant to actively prevent illegal parking on anything close to 35 km of roads. Additionally, there are some forms of illegal parking – such as illegal waiting by taxis – that cannot be enforced as the driver will simply drive off if they see the attendant approach and return once they have left the area. And even if the traffic attendants did focus all their efforts on, say, parking in bus lanes they would then fail to enforce all other forms of illegal parking. So, again, those who believe that they can break parking laws with impunity are, unfortunately, largely correct.

Since the bus lanes were introduced to Belfast over the past two years, enforcement has been very poor. Both the PSNI and the traffic attendants lack the resources to offer much more than token enforcement, and I fear this level of enforcement falls below the level that can sustain the social contract. Thus complaints about people parking in Clearways and driving in the bus lanes have now gone beyond venting frustration and have become the city’s running joke – “Wow, only 15 cars parked in the Lisburn Road bus lane this morning!”. “Gosh, I saw a BUS in the bus lane this morning. What’s going on?”

Belfast’s bus lanes are also being routinely flouted by taxis who resent the way they have been displaced by the bus infrastructure and refuse to obey the rules. Taxis park in bus lanes in such numbers on Donegall Square North and outside Central Station that the bus lanes there do not function. The PSNI and parking attendants have basically been defeated in this standoff with the taxis, so now it occurs all day every day with apparent impunity.

The law, as the saying goes, looks an ass.

The “Enforcement Issue”

This is what I have been referring to over the past couple of years as the enforcement issue. And I am concerned that it’s going to become an even bigger issue. As enforcement continues to diminish in the face of further budget cuts, the road network is going to be characterised as an increasingly lawless environment. So while others are concerned with increasing enforcement, the more immediate challenge is going to be even maintaining the low level of enforcement we have now.

Work is currently ongoing to construct an ambitious Rapid Transit system in Belfast. This will be bus-based and will operate via dedicated bus lanes running out to the Stewartstown Road in west Belfast, Dundonald in east Belfast and to Titanic Quarter. The selling point of the system is going to be its promise of fast, reliable journey times into the city centre that are much faster than an equivalent journey by car. In principle I believe Rapid Transit is a good idea. However, it is going to be crippled from its very inception if we do not take serious steps to tackle the enforcement issue. Rapid Transit vehicles will end up stuck in traffic if even a handful of illegally parked vehicles block the bus lanes. Unless there is a significant change in our approach to enforcement before the system becomes operational, Rapid Transit will be severely crippled.

There are three ways to tackle the problem.

1. Spend more on resources. The most obvious solution is to allocate more resources to law enforcement on the ground. However, in the current climate of budget cuts this is highly unlikely to happen – because by “resources”, what we really mean is “people’s taxes” and there is less and less of those to go around. So far from spending more on resources, the situation is likely to get worse as the PSNI faces further budget cuts. Roads policing is only one facet of the PSNI’s work, and when faced with cutting things like tackling serious crime, fraud, terrorism and civil disorder it is easy to see how traffic policing will struggle to be a high priority. It could be argued that the DRD should be putting funding towards traffic policing as part of running an effective transport system, and I believe there is a strong case for that. That is not the current situation, but even if it was, the DRD faces similar budget cuts across the board.

2. Use more cost-effective resources. Human beings are expensive resources for the state to use in enforcing law. For many types of lawbreaking, such as civil disorder or fraud, human beings are still the only way to tackle the problem. But some aspects of traffic policing – such as detecting speeding or bus lane infringements – can be highly automated through the use of fixed or mobile cameras to detect law-breaking. Cameras also have ongoing running costs, both to run them and to take action against those they catch, so it is not as if they are a “free” solution. But given the low probability of any more policing or traffic attendants being introduced in the near future, this is still an attractive form of enforcement. Indeed it is something that TransportNI wanted to introduce last summer to enforce bus lanes in Belfast, but bizarrely it was opposed by the DRD Committee. Of course, there is a wider issue of the extent to which mass surveillance of the general public is appropriate in a liberal democracy. It is legitimate to ask: to what extent is it appropriate for the state to make video recordings of people going about their lawful business in order to detect the few who are not?

An important aside point on this is that when speed cameras are used it is vital that they are highly visible on the roads. Why? If they are not, then the only people who will be aware of them will be the select few who get caught. Those who do not get caught will be unaware that enforcement was taking place. But for the social contract to work, it is vital that the wider public observe the enforcement taking place. While there is a sense in which a visible speed camera may allow a speeding driver to slow down and not get caught, this is actually less important than the wider impact that the visibility of enforcement has on the behaviour of the majority. It is not sufficient for justice to be done – justice must also be seen to be done.

