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05 May 2010

A new road traffic offence?

Robert Brown , partner, Corker Binning, comments in BBC News Magazine on whether dawdling on a pelican crossing is illegal.

Is dawdling on a pelican crossing illegal?

A man has staged a unique protest against traffic levels by pressing the button on his local pelican crossing and then going across the road very, very slowly. But is it illegal to repeatedly press the button on a pedestrian crossing?

Tony Fuller is annoyed at all the lorries that barrel down the road outside his home in Chideock, Dorset.

His answer is to gather a few friends and make sure the nearby pelican crossing is constantly in use, generating massive tailbacks, by repeatedly pressing the button and then deliberately going across the road as slowly as possible.

Mr Fuller has indicated he will go to prison if need be to highlight the plight of his village, but lawyers suggest that is unlikely to be the case.

The button-bashing protester has already been warned by police officers he could be committing an offence.

There could possibly be an argument, at a stretch, that Mr Fuller is obstructing the highway, says criminal law solicitor Robert Brown, a partner at Corker Binning.

“You would probably find that that would be obstructing the highway, but what he would say is ‘I’m pressing the button’. The court would have to decide whether it is a reasonable use of the highway.

“A court might decide if he is doing it to prevent the passage of vehicles. It is a novel point but he is impeding the passage of vehicles and that is the purpose of the highway.”

But this idea of obstructing the highway is not convincing says criminal law solicitor Julian Young, of Julian Young and Co.

This might more typically involve an obvious blockage – a parked car, stationary object or sit-down protest.

But Mr Young is able to find a law, albeit reasonably obscure, that is being breached.

The Zebra, Pelican and Puffin Pedestrian Crossing Regulations and General Directions of 1997 are not the most fearsome bit of legislation in the police’s pocket, but regulation 19 bodes ill for Mr Fuller.

“No pedestrian shall remain on the carriageway within the limits of a crossing longer than is necessary for that pedestrian to pass over the crossing with reasonable despatch.”

The penalties are not immediately obvious in the wording of the law, but it would most likely involve a summons, appearance at magistrates’ court and a small fine.

Of course, the law does not define what is “longer than necessary”. And an older or disabled or unwell person might easily argue that they need lots of time to get across, says Mr Young.

This of course deals with the crossing part of the protest, not the pressing of the button itself.

Other legal avenues are not easily forthcoming. An Asbo might be one option, says Mr Young, but Mr Fuller’s behaviour seems unlikely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.

And “he is not causing a breach of the peace”, notes Mr Young.

Mr Brown agrees that, in any event, magistrates might well be lenient, and the only way Mr Fuller will end up in prison is if he steadfastly refuses to pay any small fines he accrues.

“The local magistrates might have sympathy. It isn’t an offence which is capable of carrying imprisonment,” says Mr Brown.

Mr Young concurs.

“Any sensible bench would conditionally discharge him and say grow up.”