Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by PACTS (TLE 19)



  1.  The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety welcomes the decision by the Transport Committee to conduct an inquiry into Traffic Law and its Enforcement. In March 2000, the government published its strategy for road safety, "Tomorrow's Roads—safer for everyone". This strategy set a target for casualty reduction by 2010 of

    —  40% fewer killed and seriously injured;

    —  50% fewer children killed and seriously injured; and

    —  10% fewer slight injuries based on the casualty rate of the number of people slightly injured per 100 million vehicle kilometres.

  This target was set taking the years 1994-98 as the baseline against which progress should be measured.

  2.  A key part of the strategy is based on the enforcement of existing legislation and consideration of new measures. Details of progress on implementation of the proposals contained in the strategy can be found on the Department for Transport web site under the page: Progress is reported regularly to the Ministerial Road Safety Advisory Panel and published on a quarterly basis. PACTS welcomes the willingness of government to update progress in this way.

Is the law on traffic offences appropriate?

  3.  From the outset, it is important to note that traffic law must be seen as a central element in casualty reduction. In 1999, PACTS published a report into the effects of road traffic law on casualty reduction. This report concluded that the law operated on two levels. First, it defines acceptable standards of behaviour on the road and, in doing so, provides guidance for road users. Secondly, penalties provide a deterrent to breaking the laws for those who might not otherwise comply with standards written into the law (PACTS, 1999).

  4.  The report also highlighted other research showing the link between crash involvement and committing road traffic offences. Forsyth et al. (1995) found that, within the first year of passing their test, 42% of drivers who had received a fixed penalty notice or summons had been involved in an accident, compared to 18% who had not done so; in the third year after passing their test, these figures had dropped to 21% and 11% respectively.

  5.  Part of the background to the report was the continuing concern about the appropriateness of charges against drivers involved in crashes resulting in a road death. The use of the offence of "causing death by dangerous driving" appeared to be in decline, being replaced in many cases by a lower charge of "careless driving", an offence carrying a lower level of penalty.

  6.  PACTS believes it is important to have an objective measure against which the standard of driving can be judged. At present, a driver convicted of careless driving will have demonstrated driving "below that expected of a competent driver". For a conviction of dangerous driving, the standard must be "far below". This is an appropriate distinction to draw. What is less helpful, however, is the use of the word "careless" when such actions might more suitably be termed "negligent". PACTS believes that the current charge of "careless driving" should be replaced by "negligent driving", giving a clearer indication of the responsibility on the road user to take care on the roads.

  7.  The creation of a new offence was also supported in research commissioned by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR, 2002). This research reviewed the implementation of the 1991 Road Traffic Act and included following a number of live cases to trial to observe how decisions were taken and to assess the relationship between types of offence and resulting convictions. The report concluded, among other issues, that the 1991 Road Traffic Act had not led to an increase in convictions for the most serious "bad driving" offence, that the offence of Careless Driving included a very wide range of behaviour of differing severity and that maximum penalties for Dangerous Driving are rarely used. The Act, therefore, was not being carried out in the ways expected either in the North Review of Road Traffic Law or at the time of debate on the Act in Parliament.

  8.  In terms of the question, PACTS believes there must be two objectives for road traffic law. It must offer an effective means of dealing with bad driving offences and it must contribute to casualty reduction. The structure recommended by the North Review continues to offer an intellectually robust approach to dealing with the different levels of bad driving. The difficulties appear to lie more in the willingness and ability of the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to use the approach satisfactorily.

Do police and other enforcement agencies have the right priorities?

  9.  The continuing failure of the police service to devote adequate time and resources to traffic policing remains of concern. Although there have been positive moves towards increasing the importance of traffic policing through the development of the Road Death Investigation Manual and the inclusion of roads policing in the National Policing Plan, the number of dedicated traffic police officers has continued to decline. According to PA Consulting, the number of designated roads police has fallen by 12% over the last four years and numbered just under 6,600 in 2001-02.

  10.  Traffic policing has a key role to play in casualty reduction. In his survey of European practice in road safety, Richard Allsop (2001) identified the importance of effective traffic policing. "Yet another lesson from the Netherlands is not to let up on enforcement of traffic law. The Netherlands have recognised that doing this in the early 1990s was a substantial contributor to the temporary upturn in the annual number of deaths on their roads at that time". Police officers enforcing road traffic law make a real difference—this is a lesson that should not be overlooked.

