Since being pioneered in Wales and the West Midlands in 2017, Operation Snap – an online reporting system for video footage gathered via dashcam, bike camera or smartphone – has been put in use by a variety of police forces in the UK. As West Midlands traffic officer Mark Hodson put it, it operates on the ‘Martini Principle’: if you commit a traffic offence, you can get spotted ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ by a member of the public, and sanctioned for it.
Given how ubiquitous traffic offences are, there are never likely to be enough traffic cops to spot even the most serious ones – particularly given the cuts that have come since 2011.
For a while (seems like a looonnnnng while) now, I’ve been in touch with both GoSafeCymru (a road safety-focused partnership between Welsh police forces and local authorities) and South Wales Police regarding the way Operation Snap (OpSnap for short) is run in Wales. Though some of the issues I’ve brought to their attention are, according to a lot of cyclists who use Twitter, common throughout the UK.
Yesterday, I had an online meeting with a road traffic officer from South Wales Police who has been one of the most helpful of my respondents. This was a highly productive conversation, which convinced me (despite numerous experiences of being stonewalled and even blocked on social media by other of my respondents) that there are people working for these agencies who actually want to sort out the serious problems that bedevil OpSnap. A review has been conducted of OpSnap in Wales, and as a result of that some searching questions are being asked of how it’s run.
I’ll say more about this meeting in a moment. But first, what are these problems?
Well, the main one is undoubtedly the way in which OpSnap creates a class of victimless offences. A victimless offence is one where what might be an offence, legally speaking, is committed between consenting adults – or alternatively one in which no harm is done to another.
One of the ways in which drivers may commit an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1988 is by driving without due care or attention, or without consideration for other road users:
If a person drives a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, he [sic] is guilty of an offence.Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988
The video below is from May 2021, and was submitted to OpSnap. It shows the driver of a van pulling a trailer committing an offence under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. In recent years – and especially since the 2022 updates to the Highway Code – police forces around the UK have begun to view close passing of cyclists as an offence in this sense (given that it contravenes rules 163 and 213 among others in the Code and puts cyclists at considerable risk of injury or worse).
That this incident was an offence was confirmed by the fact that South Wales Police took action against the driver, as I was informed afterward. This was, however, of an undisclosed nature. It might have been a warning letter; it might have been an offer of a driving course (costing the driver about £100), or the offer of a fixed penalty notice plus points on their license. But I have no idea, because the offence here is deemed to be a victimless one.
And not because of anything about the offence itself, but precisely because South Wales Police requires it to be reported via OpSnap. OpSnap is a service which is stated to be for reporting offences ‘that members of the public have witnessed‘ (emphasis mine).
This is the crucial point. If you are a potential victim of an offence, then you have under the Victim’s Code certain rights, such as being entitled to updates on exactly what action is being taken in response to your report.
The police will keep you informed as progress is made in the investigation and let you know if any arrests are made and if suspects are charged. The police will ask how often you would like to hear from them during the investigation and how you would like to be contacted (e.g. by phone, email, text).Victims of crime: Understanding your rights. p. 5.
If you are only a witness to a potential offence, then you have no such rights. Despite having video evidence of a driver coming within 18″ of hitting me at speed with a 2 tonne van and trailer, I was treated as a witness, just as I would have been had I filmed the incident from 50 yards away. The Data Protection Act 2017 applies, and information which might identify a potential offender cannot be shared – which according to OpSnap in Wales includes details of action taken as a result of a report.
The obvious question is, of course, does experiencing an incident of this kind affect you in any way? Is it possible to be a victim of such an offence, rather than just a witness? Well, duh.
This has been my experience too, on far too many occasions – including the close pass from the van/trailer in the video. The sense of being utterly helpless as someone veers close to you with a multitonne vehicle is nothing short of absolutely terrifying.
In this video from 2017 used to promote Operation Snap, Inspector Steve Davis and Teresa Healy/Ciano from GoSafe Cymru describe the nascent scheme as a way of deterring bad driving by encouraging drivers to expect that witnesses could be anywhere.
Of the examples they show in the video, the first is perhaps the most interesting. It shows a motorcyclist dangerously overtaken by a driver. A driver who was subsequently ‘prosecuted successfully’.
‘It does affect people when they’re witness to poor driving behaviour’ says Healy, in response to this video. And in that sentence two things are conflated. The motorcyclist here was not merely a witness. They were subjected to a dangerous overtake that could have had serious consequences for them, most likely made them expect that such effects were probable, and so were a victim.
The legal definition of assault doesn’t limit itself to physical violence.
An assault is any act (and not mere omission to act) by which a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to suffer or apprehend immediate unlawful violence.https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/offences-against-person-incorporating-charging-standard
If someone acts in such a way that you feel threatened or put at risk of physical harm by their action, then an assault may have been committed. Of course, some actions of this kind can also cause actual harm – in psychological form.
