You have probably heard of the Isle of Man, the rainswept 220-square-mile rock that sits in the middle of the Irish Sea. It is home to the famous TT motorcycle races, which use a course that incorporates the island’s fastest roads. It’s also the only place in Europe outside the German autobahn network where there are public roads without speed limits, giving it a strong appeal to thrill seekers even during the 51 weeks of the year when the TT is not running.
Around 30 percent of the island’s highway network is unrestricted, including almost all of the mountain section of the famous TT course. Unsurprisingly, the island exerts a strong appeal to those who want to ride or drive fast. Which is why, when we recently visited for a feature that will appear in the November 2015 issue of Car and Driver, we arranged a meeting with the man in charge of the Manx Constabulary’s Road Policing Unit, detective sergeant Allan Thomson, to find out just how he keeps order on roads where people can go as fast as they like.
The answer, it turns out, is by trying to build consensus rather than conflict; Thomson—and the team of five constables who serve under him—are traffic cops who try not to write tickets.
“We’re unique, ” Thomson admits, in the local accent that—to non-Manx ears—sounds closest to that of Liverpool. “You can get off the boat and go up onto the mountain course and be doing 180 mph within 15 minutes, without breaking the law. That’s why we want to try and engage with people and talk to them. To treat them appropriately to make them behave better . . . but we never forget that this is the public road, not a racetrack.”
It seems to be working, too. Thomson took over the Road Policing Unit three years ago, and he immediately ordered a change from the sort of traffic enforcement most of us are more familiar with.
“The old culture was to put everybody in the book, not to ask questions or even to find out their story, ” he admits. “We used to site the speed traps on the exit of villages, where people are already excited and starting to go faster. I moved them back into villages so that people could see why we were doing it, and we started to engage with people more—to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it, not just writing tickets.”
The result was both a dramatic reduction in speeding convictions, but also in the number of crashes and incidents of the sort of antisocial behavior that islanders used to be exposed to.
“It’s all about establishing the idea that if you do wrong we’re going to have a word with you, ” he explains, “but we want you to come back next year and tell your friends how good it is, and how good the police are . . . My guys used to be doing 12-hour shifts, with eight hours of pinging people and another four writing it all up. Now it’s all out on the road, trying to be in the right place at the right time.”
It’s proactive policing, to the extent that Thomson or one of his teams will meet up with visiting groups of bikers or supercar owners when they arrive on the island.
“We make sure they have a point of contact, ” he says, “and then it’s about painting a picture of the hazards over here, getting across that these are public roads. If you hurt somebody, you are liable for it, regardless of whether there are any speed limits or not. But we want people to come over here and enjoy themselves.”
Not that this softly-softly approach works for everyone, with considerable emphasis still put on enforcement against poor driving or riding. The IoM Constabulary has several high-speed interceptors, including a Ford Focus ST wagon that Thomson meets us in. “You definitely need a car that you can make ground in, ” he says. “But you’ll never be as fast as some of the bikes—you can be driving at 100 mph with the lights and sirens on and there will be bikers whistling past you.”
Hence the use of covert motorcycles—undercover sport bikes that are particularly useful during “Mad Sunday, ” when the Mountain section of the TT course is made one-way only and hundreds of bikers come to ride it. “You wouldn’t spot them, they’re really well done, ” says Thomson, describing the undercover machines. “If you’re riding your bike in a 50 zone and you see a big sign saying Covert Bikes Operating, the first thing you do is look in the mirror. And, of course, there’s a bike behind you: is that one of them? Deaths went down straight away when we introduced them.”
Unlike the U.K., the Isle of Man doesn’t have speed cameras. Or more precisely, it tried to introduce them but encountered some considerable resistance. “We had two, ” Thomson admits, “but they didn’t go down very well. It’s fair to say they didn’t last long before they got smashed . . . We’ve just started an initiative called community speed watch, training members of the community to use a laser gun. They record any speeding vehicles and pass on the details and then we’ll have a chat with the drivers, it’s as simple as that. You might be surprised, but it’s really not like the Wacky Races over here.”