  11.  It is also important to note the growing research pointing to the links between offending on the roads and other criminal activity. Broughton (2003) found that the number of offences of dangerous driving and driving while disqualified increased dramatically with the number of non-motoring offences. Men with at least four non-motoring convictions were 40-50 times more likely to be convicted of dangerous driving than men with none.

  12.  This research is supported by that of Rose (2000) which points to the importance of traffic policing in contributing to wider reductions in criminal activity. This is also reflected in the initial conclusions of the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR). Trials in nine police force areas concluded that ANPR had helped police seize more than £100,000 in illegal drugs and recover over 300 stolen vehicles (with a value in excess of £2 million) and £715,000 in stolen goods. "Evidence from the ANPR trials has borne out police experience of strong links between road traffic offences and more serious crime" (

  13.  It is also important to note the findings of research commissioned by the Home Office into the accident involvement of stolen cars (Knowles, 2003). This set out to estimate the accident rate per year of exposure of stolen cars in comparison with the known rate for the complete car fleet, using details of stolen cars from the Police National Computer and from four police forces. Unfortunately, as the research developed, shortcomings in the PNC data became clear and the conclusions are based on the complete records of the four police forces which may not be, in the view of the researcher, nationally representative.

  14.  With that qualification, however, the conclusions of the research are revealing. First, a stolen car is four times more likely to be involved in an injury accident than a legitimately drive car. Secondly, accidents involving stolen cars were more likely to be fatal or serious, possibly because stolen cars involved in accidents were relatively old. Thirdly, stolen cars involved in accidents were five times more likely to be driven by a male driver and 13 times more likely to be driven by someone under 20. Fourthly, stolen cars were seven times more likely to have the accident in darkness. Finally, stolen cars involved in accidents were more likely to be older than cars involved in accidents in general.

  15.  The conclusions of the research highlighted above are obvious. Enhanced focus on vehicle crime (in its widest sense) will lead to a reduction in both car theft and road accidents. Traffic policing is not an optional extra for the police service but a key element in improving community safety. PACTS would urge the Select Committee to recommend minimum levels of policing for traffic police activity and to recommend the inclusion of road safety issues in the Crime and Disorder Audits and Strategies undertaken by local authorities and police forces.

Could more be done to deal with dangerous drivers before they cause harm?

  16.  Many of the events on the roads that attract publicity involve drivers who already have criminal records. A recent case, the subject of an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall (April 30, 2003), is by no means unusual: a young male driver involved in the death of one child and serious injuries to three other members of the same family already had 89 previous convictions at the time of his accident. Although it is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one incident, the picture that emerges of multiple offending cannot be overlooked.

  17.  One key action would be to conduct more detailed research into the offending careers of traffic offenders. Work of this kind has been done as part of the review of the sentencing framework in England and Wales (Home Office, 2001). Appendix 3 of the report attempts to summarise the prevalence of offending within the population as a whole and the characteristics of the offender population.

  18.  Clearly, it would be unwise to make straight comparisons between criminal offending as a whole and motoring offenders as a subset. Nevertheless, it is important to note the characteristics of those who commit traffic offences in order to identify which measures will be most effective in preventing repetition.

  19.  Effective counter-measures can be divided into two strands. First, there are measures involving re-training and re-testing. Research into the High Risk Offenders Scheme (Broughton, 2002) concluded that the most likely group to re-offend were those who had already committed a previous offence. Those involved in the HRO scheme for other reasons (provision of an evidential sample exceeding 2.5 times the legal limit or refusal to supply an evidential sample) were less likely to re-offend. This leads to the conclusion that for certain groups re-training and re-testing are effective preventative measures.

  20.  A second area worth considering is the use of technology to prevent re-offending. Blood alcohol interlocks have proved an effective counter-measure in reducing re-offending among drivers with drink-drive convictions in certain states of America. Use of interlocks, tagging or community orders could prove effective as counter-measures here although it is important to note the resource implications of such proposals. The use of interlocks is currently being tested in Sweden (The Guardian, 2001) and the Committee might wish to look at the impact of such a trial scheme. In addition, the Department for Transport road safety research programme (DfT, 2003) includes a new project investigating the effectiveness of alcohol ignition interlocks with drink-drive offenders. It is important that this contract be let and the results considered for policy implementation.

What impact do uninsured, unlicensed and banned drivers have on traffic enforcement?

