Select Committee on Transport Tenth Report

3  The decline of roads policing: under-prioritised and under-resourced

10. We heard that roads policing has been under-resourced and under-prioritised at both local and national level for many years. The marginalisation of roads policing is expressed in the falling numbers of dedicated roads police officers, its absence from strategic policing plans, and the deteriorating levels of training. The Police Federation told us that the demise of traffic policing had been a controversial policing issue for many years. The Police Federation was not alone in raising concerns. They told us that RoSPA, RoadPeace and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary had all expressed similar concerns over the fall in traffic police numbers.[8]

11. It has been suggested that the decline of roads policing activity has led directly to increasing traffic violations on the UK's roads. The West Yorkshire Road Safety Strategy Group argued that the government priorities for the police had not included adequate roads policing targets. This led to a diversion of police resources away from roads policing, and in turn, to increasing public disregard for road traffic law and its enforcement.[9] The London Borough of Camden agreed with this view: "we believe that in London there has been a growing driver culture that there is very little effective traffic enforcement taking place, and that this has contributed to a degradation of driving standards, with a detrimental effect on road safety."[10]

12. The Borough supported this assertion by pointing to the fact that when it took over enforcement of moving traffic offences (such as banned movements and no entry) from the police, it issued 25,000 Penalty Charge Notices for these offences in Camden in the first six months of operation.[11] For offences which have not been decriminalised, the under-resourcing of police enforcement has meant local authorities have in some cases paid for the police to dedicate time to specific road safety duties and initiatives.[12]

13. Perhaps the most shocking illustration of the impact of inadequate visible traffic enforcement was provided by Transport for London. The London Road Safety Unit identified that the decline in roads policing had been reflected in a sustained increase in 'hit and run' collisions since the 1990s. In some London Boroughs up to a quarter of pedestrian injuries are caused by drivers who failed to stop.[13] The average proportion of hit and run collisions almost doubled from around 8% of all collisions in the 1990s to 15% in 2004.[14] The Unit went on to suggest that such collisions cluster on certain roads and tend to occur at particular times of the night, which would make them ideal for targeted policing.

14. The standard of driving and number of violations are not the only aspect to have been affected by falling numbers of roads police officers. RoadPeace, a charity for road crash victims, suggested that the lack of resources has led to poor performance in specialist collision investigations. It stated:

In London, 50 specialist collision investigators used to be responsible for investigating both fatal and near fatal crashes, but we understand this has changed. Now near fatal crashes are investigated by the general borough police and receive a much worse level of service. So fatal crashes may receive greater attention but the near fatals, which outnumber fatal crashes by 3-4 times, receive much, much less.[15]

Definition of a Roads Police Officer

15. In the course of conducting a benchmarking study, the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales (PSAEW) discovered that there was no standard definition of a roads police officer. The Association indicated that owing to the changes in force structures and the changing nature of roads policing there appeared to be no agreed definition.[16] The Government provided the following definition of the police traffic function:

  • Operational—staff who are predominantly employed on motor-cycles or in patrol vehicles for the policing of traffic and motorway related duties. This does not include officers employed in accident investigation, vehicle examination and radar duties.
  • Operational Support—staff who are predominantly employed to support the traffic function of the force including radar, accident investigation, vehicle examination and traffic administration. Includes officers working with hazardous chemicals.
  • Organisational Support—Administrative staff predominantly serving the internal needs of the traffic function of the force.[17]

What these definitions acknowledge implicitly, but not explicitly, with the use of the word 'predominantly', is that traffic functions may be carried out by ordinary police officers and roads police officers may just as easily be deployed to other functions. The boundaries between specialised units have largely dissolved with the introduction of 'multi-tasking'.


16. The difficulty in defining and subsequently counting the number of staff involved in roads policing indicates the considerable changes that have taken place in policing over recent years. The emergence of 'multi-tasking' and the flexibility this allows Chief Police Officers in their deployment decisions has had a considerable effect on roads policing. Mr Meredydd Hughes, the Association of Chief Police Officers' Head of Road Policing, told us:

policing has changed quite radically in the last few years, and it is very difficult to identify a roads policing officer [...] Policing is multi-tasked; you have the same staff doing different things, and in re-organisational terms officers sometimes get roads policing as a secondary function […] That means that you cannot judge who is involved in roads policing exclusively by a single number, you have to look at the breadth [...] a huge number of roads policing functions are carried out as part of core policing by ordinary police officers.[18]

