“Foul!” yells Lewis, aka Traffic Droid, from his bicycle before brandishing a red card in the face of a dumbfounded delivery driver. The scene is not a football pitch, rather the middle of a London street, where Lewis, alias the “Traffic Droid”, is busy enforcing the law. The 51-year-old is one of dozens of British cyclists who have found a new raison d’etre: to travel the land recording reckless drivers with helmet-mounted cameras and passing the evidence on to police. The authorities were at first wary of the carriageway vigilantes, but every case is now treated on its merits.
An interview with Lewis who explains his initiative and talks about the growing trend of Do It Yourself Policing.
Why did you start TrafficDroid and what is your personal motivation?
Traffic Droid started in 2009 when a driver failed to stop at a T-Junction upon seeing me and knocking me off my bicycle in a head on crash that almost killed me. The driver failed to signal he was going to make a right turn. I has hit with such force that the driver’s windshield was damaged. I remember being knocked of my bicycle and I flew off into the air like a rag doll toy, spinning and falling on my back and head very hard on the tarmac. About 2 seconds later I heard my bicycle crash after I landed. Then the driver was accelerating to drive away from the incident. I was lucky the police captured him.
How does Traffic Droid work? Please explain from beginning to now and tell us about your plans for the future?
It was 6 months before I could ride again. With the help of my ex-girlfriend’s daughter, I set up a YouTube channel to upload videos. It took many months before I uploaded any videos because I didn’t have a proper action camera.
I got knocked down a second time in 2011 on Valentine’s day and that’s when I really decided I wanted to start busting bad drivers. That was the moment I actively became Traffic Droid. I didn’t know much about how to report bad drivers to the police and it was very difficult to get cases taken up. When a driver tried knocking me down in London, that’s when I sought the help of a newspaper to help me track them down. It was a small newspaper, but before I realized, bigger newspapers in London, radio and TV became interested. This was scary because I didn’t want to be on the national news and couldn’t handle the publicity. It was then that I realized that the issue of bad drivers was a lot bigger than I originally imagined. I remember filling out my first police report – it had at least 20 pages – it was very daunting and it almost seemed impossible to keep doing this. I had to learn about different types of incidents, and by now I had my first GoPro camera which was recommended by a friend because of its good image quality”.
What is needed to file a video report to police and how does this work? For example: How many videos do you create on a typical day, how many violations are seen per day? What are your criteria for filing a report? Do you get help of any others when you post on YouTube?
I started with one GoPro and ended up with 12 action cameras on my bicycle and body. The idea was to cover every possible angle in a 360 degree fashion. I have a photo of my first camera which was a Veho clip on camera. The battery life was not very good. I have now reduced the cameras to four: one selfie view, rear facing under the seat, handle bar facing forward and one on my helmet facing forward. I want to stress that I do not go around trying to bust people and I always wear my cameras just in case anything goes wrong!
On a typical journey I see at least 10 traffic violations by driver such as using a mobile phones in traffic, jumping red lights, speeding, tailgating and bad driving against me and other cyclists. I used to report anything from 5 to 10 incidents a day.
The police had a website portal called Roadsafe which reviews footage and decides if they should send warning letters to bad drivers or take no further action. There is a unit called Criminal Justice Unit which I used to spend about 2 hours a day filling out police forms, editing and burning DVD’s of the incidents. I estimate that I have reported over 1000 incidents and possibly double that since 2009.
The Metropolitan Police have now launched a new online reporting site which makes reporting a lot easier and quicker. In the last year I have reported about 500 cases, attended court hearings as a witness and won most of my cases.
It is very hard work, takes a lot of my time and energy and it is not easy. There are different criteria for each case and it always helps to have the footage. Offences such as using mobile phones while driving, close pass overtakes, hit and runs, undertakings, tailgating or driving without due care and attention will be prosecuted by the police. But you must be willing to go to court as a witness. Clear cut evidence usually means you don’t have to attend because the footage speaks for itself. I do not enjoy reporting people but feel it is my civic duty when required to do so to ensure justice is delivered.
How many cases did you file and how many were successful convictions?
I have filed at least over a 1000 cases and have about 85% success rate. Court sessions, warnings, fines and penalty points for various types of incidents. In the beginning it was mostly warning letters that were being sent by police to bad drivers. But I have witnessed plenty of full blown court cases before the magistrates. Some drivers make it worse for themselves when they are clearly guilty of bad driving or breaking the law and sometimes end up with heavier fines and points when they are in court to talk about their behaviours.
