Select Committee on Transport Seventh Report

10  The role of penalties


150. It was suggested to us that greater enforcement of traffic law in general would help prevent novice driver casualties. This is because the crashes in which novice drivers are involved are frequently a result of some violation of traffic law: speeding, drink-driving, or failure to wear a seatbelt. Indeed, in 2004, about a third of car drivers in road injury drink-drive crashes were under 24 years of age.[229] STATS 19 data show that the importance of speed as a contributory factor in injury crashes declines steadily with age.[230] Ms Puech, of RoadPeace, told us that resources would be better spent on enforcing legislation covering speeding, drink-driving, and not wearing a seatbelt, rather than investing in a reformed training and testing regime.[231]

151. The evidence we received has reinforced the recommendations made in our 2006 Report Roads Policing and New Technology.[232] It is imperative that there is more traffic law enforcement and that roads police officers are a deterrent to drivers violating traffic law, including seat-belt wearing, speeding, drink and drug driving, and licensing and insurance requirements. This will raise the standards and safety of all drivers, including novice drivers.


152. In calling for better enforcement of traffic law, it is important to also ensure that the penalties for these offences are appropriate and fully implemented. In an attempt to modify the risk-taking behaviour of novice drivers, a tighter penalty regime than that for more experienced drivers was introduced with the New Drivers Act 1995. The Act, brought into force in 1997, requires the revocation of a full driving licence if the holder reaches six penalty points within two years of obtaining the licence. For more experienced drivers, accumulating 12 penalty points within a three year period leads to disqualification, for a minimum period of six months.

153. We heard a personal account of how the probationary period was thought to be effective in modifying the behaviour of novice drivers. Catherine Kershaw told us about her son, Charlie, who was fatally injured aged 20, while driving his car:

154. Under the New Drivers Act, about 15,000 licences are revoked each year.[234] There is a particular prevalence of licence revocation among young men: figures for June 2005 to May 2006 show that, out of a total of 14,988 revocations, 77% were males 25 and under; and 35% were males under 20. The Department for Transport identified that DVLA records suggest that half of all revocations are linked to driving uninsured (for which the penalty includes six points), and about a quarter to speeding offences. It is a matter of concern that so many novice drivers are losing their licence because of a failure to purchase driving insurance. In the last chapter, we recommended that the insurance industry examine what it can do to make insurance more accessible to novice drivers. The Department should examine whether there are more effective ways of communicating to learner and novice drivers the necessity of being properly licensed, registered and insured, before driving on public roads. We also suggest that there might be merit in reviewing the penalty points awarded for each type of driving offence, to ensure the penalties accurately reflect the danger and threat imposed on road users.

155. An issue of very serious concern is the fact that so few of those novice drivers who have their licence revoked ever properly become re-licensed. Only about half of the drivers who have had their licence revoked under the Act have recovered their full licence by passing another practical driving test.[235] This suggests that a substantial proportion of those caught by the Act may be driving unlicensed. If this is so, it means that the penalty has been seriously undermined. Ministers from the Home Office and the Department for Transport recently wrote to the Association of Chief Police Officers about the problem of disqualified driving "Disqualification is a serious penalty usually reflecting serious or repeated bad driving. It is not acceptable that some should feel they can continue to drive with impunity whilst disqualified. We look to the police to address this situation."[236] Yet driving while disqualified, and drink and drug driving offences still do not feature in the police's "offences brought to justice" target.[237]

156. The scale of the problem is so grave that the Minister accepted that the 6-penalty point limit for novice drivers was not effective.[238] The Magistrates' Association echoed this picture of failure, stating "the current situation demonstrates no effective incentive to offenders to comply nor does it offer any retraining opportunity. The levels of enforcement available are proving inadequate [...]"[239] In light of the Minister's admission that the New Drivers Act 1995 has not been successful in meeting its objectives, the Act and its implementation, must be reviewed.

157. Part of the reason that the New Drivers Act is ineffective must be that the penalty of licence revocation is not being effectively enforced, and unlicensed drivers are continuing to drive. These drivers have already shown a disregard for traffic law and other road users, and they continue to do so by driving while unlicensed. It has to be assumed that they are not safe to be on the road. The Home Office has stated that "it is safe to assume that the disqualified driver is more of a threat to the safety of other road users than the general run of qualified drivers."[240]

158. The courts already take a reasonably serious view of driving while disqualified: the maximum penalty is 6 months' imprisonment or a level 5 fine (£5000), and in 2002 nearly half the 30,415 people convicted for this offence were sent to prison. Despite this, there is a high rate of re-offending. Of a sample of offenders studied in 1996, 34% of disqualified drivers had previous convictions for that offence in a recent ten month period.[241] The rate of re-offending, and driving while disqualified and unlicensed, lead us to suggest that vehicle forfeiture should be used as a penalty for these offences. Under section 152 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, the police have the power to "seize vehicles driven without licence or insurance". It is not yet clear to what extent this power is being used against disqualified and unlicensed drivers.

159. It is a matter of great concern that the penalties of disqualification and licence revocation are not serving their purpose as a deterrent, and are being widely flouted. If penalties are to be used as an incentive to safe driving behaviour, they must be properly enforced. The Home Office should examine the potential for more effective use of the penalties for disqualified and unlicensed drivers, such as vehicle forfeiture. The police must make enforcement of unlicensed driving a much higher priority.

229   Department for Transport (2007) Second Review of the Government's Road Safety Strategy page 19 Back

230   STATS19 data for 1995 in TRL 542, In-depth accident causation study of young drivers , 2002 Back

231   Q60 Back

232   Transport Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2005-06, Roads Policing and Technology: Getting the right balance, HC 975 Back

233   Ev 148 Back

234   Ev 85 Back

235   Ev 85, 156 Back

236   Ev 116 Back

237   Ev 116 Back

238   Q374 Back

239   Ev 156 Back

240   Home Office Review of Road Traffic Offences involving Bad Driving: A Consultation Paper 2005, paragraph 4.2 Back

241   Home Office Review of Road Traffic Offences involving Bad Driving: A Consultation Paper 2005 Back

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Prepared 19 July 2007