17. While this approach affords flexibility, we heard from many witnesses that it also raises concerns over the priority given to roads policing duties in this context.[19] There is a fear that roads policing loses priority to other competing demands. The Intelligent Transport Society for the United Kingdom (ITS-UK) argued that increases in roads policing resources might have been negated through additional policing demands, primarily counter-terrorism. Such demands will have had an effect as high-speed response units such as roads policing may be readily redeployed as conventional police resources. Roads policing resources were often the first option available for urgent re-allocation.[20]

18. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that some police forces have disbanded their specialist units altogether. Brake, a road safety charity, argued that transferring roads policing duties to non-specialist staff was inadequate because roads police officers required specialist training.[21] The PSAEW illustrated the limitations of such an approach:

Much of roads policing activity can be undertaken by non specialist officers […] There is however a need for specialist roads policing officers with the right levels of training and equipment and with the support at senior levels to be able to respond effectively to serious collisions, undertake professional investigations and carry out the more specialist enforcement and tactical pursuits.[22]

Mr Hughes, of ACPO, shared some of the concerns about disbanded roads policing units:

Unfortunately, evidence you may hear from the HMIC will show that the model […] is not important. It is not the structure, it is how they carry out roads policing […] I, personally, prefer to keep the officers in the centralised unit where we can ensure their skills set is maintained, where they're tasked and co-ordinated in the appropriate way. However, officers taking an alternative view are entitled to that, if they maintain the standards.[23]

19. The Home Office and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, however, insist that the existence of a separate specialised unit is not fundamental to a high quality of roads policing. Mr Huw Jones, of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary told us: "if they are trained properly and if they are tasked properly, that is really the crucial thing here […] it should be the role of every police officer to make sure that the roads are safe, and it should not be something only left to a few."[24] The then Home Office Minister, Paul Goggins MP, argued that the number of roads police officers was not a good indicator of the standard of roads policing being provided:

I would argue it is rather old-fashioned to think simply in terms of dedicated road traffic officers. What we want are police officers who are able to enforce roads policing […] As we go forward, we want to see roads policing integrated. It is not enough just to say there are so many officers. We want every officer to see roads policing as part of his responsibility.[25]

20. The Association of Chief Police Officers added that because of the efficiencies in policing made possible through the use of new technologies, each officer is now able to achieve more than in the past. A decline in numbers does not in this context necessarily equate to a decline in enforcement. It stated: "The effective deployment of existing resources is the key factor rather than an obsession with the numbers of traffic officers."[26]


21. Despite the difficulties in defining exactly what constitutes a roads police officer in such a sophisticated work environment, all indicators suggest that the number of roads police officers has fallen quite markedly over consecutive decades. According to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, designated traffic officers fell from 15-20% of force strength in 1966 to seven per cent of force strength in 1998.[27] Over a more recent period, the number of operational traffic officers fell between 1999 and 2004 by 21%. Conversely, support staff numbers for traffic policing rose by 242% during the same period.[28]

22. The trend has taken an upturn, however, since 2003. The Home Office Minister told us that in 2002-3 there were 6,902 police officers whose primary role was roads policing; and in 2004-5 there were 7,104.[29] The benchmarking study by PSAEW also found that the number of Sergeants and Constables involved in roads policing had increased between 2004 and 2005, although the number of Inspectors had remained constant.[30]

23. The experience of police forces is that roads policing requires specialised knowledge and skills, specific training and equipment. The practice of treating roads policing as a secondary or additional duty of officers engaged in other activities offers chief constables a high degree of flexibility in how they use their officers, but there is a significant danger that it will lead in the longer-term to a reduced priority for roads policing. This is nowhere more in evidence than in the fact that it is no longer possible to say with any certainty how many officers are now engaged with roads policing. Multi-tasking in this way requires careful monitoring, and if it is found that the arrangement further impedes the ability of police officers to dedicate the necessary time and resources to operational roads policing, a different approach should be introduced. The special role of roads police officers must be recognised and protected, and the high standards of roads policing—which have helped the UK's roads to be among the safest in the world—must be maintained.


24. There has recently been a transfer of responsibility for some roads policing duties away from the police and onto 'non sworn' staff. The main examples of such staff in the road environment are Highways Agency Traffic Officers (HATOs) and Police Community Support Officers. The Highways Agency officers were established through the Traffic Management Act 2004, which transfers responsibility from the police to HATOs for improving road safety and reducing incident-related congestion on motorways and 'all purpose trunk roads' in England. The Police Reform Act 2002 introduced the designation of Community Support Officers. These are police authority support staff intended to provide an 'anti-crime presence' and reassurance through high-visibility foot patrol.[31]

25. The introduction of an extended 'law enforcement family' incorporating more non-sworn staff has both advantages and disadvantages. The decision to decriminalise some moving traffic offences has relieved some of the pressure on police officers. In theory it should allow police officers to concentrate more fully on preventing dangerous and careless driving offences. Whether this will occur in practice has yet to be seen. The transfer has allowed a significant increase in the enforcement of moving traffic offences, which for some time have not been considered as a high priority by the police, but which nevertheless cause mayhem, congestion and danger on the road network. This transfer has generally been considered a success, although it is still early days in the operation of decriminalised enforcement.

