To Be Perfectly Frank | Law and disorder

If you were to ask me what I remember most clearly about the early 1980s in Denmark, I’d have to say the bitterly cold winters. But apart from that, something else sticks in my mind: the traffic – or the lack of it – and the orderly way in which it was managed. And I don’t mean just the infrastructure such as traffic lights and roundabouts, but the serious adherence to the letter of the law.

One morning, my then wife and our nine-year-old daughter decided to cycle down to the petrol station opposite Bellevue Beach for some milk. Rather than cross Kystvejen twice, they chose to use the cycle path on the left-hand side of the road and were duly spotted by a motorcycle policeman and given a strict talking to. On another occasion, one of my nephews, who was staying with us at the time, was similarly stopped for a minor traffic offence while out on his paper round at some ungodly hour of the morning.

In fact, the pedantic way in which people appeared to revere the traffic regulations was indeed both impressive and irritating. There was a time during the 1980s when English Sunday newspapers became available at some of the larger S-train stations, but you had to be there early to get one. So I was in the habit of driving to Hellerup Station at around 8am on Sundays. Kystvejen in those days was completely deserted at that hour on a Sunday morning, except for my car – and a man walking a dog. I could swear I met him every single time. I would approach the traffic lights where he waited, he would press the little button, the lights would duly change, I would duly stop, and man and dog would duly cross the road. He could have waited for the only car on the road to pass and just crossed with no problem, but no!

So fast-forward 30 years and what do we find? A lot more traffic, yes, and a lot more cynicism among road users. And I mean all road users – motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, whatever. The previous apparent respect for the law has been replaced by a fast-growing degree of disrespect. At the same time, there is an almost total lack of police presence on the streets. The occasional patrol car is all that reminds one that there are any police at all in Denmark. How often have I witnessed some traffic infringement and watched with incredulity as a police car swept by, the occupants often seeming to be more concerned with swapping jokes than doing what I would consider to be police work.

So what has in fact changed? Two recent quotes in the national press gave me a clue. The first was a reaction to the increase in fines for traffic infringements: that it was unfair to be fined 700 kroner for using a mobile phone while cycling on a deserted path. In other words, the law should be open to interpretation depending on the circumstances. That’s not my understanding of how the law should work! And who does the interpreting? The other quote in question was the police themselves declaring that they were “quite satisfied” with the level of traffic policing. Well what else would they say? If I wasn’t accountable to anyone I might also assess my own work as satisfactory. But raising the fines is not going to make one ounce of difference to the way people behave if they don’t get caught and fined! And it doesn’t help that there is no peer pressure to obey the law: nobody says a word or honks a horn despite being subjected to appalling (and downright dangerous) driving, thus giving tacit approval to such behaviour. (Oh I’m forgetting, of course, that horn honking is illegal unless absolutely necessary!).

So what do we deduce from these glaring differences over the last three decades? That the current generation is less law-abiding than previous ones? I would prefer to suggest that what appeared to be respect for the law was in fact a fear of being caught doing something wrong. Remove that threat and people revert to the norm, which here in Denmark is often an insistence on doing what one wants to do if one can get away with it. A lack of social pressure to accept the moral difference between right and wrong, combined with a poor level of enforcement of the law, will naturally lead to disorder if not downright anarchy, and no amount of legislation by parliament will reverse that.

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