  21.  The issue of uninsured, unlicensed and banned drivers has been of considerable interest in recent years. One of the particular difficulties with discussion of this issue has been the lack of reliable data in terms both of the numbers of people involved and their crash involvement. It is possible to argue, as a result of paucity of information, both that this group pose a substantial risk and that, because they are uninsured and unlicensed, they drive more safely as a result of being afraid of being caught.

  22.  PACTS believes that there are three areas worth consideration in tackling this group. First, the government should consider the compulsory carrying of driving licences. This was a recommendation contained in the PACTS' report on road traffic law and enforcement. The driving licence should also be seen as an element in any discussion about identity or "entitlement" cards. Secondly, there is a need to establish a better correlation between the databases of accidents and traffic offences. Until this is achieved, it will be hard to know the extent of crash involvement of unlicensed drivers. Thirdly, the DfT should commission further research into the backgrounds of offenders in this area to ensure that policy measures are targeted at the right group.

How will changes in responsibilities, such as those announced on 20 June affect road safety and effective law and enforcement?

  23.  PACTS recognises that the issues raised in the statement by the Secretary of State for Transport on June 20 are important ones. The proposal to allocate clearer roles and responsibilities to both the police service and the Highways Agency must be considered carefully in the context both of improving road safety and managing the road network. The report accompanying the statement identifies changing police practices such as the Central Motorway Policing Group and the Integrated Police Group that need careful evaluation to ensure that they have resulted in improved safety for road users. PACTS would urge the Committee to recommend that the issue of traffic policing on the strategic road network be considered by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary to ensure that best practice is being pursued by the relevant police forces.

  24.  The suggestion that certain aspects of highways management can be undertaken by a "uniformed motorway patrol service" employed by the Highways Agency is an interesting one. What is not clear is the extent to which the different roles of uniformed personnel will be immediately comprehensible to road users. If the proposed changes are to go ahead, there will need to be a substantial national information campaign to ensure that the new arrangements are fully understood.

  25.  There will also need to be adequate training of new personnel. While it may be appropriate to ask Highways Agency personnel to undertake abnormal route planning and setting of message signs, dealing with the traffic consequences of an incident could be a highly complex undertaking. It will also be essential to ensure that there is adequate liaison between Highways Agency personnel and local authorities in order that traffic is not encouraged off the strategic road network on to some single carriageway rural roads that have higher accident rates. PACTS would urge the Committee to recommend a fully monitored pilot project incorporating a single motorway or part of the strategic route network prior to implementation at national level.


  26.  PACTS welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee. It believes that proper and effective enforcement of road traffic law plays a key role in the reduction of road casualties. It believes that this is recognised within the government's road safety strategy but that a key to effective enforcement is the commitment of other Government departments to this aspect of road safety work. It therefore urges the Committee in its final report to send a clear message to both the Home Office and to the Home Affairs Select Committee that road policing is a central part of police activity that makes a tangible difference to improving the quality of life in our communities.


  Allsop R (2001), Road Safety—Britain in Europe, PACTS, London.

  Broughton J (2002), High Risk Offenders' reconviction patterns, Transport Research Laboratory, Crowthorne.

  Broughton J (2003), The number of motoring and non-motoring offences, Transport Research Laboratory, Crowthorne. Driving Crime off the Roads, May 2003.

  DfT (2003), Road Safety Research Compendium of Research Projects, Department for Transport, London.

  DETR (2000), Tomorrow's Roads—safer for everyone, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, London.

  DTLR (2002), Dangerous Driving and the Law, Road Safety Research Report No 26, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, London.

  Forsyth E et al, Cohort Study of learner and novice drivers Part III: Accidents, offences and driving experience in the first three years of driving, Transport Research Laboratory, Crowthorne.

  Guardian (2001), Dashboard breathalysers keep Swedes on the wagon, August 24 2001.

  Hansard (2003), Westminster Hall Adjournment Debate: Aggravated Dangerous Driving, 30 April 2003.

  Home Office (2001), Making Punishments Work, Home Office, London.

  Knowles J (2003), Accident Involvement of stolen cars in 1997 and 1998, Transport Research Laboratory, Crowthorne.

  PACTS (1999), Road Traffic Law and Enforcement, PACTS, London.

  Rose G (2000), The criminal histories of serious traffic offenders, Home Office Research Study 206, Home Office, London.

  PACTS is a registered charity and associate Parliamentary group.

October 2003

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