French draft law eyes police drone video to battle reckless urban motorcycle rallies

police drone video reckless motorcycle

French legislators are preparing legislation allowing police to use drone video to crack down on the growing and at times deadly phenomenon of reckless motorcycle rallies in public areas. 

Occasionally deadly youth trend continues to spread

A pair of conservative parliamentarians are readying the law to battle what’s known in France as “rodéos urbains.” Those involve a number of youths racing, doing wheelies, or otherwise performing riding stunts that are not only dangerous on their own, but especially risky to unaware passersby in the city settings where they usually occur. This summer alone, two people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were killed by drivers who lost control of their bikes. With current methods of fighting the widening youth fad largely failing, politicians want to permit police to use drone video to arrest participants in reckless motorcycle events.

Despite a 2018 law passed specifically to outlaw and punish the growing trend, the number of “rodéos urbains” has continued to rise. Police broke up around 400 of the gatherings in 2019; in 2020 those jumped to more than 870. Some estimates put the total number of the flash jamborees at more than 4,614 annually. Alerts to police about those are usually called in by people disturbed by the noise, still shaken after having been forced to run out of the way of racing motorcycles, or worried about the safety of youths breaking driving laws right and left – often without helmets or other protection.

Though the 2018 legislation inflicts maximum penalties of a year in prison and $17,737 in fines, the problem continues to grow among participants aware that polices are largely hog-tied in busting the gatherings. Car chases of fleeing youths – which only increase the danger for nearby pedestrians that cops are seeking to eliminate in the first place – have been formally discouraged. As a result, the first sign of a squad car sends riders speeding in all directions, knowing things will end right there.

Draft law seeks use of police drone video to nab reckless motorcycle participants after the fact

To address that, French legislators now want to equip police with drones that can spot and video the reckless motorcycle gatherings, and capture images of license plates and people on the vehicles. Once sufficient footage of perpetrators is shot, units can slowly roll in to put a relatively calm end to the event – and wait for identification information permitting suspects to be arrested elsewhere.

Authors think the text’s specific targeting of authors of illegal activity as it’s happening will survive France’s very delicate relationship between privacy, personal data protection, and tech used by law enforcement. 

Earlier this year, courts and the country’s digital watchdog agency banned police use of drone imagery in surveillance of public demonstrations or other large gatherings. Those rulings have effectively taken the tech out of police hands in the interest of protecting privacy rights of people who’ve not been charged with any wrongdoing. 

A major consequence of that still fueling continued controversy came in July, when French officials told British colleagues that same decision prohibited them from using drones to spot migrants amassed on the country’s northern coast and preparing to embark on Channel crossings to illegally enter Britain. That aerial method was one of several cutting-edge prevention capacities in the UK that has sent over $100 million in funding to France in their mutual efforts to halt the illicit flow of migrants westward.

The new draft law, backers say, specifically applies to drone video surveillance of banned reckless motorcycle stunts while they’re being staged, and by drivers violating laws. That, they believe, will sidestep privacy concerns in filming people who aren’t suspected of anything. The fate of the new legislation will therefore ultimately lie in whether, and how, legal experts defend privacy rights for people being caught red-handed.

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