26. The Police Federation voiced concerns about HATOs and the difficulties presented by having road enforcement officers controlled by a separate government department. In particular the organisation suggested that the role of police officers is threatened by the emergence of HATOs. It stated:

We have serious concerns that resources, training and support will be adversely affected by the new HATOs. As their profile and technical ability increase we anticipate further extension of their powers—a powers creep that could lead to the eventual disappearance of police officers from the enforcement of road traffic legislation in favour of other key policing priorities. Moreover, we believe it to be dysfunctional and unsustainable for two separate government departments to oversee roads police officers and HATOs. Conflicts and confusion are inevitable where remits overlap and we would advice strong caution against any new powers being conferred to HATOs.[32]

27. There was concern that Police Community Support Officers should not have identical powers to Roads Police Officers, such as stopping vehicles and the power of detention.[33] The danger of 'powers creep' was thought by the Police Federation to be more significant for HATOs than Police Community Support Officers.[34] This is because the Traffic Management Act 2004 which established HATOs permits the Secretary of State by Order to change their remit and powers, a process which is subject to little further parliamentary scrutiny.[35]

28. The Department for Transport pointed to evidence of the success of the Highways Agency Traffic Officers in keeping traffic moving and assisting motorists in difficulty on the motorway. According to the Department, in the West Midlands, Traffic Officers are now attending almost eight out of 10 incidents on the network, and have contributed to a 10% decrease in congestion despite a three per cent increase in traffic flow in the region.[36] The Home Officer Minister indicated that the introduction of Highways Agency Traffic Officers had released 540 police officers (full time equivalent) to undertake other activities.[37]

29. Policing the roads is a complex and resource-intensive activity. The government has attempted to free police time by transferring responsibility for some roads policing tasks to non-sworn officers. In using subsidiary staff the Department for Transport and the Home Office must ensure that the lines of control and areas of responsibility are very clearly delineated. The onus is on the Government to ensure there is no drift of responsibility. In assessing the impact of the Highways Agency Traffic Officers the Government should evaluate the impact not only on traffic flows, but on other factors such as safety and protection of crash scenes and evidence. It should monitor any actual conflict between the responsibility of the Highways Agency to keep the network flowing and the need for the police to investigate crashes in considerable detail. The Government should set out guidelines to resolve these issues to determine a sensible balance between these two conflicting factors.

National policing plans

30. A further demonstration of the marginalisation of roads policing is the failure to give it due emphasis in the National Policing Plans and other strategic documents produced by the Home Office. The Home Office publishes rolling three-year National Policing Plans, which set out national priorities and provide the framework for local police planning.[38]

31. The Departments' joint submission stated: "the first three National Policing Plans included a clear expectation that effective roads policing would be given proper attention."[39] We are astounded that the Government considers that these plans placed an emphasis on roads policing. It seems to us, and to many of our witnesses, that roads policing has not been established as a priority in these plans: being listed only under the 'other areas of work' sections, or relegated to an example to illustrate an area of responsibility.[40] As Chief Inspector Jan Berry of the Police Federation told us:

the National Policing Plan failed to have any mention of any roads policing requirements in the first couple of years. Our feedback to Government on every single occasion is that this is an integral part of policing and must be included. It is now included but there is no measurement attached to it. What gets counted gets done in policing and whilst I am not the first person to support performance measures […] you do need to have a measurement if roads policing is going to be taken seriously.[41]

32. We were intrigued by the basis used to determine the priorities for national Policing Plan and what evidence-base there was for allocating these. The Department for Transport and the Home Office responded that: "The National Policing Plan is published by the Home Secretary in consultation with key stakeholders."[42] The submission went on to state: "The priorities are informed by the Association of Chief Police Officer's National Strategic Assessment."[43] Given the strong feeling about road casualty reduction, we find it peculiar that roads policing is not given greater weight in such consultations. We question the extent to which road safety representatives, roads police officers and local residents generally are given the opportunity to participate in such consultations.