What are some of the reactions you have received since you started? Do you experience any positive effects?
I seem to get a lot of compliments from drivers saying it is rare to see a cyclist signaling their intention to turn left or right and even stop them in the city of London. This is funny to me because it makes sense to signal even though you cycle. Most just obey the rules. There was a day when a bus driver stopping at red traffic lights was so impressed he just had to come out of the bus and shake my hands. Some taxi drivers have been shaking my hand for signaling. I think I have stumbled upon something drivers seem to like: SIGNAL!
What are some of the bad examples you have encountered so far? Has anyone ever decided to threaten, file complaints or even file a law suit against you?
There are many bad examples of my encounters where drivers in the wrong have physically attacked me. Not blows, but just pushing me. I have a rule not to engage in combat except where my life is at risk. Keep it clean is my policy. The cameras will do the punching and butt kicking in court. There was a day when a driver, when I simply said to him “Your mirror is missing” went absolutely mad. He came out of the car, up to my face swearing and shouting at me: “Who are you to point that out?” In the United Kingdom that is an offence: section 4 and 5, a public order offence. The driver was invited to an interview by the police and ended up being charged under that section.
What are some of the risks of what you are doing?
The risk is to the bad drivers and not myself. The bad drivers may lose their license or get fired. As long as what you do is not to get into a rage and start fighting.
The main risks are getting hurt. In my view, some drivers try it on to annoy you for no reason because you are Traffic Droid. I have had some taxi drivers drive dangerously close or at me for no reason.
There is a naming & shaming aspect to what you do, how do you view the success and the drawbacks in that. And where do you draw the line from an ethical point of view?
I must make one thing clear: Traffic Droid is not a vigilante. I only react when bad driving happens near me or if I see it with other people. The naming and shaming happens only when a driver denies he or she is wrong and disrespects the law. The naming and shaming I do is a lot less these days, now I am reporting more of it to the police. You will have to wait a long time before you see drivers who have been convicted online because the cases are live and I don’t want to give the game away. The successes come when I meet some of the people I have told off. They will come to thank me many months later that they learned something and then we shake hands. That I see as very positive.
How do you work together with people online?
I don’t willfully work with people online but give advice on what to do if a bad driver infringes your rights and safety. I use Twitter a lot for many things and communicate about the ideal of safe roads as it can affect lives in many different ways. Worst case is when we hear of people killed cycling. For example by heavy goods vehicles or racing cyclists that are threatened by them for no reason at all. I report bad drivers like that to the police. I am happy the London police are now available on Twitter and incidents can be reported online which speeds up the reporting process.
How do you describe the cooperation with law enforcement and government in general (since the start, now and what would you like to improve?)
Cooperation has improved greatly. The Government’s transport department are keen to improve cycling safety and traffic enforcement. Using online resources to report and communicate, social media brings the individual closer to the media, the public conscience and those in power to listen far better than before. There is a more level playing field thanks to Twitter. An open forum of social integration. Through constant campaigning and publicizing bad drivers, like TV and radio appearances, our concerns are now easier to prosecute drivers for certain offences. I think my latest subject is the close pass overtaking and tailgating of cyclists. I am campaigning for acceptance that any motorized vehicle caught on your action camera overtaking any cyclist in the same lane, on roundabouts, cross roads and tailgating them should get automatic fines and points for violating the rules.”
Other people have followed your example, you might know some of them and how wide spread is it?
Others have followed what I do and get some support from some police officers. Many cyclists use GoPros now and report bad drivers to the local police. What I am against is people deliberately going out to catch people. That’s not how I operate. I operate on an if only basis when going to work, shopping or cycling for other reasons. I won’t point out specific people, but some have called themselves Droids too. A personal friend of mine who does the same thing I do is doing superb work. He is a bus driver and camera cyclist who reports many drivers and prosecutes them.
Prosecution can take months, precious time and personal sacrifice. Not many than sustain what we do. It’s very hard work and sometimes unpleasant, but the reporting will change lives for the better. It will provide safer streets. I want to report less now as Traffic Droid has taken up 8 years of my life. That’s a huge commitment. I would like all cyclists to wear camera’s and report drivers for dangerous driving if it happens. It will save lives in the long run and provide safer streets.”
What are your hopes/wishes for the future?
I have one question to all cyclists after reading this: what do you think of Traffic Droid ?