3. Stop building infrastructure that relies on active enforcement. Laws that require the active participation of law enforcement agencies in order to function create ever more ongoing work and costs for the state. As soon as enforcement stops, lawbreaking rises. This is what we could call active enforcement and, while capable of great flexibility, is also very expensive to maintain.

With road law enforcement it is possible to create self-enforcing measures that rely purely on their physical form to work. The classic example is the speed bump. Speed bumps are self-enforcing in that they generally result in traffic slowing to around 20mph without requiring anyone to stand with a speed camera. They are also active 24 hours per day. Self-enforcing measures have an initial setup cost, but are thereafter very cheap to maintain. In a financially-strapped state such as Northern Ireland, re-orienting our thinking to rely more heavily on self-enforcement has obvious benefits. Sensitive and careful use of bollards can be used to enforce parking restrictions and protect things like cycle lanes from poorly parked vehicles. Bus lanes that are fully segregated from general traffic lanes are subject to far fewer obstructions than those that are separated merely by painted lines.

There is a sense in which creating more and more bus lanes that rely on active enforcement is simply not going to work in Northern Ireland in the current economic climate, and therefore in the foreseeable future. Perhaps we should go so far as to stop building infrastructure that relies on active enforcement and focus instead on self-enforcement wherever possible.

In summary, enforcement of road traffic laws can never be universal and can only ever be piecemeal. However, even this approach relies on a certain visibility of enforcement which is increasingly not being achieved in Northern Ireland. As a result, the social contract itself is under threat and could break down entirely. If we are not careful, the road network could increasingly become a lawless environment. Given the current financial state of the province, we may need to look towards different enforcement measures such as cameras or self-enforcing infrastructure in order to prevent this from happening.


  1. The Committee for Regional Development is not known for its competence, but you know what I think about that. It all comes back to one simplistic statement: law-abiding motorists can safely ignore the cameras.

    I agree that any meaningful form of traffic enforcement by PSNI is going out the window, as they will not have the resources. NSL has never had enough staff.

  2. Do we need to lobby the DRD committee to “think again” on CCTV cars.

    And, has there been any sort of of official statement by PSNI, or any other body, admitting defeat on Donegal Sq (North)? An opportunity for police, city hall and DVA to act.

  3. Wesley, any thoughts on crowd sourcing enforcement. with everybody possessing a smartphone these days it would be a trivial matter to have an app capable of sending a geo-located time-stamped photo to psni or snl of say parking in clear ways blocking traffic heading home after work/ parking in cycle lanes/ buslanes etc.

    • In theory the technology exists to do that. But I’d worry about the corrosive effect on society if citizens started spying on each other. It was that type of behaviour that caused so much poison in East German society.

  4. Very useful essay on enforcement and the social contract. I would go for the CCTV. It’s in public places, so presumably everyone “knows” that what they do is visible and presumably the recordings are overwritten after a while? They would not need to run continuously, after all that is very time consuming to watch. Recording could be triggered by an “event”, such as loops in the road, so the only recording is done when a vehicle is in a lane. Much shorter time needed to check recordings. The Traffic Watch cameras in parts of Belfast can be watched on line, maybe bus lane cameras could also be available on line for people to watch. If possible offenders know they can be seen on a “panda cam” (even if their number plate is not visible) maybe they would be less likely to offend?

  5. “TransportNI wanted to introduce last summer to enforce bus lanes in Belfast, but bizarrely it was opposed by the DRD Committee.”

    Yes, because quite a lot of bus lane encroachers (on the Castlereagh Road every morning at least) are politicians / senior civil servants getting ferried about in Skodas, Omegas and Octavias to the NIO / Civil Service / Stormont.

    Other than taxis, other characters I’ve seen are:
    – Locals going from sidestreet to sidestreet who know fine rightly that they aren’t enforced
    – Those who wish to use lane 1 half a mile ahead (either to turn left, or get ahead at the next traffic light junction) who see the bus lane clear and chance it.

    Other irritations that could be easily enforced are:
    – Those turning right at peak time (eg. 5.30pm) when right turns are banned (usually until 6/6.30pm) for example from Saintfield Road to Newtonbreda, or Newtownards Road to Connswater / Bloomfield Road. Causes lane 2 to come to a standstill.
    – Parking in clearway. For example, Castlereagh Road, before 6pm, lane 1 is basically closed because locals don’t want to use their driveways, or are in a big emergency to go to their church meetings. Similarly with Ormeau Road, as reported frequently by the radio stations there.

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