Targets and performance indicators

33. We also heard of the problems faced in attempting to prioritise roads policing when there is little in the way of performance indicators and targets to measure progress. Although the Government's road safety strategy, Tomorrow's Roads Safer for Everyone makes clear that roads policing is an essential element of the strategy, the Government's road casualty reduction target is a Public Service Agreement target for the Department for Transport, but not the Home Office.[44] This creates something of a tension in terms of the priority given to enforcing road traffic law: responsibility for road casualty reduction is splintered rather than shared.

34. The Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales told us: "if casualty reduction targets were jointly owned by the Home Office and Department for Transport, this would ensure that the police service at BCU [Basic Command Unit] and force level would recognise more fully its commitment to casualty reduction."[45] This view was shared by many other witnesses.[46] This included the Police Federation, which stated: "Regrettably, there is little incentive for Chief Constables to focus resources on this issue as it is not seen as a Home Office priority."[47]

35. Failure to include prominent reference to roads policing in the Plans is thought to lead directly to the diminished resources made available for the activity. Transport for London told us: "TfL does not believe that the necessary resources are directed at these issues. In many ways this relates to the position of traffic policing in the national policing priorities framework [...]"[48]

36. Although the casualty targets are not shared by the Home Office, the road casualty rate is used as an indicator in the Policing Performance Assessment Framework. One of the 32 indicators measures the number of people killed or seriously injured in road traffic collisions per 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled.[49] The Framework allows performance to be compared between forces. In the view of the Association of Chief Police Officers, however, this performance indicator is not a sufficient encouragement to ensure the prominence of roads policing:

Locally, the Government is encouraging better performance by local partnerships through the Community Safety Plan. However, whilst specific in their demands upon police and local authorities to develop effective crime reduction and antisocial behaviour strategies, there is no mention of road safety or road crime other than the Killed and Seriously Injured 'Policing Performance Assessment Framework' indicator. There is a need for greater incentives in the way of performance indicators for road safety and road policing to be included in the Community Safety Plan.[50]

37. Police performance is measured in terms of sanctioned detections, but not all types of crime are counted.[51] The offences listed within the counting rules are extensive and range from the abstraction of electricity, to fraudulent use of a car tax disc. We heard that some serious driving offences were not counted as 'sanctioned detections'.[52] The Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales told us that the offences of drink and drug driving and disqualified driving do not fall within the Home Office counting rules.[53] The PSAEW argued that, if the offences of drink/drug-driving, and driving while disqualified were counted as sanctioned detections, it would encourage forces to devote more resources to tackling them, with a positive effect on road safety.[54]

38. Failure to include roads policing as a priority in the National Policing Plan over a number of years seriously undermines the claim that roads policing is seen by the Home Office as a core part of police activity. In the future the Home Office must ensure that road safety and roads policing representatives are fully consulted when the priorities for the National Policing Plan are being determined. We recommend that the road casualty reduction targets become part of the Home Office's Public Service Agreements. Given the vital contribution that roads policing can make to casualty reduction, the targets should be explicitly acknowledged to be the joint responsibility of both the Department for Transport and the Home Office. The offences of drink driving, drug driving and disqualified driving are serious ones, and should be included in the Home Office Counting Rules for Recorded Crime.


39. We heard that traffic law enforcement had become a low policing priority because it is a low political priority. Firearms and other types of street crime were perceived to be more important. Mr Hughes of ACPO told us:

The issue is quite straightforward: it is that the public demand a level of protection from the threat of firearms, which they do not reflect in public opinion in terms of the threat from cars often. I am well aware, and I am the leading spokesperson, of the fact that ten times as many people are killed on the roads as are, in fact, murdered every year, but there are political realities and a breadth of issues to sort out.[55]

We were alarmed to hear this argument advanced by the most senior police officer in the country with responsibility for roads policing.

40. Mr Hughes indicated that in local consultations for the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships, roads policing had been "very low down their scale of priorities".[56] This was contested by other witnesses.[57] Chief Superintendent Derek Barnett, representing the PSAEW, told us:

I was here when you had the previous evidence and there was a suggestion that traffic policing casualty reduction was not of prime importance to local communities. Certainly my experience when I have been a BCU commander is that my postbag and my public meetings featured very, very strongly casualty reduction, speeding offences and anti-social use of vehicles.[58]

Indeed, it was brought to our attention that the 2003-04 British Crime Survey found that speeding traffic was the most commonly mentioned antisocial behaviour (cited by 43% of the population), outranking other problems such as illegal parking, uncontrolled fireworks, drug use or dealing, vandalism or graffiti.[59] This was backed by a survey undertaken in the London Borough of Camden which found that 66 per cent of respondents would support more enforcement against traffic offences and 52 per cent supported funding more police speed enforcement.[60] The Police Superintendents Association concurred: "Community consultation invariably supports enhanced local roads policing to tackle anti-social use of the roads."[61]

