The Gatso speed camera has got me again. This is the second time it has done so in a matter of weeks, snapping me furtively as I modestly exceeded the speed limit in the fascist county of Northamptonshire, meaning that I will now have six penalty points on my driving licence for three years to come. All I need to have my driving licence taken away from me is just two more speeding offences within that period; for when you reach 12 penalty points, you are forbidden to drive. Patrick Marnham has dealt eloquently in Slate UK with the oppressive nature of the Gatso speed camera, so I won’t say any more about that. I will rail instead against the British driving licence. This, in line with modern practice everywhere in the developed world, is now a plastic photocard. But this being Britain, where even modern practice has to be made as complicated and inconvenient as possible, the photocard is not in itself enough to authorise you to drive. It comes accompanied by a piece of paper called a “counterpart”, which you are also obliged by law to keep about your person and show to the police on request. One reason for the existence of the “counterpart” is that the authorities say they don’t have the technology to store all the facts of your past driving offences on your plastic photocard. Another reason is that they like to make the individual motorist responsible for recording the details of his own disreputable past. In China, they charge the families of executed men for the bullets used to shoot them. In Britain, they aren’t yet as heartless as that, but they demand you provide them with the facts they need to punish you. They don’t see why they should bother to dig out these facts themselves, although obviously they store them away in some computer somewhere. They find it much easier to make you do the work for them by demanding you produce your “counterpart”.
But what if you lose the wretched thing? This is precisely what I have done, and as a result I cannot even pay my speeding fine. For the Northamptonshire police will not accept my money without it. They insist on recording my new penalty points on my “counterpart” at the same time. So I must get a new one and get it to the police in time to take advantage of their “conditional offer” to let me off lightly with a £60 fine and three penalty points. This expires after 28 days, when it threatens to become a fine of £1,000 and six penalty points, which would lose me my driving licence immediately. I telephone the DVLA, as the authority in Swansea that issues driving licences is called, and listen to its recorded advice. This says that if I have lost only one part of my driving licence—i.e. either the photocard or the “counterpart”—I must go to a post office, pick up a D1 form, and mail it with a cheque to Swansea. But the recorded voice warns that this could take around three weeks, which is getting dangerously close to the police’s deadline. But there is another possibility. If I have lost both parts of my licence, I can order up duplicates on the telephone, without going to the post office and filling in a form. All I need to do in this circumstance is to give someone in Swansea my credit card number on the telephone, and for £17, the duplicates will be sent to me by mail.
I haven’t lost both parts of my licence, of course, only one of them. But this is what I guiltily settle to do. I talk to a nice girl in Swansea who says a new photocard and “counterpart” will be dispatched to me tomorrow by first class post, with a reasonable chance that I should have them before the weekend. This option is a major incentive to tell a lie. In fact, it makes lying essential if I am to be sure of having the necessary documentation available in time for the police’s deadline. And it is clearly routine practice, for an official I spoke to at DVLA made clear that this was the thing to do in my situation, “although, of course, it wasn’t me who told you so”. Assuming I get away with it, I will now have two photocard licences, which may be handy. I will also have made my contribution to the general decline in standards in British public life. But what other choice did I have?