As Healy (almost) admits, a close pass can be an act of this kind. But as I pointed out, OpSnap defines all incidents submitted to it as ones to which the submitter is only a witness, and not a potential victim.
Now, if I had reported the incident above to South Wales Police via the non-emergency 101 service (by phone or online), then the situation would have been different. I’ve done this in the past with aggravated close passes, where potential public order offences or direct threats of assault have followed a traffic offence. In those cases, I’ve been impressed with the amount of detail on action taken that officers have provided to me.
In such circumstances, the Victim’s Code applies, and the DPA 2017 evidently does not – at least to the extent that information on what actions are being taken as a result of a report is not considered to be information that could identify a potential offender.
So, with OpSnap, the lack of any information – and the denial of the rights that one, as a potential victim of an assault, should have – is nothing to do with the offence possibly committed. It is simply an effect of the reporting system and how it is run. In other words, OpSnap puts in place a two-tier reporting system where traffic offences are concerned, one where cyclists – who typically experience particular types of offence at the hands of motorists – are shunted into the bottom tier.
That this is the case is underlined by the way the online triage system for reporting an offence works, over on the South Wales Police website. Via a series of yes/no questions, users are shunted towards particular services – and if you’re reporting a traffic offence, you get shunted away from 101 and towards OpSnap.
Now, back to the meeting.
My respondent and I discussed the distinction between victim and witness. He reported that GoSafeCymru and the various data protection departments of the Welsh police forces are satisfied that OpSnap is working as it should. He and I were able to agree, however, that this conclusion is at odds with reality. He agreed fully that there are incidents being reported via OpSnap which could be considered cases of assault in the sense mentioned above. And as such they potentially have victims.
And then he said something very interesting indeed. He proposed that if someone has footage of an incident of bad driving which you found threatening or frightening, then they should report it via 101 – which in south Wales you can do via SPW101. This would then enable the submitter to get – in theory at least – detailed updates on what is being done, and to claim the rights due to them as a potential victim of an offence.
And ignore OpSnap entirely, only using it for incidents in which the submitter is unambiguously a witness only.
Now this has interesting implications. First, it could see 101 rather overwhelmed. Second, the call handlers for 101 are not, unlike the decision makers for OpSnap, police officers with extensive traffic experience – and so the quality of response may be wanting. But essentially the officer confirmed that, contrary to the results of the review carried out by GoSafeCymru and Welsh police forces, OpSnap should not be considered fit for purpose as it stands.
He suggested that one way forward would be to use public information campaigns to differentiate OpSnap firmly from 101. But this undermines one of the other purposes of Operation Snap – which is to collect data on how traffic offences are being dealt with by police forces. Split the reporting routes, and this function will fail.
So there’s an acknowledgement here that OpSnap will have to change, and change significantly, if it is going to continue. Either there will have to be a process within the system that allows decision makers to decide whether a submitter of footage should be treated according to the Victims’ Code or not. Or incident reporting will be split between 101 and OpSnap, which has serious operational and quality implications.
The reason why OpSnap was set up as a ‘witness only’ initiative has never been clear to me – despite having asked police officers and GoSafeCymru many, many times. The reason is, I believe, that the legal departments of Welsh (and probably other) police forces took a view that, given treating submitters as witnesses meant that the DPA2017 would kick in, any potential legal implications of sharing ‘identifying information’ relating to video footage would be avoided.
At the same time, other police forces have no problem at all sharing detailed updates on OpSnap style submissions. Here’s one from the West Midlands Police area, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a report to 101.
As Mark Hodson points out here, the view that the DPA2017 (or EU GDPR on which it’s based) prevents updates being given to OpSnap submitters is just that – one view.
The traffic officer with whom I met was less clear cut on whether the application of Data Protection law can be changed for OpSnap – but then, as he said, this was not his specialist area. He did however commit to taking these issues up with legal colleagues. And moreover he affirmed he’d spend some time observing and working directly with OpSnap decision makers to address two other problems.
First, the apparent inconsistencies between decisions to act or not to act in response to particular reports. My experience – and that of many others – is that incidents that are very similar in terms of speed, proximity of close pass etc. can sometimes be treated very differently, receiving ‘NFA’ (no further action) sometimes, and attracting sanctions at other times.
Second the failure (confirmed to me a while ago by FOI request) of OpSnap to collect data on whether some drivers of vehicles (technically, their registered keepers, linked to the registration number) are getting repeated warning letters – thus showing that this sanction is not having a deterrent effect. Currently, there’s no way of knowing whether this happens. The officer agreed this is a serious failing that needs to be addressed.
We agreed to keep talking and more updates will be forthcoming. After several years of being blocked and stonewalled at every turn by a public service that, at times, is run more like a Tom Clancy-style Black Ops unit, it was a pretty refreshing experience.
All users of OpSnap want is to know what the police, public servants, are doing in response to reports of incidents that are sometimes life-threatening and often terrifying. It really isn’t too difficult to understand.