41. While we understand the need for local input into policing priorities, deployment decisions should be based primarily upon evidence: of the harm which results from specific types of offence and the potential of enforcement to prevent this. We believe such an approach would place roads policing high on the list of priorities. Because it is not possible to establish what proportion of road traffic collisions have involved an offence, it is difficult to assess what proportion of the 34,331 deaths and serious injuries each year could be prevented through better enforcement. We understand that the Home Office and Department for Transport are looking at ways of identifying links between offences and collision data.[62]

42. With the existing data, we know that in 2004, 454 people were successfully prosecuted for events that resulted in the death of another road user.[63] This figure is far from comprehensive, however, because, as the government's submission identified, a proportion of dead drivers will have been committing an offence at the time they were killed but this will not feature in offence totals. For example, we know that in 2004, 1,747 drivers and motorcyclists were killed in collisions; however what we do not know is what number of these drivers committed an offence which contributed to the collision taking place. Furthermore, as a report of the former Transport Committee has identified, there is still a tendency for prosecutors to pursue the lesser offence of careless driving, rather than causing death by dangerous driving, even where a death has resulted because of the greater chance of conviction.[64]

43. In comparison, in 2004, 1,427 people died from drug poisoning (misuse); and 820 homicides were recorded in 2004-05 in England and Wales (in 20 of which the victim was struck by a motor vehicle).[65] The Home Office should base priorities in the National Policing Plans on evidence of the actual number of casualties which result from different types of crime, not the amount of publicity they generate. We welcome the decision by the Home Office and the Department for Transport to undertake research into the links between offences and collision data. The results of this research must be taken fully into account in police deployment decisions.

8   Ev 51 Back

9   Ev 81 Back

10   Ev 119 Back

11   Ibid Back

12   Ev 81 Back

13   Ev 98 Back

14   Ibid Back

15   Ev 20 Back

16   Ev 54 Back

17   Ev 150 Back

18   Q4 Back

19   Ev 81, 69, 20, 28, 22 Back

20   Ev 69 Back

21   Ev 22 Back

22   Ev 54 Back

23   Q12 Back

24   Qq 13-14 Back

25   Qq 325, 352 Back

26   Ev 1 Back

27   HMIC. 1998. Road Policing and Traffic: HMIC Thematic Inspection Report. Home Office. London: 10-12 Back

28   See Hansard, HC Debate 10 January 2005, col 364W Back

29   Q323 and Ev 150. "Traffic function" includes officers who provide operational, operational support and organisational support duties. The numbers are for "full time equivalents". Back

30   Ev 54 Back

31  Back

32   Ev 51. See also Ev 65 Back

33   Q63 Back

34   Ev 69 Back

35   Q150, Ev 65, Traffic Management Act 2004 section 8 Back

36   Department for Transport Press Notice 28/04/2006 "Highways Agency Traffic Officers Join Forces With Thames Valley Police" Back

37   Q320 Back

38   Home Office (2003) The National Policing Plan 2004-07 Home Office Communication Directorate: London Back

39   Ev 101 Back

40   PACTS (2005) 'Policing Road Risk: Enforcement, Technologies and Road Safety'. Parliamentary Advisory Council For Transport Safety, Occasional Research Reports. London. ISSN 1748-8338. Page 16 Back

41   Q120 Back

42   Ev 150 Back

43   Ibid Back

44   DETR (2000) Tomorrow's Roads Safer for Everyone  Back

45   Ev 54 Back

46   Ev 81, 124, 51, Qq 19, 20, 138 Back

47   Ev 51 Back

48   Ev 86 Back

49   Ev 101 Back

50   Ev 1 Back

51   A sanctioned detection is a notifiable recorded crime which results in the following steps: charge; summons; caution; taken into consideration; and penalty notice. Back

52   Q139, Ev 54, 64 Back

53   Ev 64 Back

54   Ibid Back

55   Q8 Back

56   Q16 Back

57   Ev 116, 81,119, 134, 54 Back

58   Q139 Back

59   In Ev 116, "Perceptions and experience of antisocial behaviour: findings from the 2003/2004 British Crime Survey" by Martin Wood, see  Back

60   Ev 119 Back

61   Ev 54 Back

62   Ev 150 Back

63   Ibid Back

64   House of Commons Transport Committee Sixteenth Report of Session 2003-04, HC 105-I Traffic Law and its Enforcement Back

65   Ev 150 Back

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