Piano Man Convicted of Driving Piano While Under the Influence

Not road-certified

A correspondent in Scotland sends this terrific example of the category.

Sources report that in September 2021, police stopped James Tofalli on the A92 motorway in eastern Scotland, having noticed he was traveling well below the 70-mph limit. About 67 mph below it, probably, because he was walking beside a piano mounted on a wheeled platform. Tofalli, a 30-year-old man from Lancashire, had embarked on a charity fundraising venture in which he planned to tow the piano from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, entertaining people and collecting donations along the way. That would have been a journey of about 900 miles, but Tofalli only made it about 250 (still kind of impressive) before running afoul of the law.

Let us pause for a moment to recognize John o’ Groats, a town of 300 at the far northeastern tip of Great Britain and a starting point for those who, for some reason, want to walk all the way to Land’s End in Cornwall. It could of course also be the endpoint of that journey, which is the longest possible one you could make without leaving the island. In a sense, at least, because you could make a much longer journey without leaving the island, or even your neighborhood, by just sort of wandering around for a few weeks. Really, a journey of any length is possible that way.

But traveling between these two points is popular enough that the phrase “Land’s End to John o’ Groats” has become a metaphor for “a long way” (like “coast to coast” in the U.S.). I have mentioned John o’ Groats at least three times already, once after a guy announced he had driven there from Land’s End at an average speed of 89 mph (an admission that got him prosecuted for speeding), and twice because another guy insists on making the same journey on foot and also naked. Also it sounds funny.

Anyway, that’s where Tofalli (who is said to be “also known as Piano Man”) started when he decided to make this journey, wearing clothes but towing a piano. Initially, the piano was bolted onto a wheeled “contraption made from a trolley” that he would tow or push down the road. But according to the Lancashire Telegraph, people along the way became concerned for his safety, and at some point “a team of mechanics gave his piano a motorised upgrade by using a quad bike so he could walk alongside it without having to pull it.” The contraption’s top speed is not clear.

The Telegraph insists that Tofalli has “never once sat on the vehicle riding it while it was on the road,” and I find that hard to believe but have no evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t seem to have been sitting on it in September 2021, at least, when police accosted him just south of Arbroath.

According to the report, the officers found that Tofalli had only a provisional driver’s license, and the piano did not have the required “L-plates” (for “learner”). He also did not have insurance, and a cannabis test came back positive. Tofalli was arrested and, as the Telegraph put it, was “charged with driving a piano without insurance, without L-plates and while under the influence of cannabis.”

Well, by now you know, or should know, to question whether this sort of thing applies to a person driving something unusual. I’m surprised to see it’s been three years since we had a new entry in this category, which already includes (among other things) scooters, golf carts, electric wheelchairs, canoes, horses, inner tubes, Barbie jeeps, cars with a lamppost tied to the top, tanks, Christmas floats, motorized picnic tables, motorized beer coolers, motorized bar stools, and of course the popular Zamboni ice machine. But until now, no motorized pianos, and in fact no motorized musical instruments of any kind.

So, is it illegal in Great Britain for an uninsured driver with a provisional license to drive a piano under the influence of cannabis? I of course would defer to those who might actually be licensed to practice law there, but it looks to me like the answer is yes.

The main issue in most DSUWI cases is whether the thing at issue is a “motor vehicle” as the jurisdiction defines the term, and that’s the issue here as well. (Sometimes a law just says “vehicle,” which can be helpful for those on horseback, in a canoe, on an inner tube, or aboard some other non-motorized conveyance. But that’s not the case here.) Under section 143 of the UK’s Road Traffic Act 1988, one must have insurance to “use a motor vehicle on a road or other public place.” Section 185 defines “motor vehicle” to include any “mechanically propelled vehicle intended or adapted for use on roads.” According to the reports, this piano was mounted on a quad-bike frame with a motor with the specific intention of adapting said piano for use on a road, where it was in fact being used at the time of the incident. So under this law, it was an offense to use this particular piano on a public road without insurance.

I’m not sure it makes a difference whether Tofalli was actually using the motor at the time, which seems to have been his argument. “How is this a [motor] vehicle when I’m using my legs?” Tofalli asked police. Similarly, his solicitor reportedly “argued that the piano was not a [motor] vehicle and told the court [his client] was pulling it, not driving it.” Unfortunately, the definition of “motor vehicle” seems to depend on whether the thing is mechanically propelled, or in other words how it could be used, not how it was actually being used. Arguably, “us[ing] a motor vehicle on a road” implies that you were actually using the motor, not just coasting along and/or pushing or pulling the vehicle. But if that was the argument, the court didn’t buy it.

One might also argue that a piano isn’t a “vehicle” at all, it’s a musical instrument. But an object can be more than one thing, and I think there’s no reason an instrument couldn’t also be a “vehicle” if you decide to put wheels on it (or skis) and it’s big enough to ride on (piano, yes; clarinet, no). So I don’t think that helps here.

Whether Tofalli needed a different license or license plates is harder to figure out. According to gov.uk, a provisional license does permit driving a quad bike if it weighs 350kg or less and cannot exceed 28 mph. According to one report, Tofalli’s piano only weighed 270kg, but it seems unlikely to me that the whole contraption would have been under the weight limit. (Unfortunately, the reports don’t say what speeds this piano could reach.) Even if he had the right license, the piano didn’t have the right plates. I note that there are a number of exceptions to this requirement, including one for vehicles “being driven on a journey to or from any place undertaken for salvage purposes pursuant to Part IX of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.” Here, though, Tofalli has already admitted that the purpose of this journey was fundraising, but I’d appreciate it if he would consider this argument next time.

Finally, under section 4 of the Act (sorry—the Road Traffic Act, not the Merchant Shipping Act), it is illegal to drive, attempt to drive, or be “in charge of” a “mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place” if one is “unfit to drive through drink or drugs.” There is no indication that the cannabis actually rendered Tofalli unfit to drive his piano, but as you might expect, the law doesn’t require proof of “unfitness” if a driver is over the limit for a “specified controlled drug,” and THC is on the list. So here too, Piano Man was out of luck.

The court convicted Tofalli, fined him £65 for the moving violations and £75 for possession of cannabis. He said in a Facebook post that he had decided to call off the project, which is too bad but understandable. Well, at least he got to visit John o’ Groats.