Kids’ Court teaches speeding drivers a lesson

Do you realise you could have killed one of us, a junior judge asks a speeding driver


The four stern-faced judges were Hannah, Jack, Daniel and Isaac aged 10 and 11, and the man facing them in the dock was 51-year-old Michael from Co Mayo up on a charge of speeding outside Anahilt Primary School in rural Co Down.

Michael, a gas installation contractor who lives and works in Northern Ireland, was driving significantly above the 30 miles per hour limit when he was stopped by the PSNI on Tuesday morning. He had two choices: pay a fine and have three penalty points stamped on his driving licence, or face Anahilt Kids’ Court.

Midway through his appearance in front of the junior judges he may well have wondered should he have taken the fine, particularly when asked by her honour Judge Hannah, “Do you realise you could have killed one of us?”

“You know what, to be honest with you, it was a bit of a wobble at the knee question,” Michael told The Irish Times outside the court/school.

“You can’t deny it really. You should not be getting points or putting anybody else in danger either no matter how rushed or pushed you are,” he added.

Michael, who in 32 years of driving never received a ticket or penalty point, admitted he was anxious in front of the children. “You had the kids starting at you, you know, and you would be afraid you would say the wrong answer.”

Michael said it was an idea that the Garda Síochána could emulate. “If somebody else was pulled in they’d be thinking. ‘By God I am going to slow down, this not going to happen me again’. That is the first thing you’d b e thinking.”

The idea of the Kids’ Courts started in England about two years ago and now is being tried in Northern Ireland. After each appearance in front of their juvenile worships the offending drivers then watch graphic road safety videos featuring more children.

It’s a simple but effective idea where the PSNI roads safety officers will liaise with particular schools about running Kids’ Courts, or teachers as part of road safety classes might ask to be included in the scheme.

When the go-ahead is given police turn up outside schools on the given morning and anyone they detect – as long as they are not travelling inordinately fast - will have the option there and then of appearing in front of the children, or taking the fine and penalty points. So far the courts just relate to speeding offences.

This was the second court in the North. The first was in Lisburn just before Christmas when, said PSNI road policing Inspector Susie Davis, drivers realised that young judges would be no soft touch.

“One person came out of the room in tears and another was so upset he had to ask his passenger to finish the journey for him,” she remembered.

There were no tears in Anahilt Kids’ Court, but equally Hannah, Jack, Daniel and Isaac took no prisoners, so to speak. Hannah thought Michael was nervous because he was thinking he could “kill or hurt one of us”.

“I think he will be more careful in future, hopefully,” she said. While it was an interesting experience she did not see herself presiding at the bench when she is older: “I did not like the feeling of being a judge because I am not that bossy.”

Jack, who would like to play for Liverpool when he is big, also thought Michael would be more careful on the road in future, “hopefully”.

Daniel, who aims to be a farm contractor and gardener when he is an adult, felt Michael was “a bit stuttery, a bit nervous”. While making a shaky stab at a Mayo accent he guardedly also thought speeding motorists would learn valuable lessons at these courts. “I think so, maybe, if they are wise enough.”

He enjoyed the experience. “It was nice grilling people.”

Anahilt (or Annahilt – the local Presbyterian church and school has one “N”, the Church of Ireland church two “Ns”) is a small village on the road between Hillsborough and Ballynahinch with a big agricultural hinterland, which accounted for Isaac, a farmer’s, son explaining that when he grows up he wants to be an AI man so he can get “cows pregnant”.

“It’s a real good job,” he insisted to his dubious classmates.

Daniel took to the junior bench with relish, declaring as he strode into the courtroom , “’Allo, ‘Allo, ‘Allo” – a line he learned from his granddad. He might not favour the law as a career but being a judge for a day was “better than being in the classroom”.

Constable Jacky McDowell of PSNI road safety said the children were excellent in helping impart vital messages. He explained, “A car travelling at 30 mph takes twice as long to stop as a car travelling at 20mph. And if you are hit at 20 mph you are a lot less likely to be killed or seriously injured than if you are hit by a car travelling at 30 mph. As far as I am concerned, safety is paramount on our city’s roads, so our message is loud and clear: slower is safer.”

Richard Reid, headmaster of the 137-pupil school, said the initiative reinforced the lessons the children learned about care on the roads. “It gives them a chance as pupils to talk to motorists directly which I think is an opportunity to send a very clear message about road safety.”

Local Presbyterian Minister and chairman of the school board of governors, Rev Gareth McFadden, said Kids’ Courts were a “novel and potent” idea. “I think it is a humbling experience for drivers,” he said. “And it is pride that makes us speed in 30 mph zones. We are saying, ‘We don’t need to comply with the limit. My rush to wherever I am going is more important than looking after the safety of children’. That is pride.”

And while the PSNI were outside the school most of the morning, only two speedsters were caught. The second culprit didn’t have time to speak to The Irish Times although he conceded about the court, “It was sobering – and not as in drink.”

Local DUP councillor Uel Mackin noted how one driver stopped outside the school to tell police they were doing a great job and that on the way to Anahilt he received “at least 12 warning flashes” from other drivers. The exercise would make an impact, he was certain. “There is something very powerful about children quizzing an adult,” said Mr Mackin.

Michael from Mayo agreed. “I can guarantee you if I come through here again I won’t be going above 30, or in any other town either,” he asserted, as he got into his van to drive back to work, carefully.