Road Traffic Law Enforcement and the Role of the Police

Published on 25 May 2002 by Gill

At the November 2001 meeting of the Advisory Group on Motorcycling, the BMF made the point that the police are abdicating their responsibilities regarding road policing and relying too heavily on the automated enforcement of black and white offences. The results are to create a culture that anything goes as long as you're within the speed limit; to rely on increased speeding prosecutions to boost the prosecutions of road traffic offences while drink drive, due care and dangerous driving prosecutions decline; to lead to traffic divisions being downsized or abolished entirely; and to disguise the decreasing effectiveness of the police in their road safety role. Since then, drink drive figures for Christmas 2001 have shown a significant increase, measures to reform the police have made little or no reference to road policing and the DTLR report on dangerous driving has indicated that 83% of prosecutions were as a result of accidents rather than by effective intervention by traffic police. The BMF called for the AGM to require the police to accept their responsibilities in road policing with more patrols to advise and prosecute the evidentially led offences related to driving standards instead of the soft options of speeding and red light running. We also call for the Home Office to make Road Policing a core function and for the Crown Prosecution Service to give more support to the police in bringing bad driving to book.

The Preoccupation with Black and White Offences

1) Speed is overstated as a road safety issue and it is not appropriate that the courts should receive a subsidy only for dealing with speeding and red light offences while other more serious offences related to standards of road use which are evidentially led and more expensive to prosecute are not included. It has been claimed that speed is responsible for a third of casualties, a statistic which the BMF disputes. Yet using this figure and others produced by PACTS in 1999 on the causes of accidents thus:

Speed 33%                                 Drugs 8%

Fatigue 10%                               Alcohol 5%                           Mechanical Failure 5%

indicates that 39% of causal factors are attributable to unspecified human error which includes, inadequate judgement, poor hazard perception, inadequate eyesight and unsuitable attitudes.

TRL Report 323 based upon accident reports from a number of police forces claims that speed is a definite cause in 4.3% of accidents and a probable cause in 7.3% suggesting that the proportion of accidents from inadequate standards of road use is significantly greater than 39%.

2) Motorcyclists are far more vulnerable to injury in an accident than motorcar drivers. Hence we support the prosecution of bad driving which endangers motorcyclists i.e. careless or dangerous driving offences. Yet the annexed figures of 'findings of guilt at all courts, fixed penalty notices and written warnings' from Transport Statistics Great Britain suggest that the prosecution of such offences in being neglected in favour of the easy option of the black and white offences like speeding which readily lend themselves to automated enforcement. As shown in the table below, since 1985, convictions for speeding have risen nearly five-fold from 250,000 to nearly one and a quarter million while convictions for the specific offences of careless, dangerous or drunken driving have fallen by a quarter from 250,000 to 190,000. Since 1998, with the increased proliferation of speed cameras and the introduction of schemes to net off fine income, indications are that prosecutions for speeding have accelerated further.

Motor vehicle offences: findings of guilt at all courts, fixed penalty notices and written warning: by type of offence: England & Wales: 1980-1990; 1988-1999

Offence type                     Dangerous, careless,drunken driving, etc Speed limit offences 

1980                                         257 (Thousand)                                 394 (Thousand)

1981                                         241                                                       335

1982                                         237                                                       265

1983                                         260                                                       274

1984                                         251                                                       256

1985                                         250                                                       250

1986                                         238                                                       378

1987                                         225                                                       458

1988                                         231                                                       521

1989                                         231                                                       587

1990                                         232                                                       624

1991                                         224                                                       625

1992                                         206                                                       620

1993                                         192                                                       519

1994                                         190                                                       602

1995                                         189                                                       680

1996                                         191                                                       752

1997                                         199                                                       881

1998                                         190                                                       962

1999*                                       206.9                                                    1,051.1

2000*                                       200.3                                                    1,202.3

*Home Office figures for England and Wales which include written warnings

This has had the effect of boosting statistics for motoring convictions while disguising the failing effectiveness of road policing. 3) Government policy and that of many local authorities and constabularies has failed to make the distinction between excess speed (exceeding marked speed limits) and inappropriate speed (travelling at speeds unsuitable for the conditions). Although lip service is paid to inappropriate speed, which plays a greater part in accident causation than excess speed, it is not given specific consideration and remains a muddled part of statements on speed. A subsidy of prosecutions for excess speed will do nothing to make road users more aware of the issues associated with appropriate speed choice.

4) The preoccupation with prosecuting black and white offences, such as exceeding speed limits with the increased use of automated enforcement equipment rather than evidentially led offences related to standards of road use has the potential to undermine the role of the police in road policing. Motorcyclists are already concerned by the gross distortion of police priorities shown by the bias towards speeding prosecutions rather than addressing dangerous and due care offences related to driving standards and accident causation. Assisting courts to prosecute automatically detected offences will further diminish the status of Traffic Policing and the educational benefits from errant road users being stopped by police officers to explain where they went wrong will be lost. Neither will the victims of accidents resulting from the poor driving be given satisfaction in the courts by the prosecution of the perpetrators. Ultimately, this could lead to decriminalisation of speed enforcement and its privatisation to the detriment of road safety. While the ACPO Road Policing Strategy remains a poor substitute, the benefits of proper traffic policing will not be realised until the Home Office recognises this part of police work as a Core Function.

5) Any measures which encourage the indiscriminate and widespread use of automated enforcement equipment will ultimately lose public support. The decision at the end of 2001 to make enforcement cameras more visible may help in this respect since compliance rather than prosecuting more road users should be the objective. However, this still fails to address the need to improve driving standards. Ultimately, the increased use of speed cameras will lead to a continuing loss of faith in the police for undertaking a less active part in policing roads. This can only result in contempt for the law and a further diminution of driving standards. This has to some degree been confirmed by the increase in drink driving over the 2001 Christmas period where, clearly, a number of drivers consider that they can escape detection by the shortage of police patrols. In addition the DTLR Report, Dangerous Driving and The Law has shown that 83% of prosecutions arose from accidents rather than the action of police patrols - a clear indication of the decreasing effectiveness of the police in this role

6) This policy towards speed with little concern about standards of road use can only help to undermine the principles of the Government's THINK! campaign which is intended to make road users consider the consequences of their actions which has been reflected in some of the more recent advertisements. Making blind obedience of speed limits the main priority is causing road users to concentrate more on their speedometers than essential driving tasks like observation and anticipation. It creates a culture in which poor driving is acceptable providing the marked speed limit is being adhered to while the psychological aspects of driving are neglected. Driving and riding are increasingly becoming joyless mechanised processes militating against taking pride in driving with the additional effect of removing incentives to improve their skills and abilities.

Specific Police-Related Issues

1) The BMF was represented at both Labour and Conservative Party Conferences in 2001 where the Police Federation had stands and conducted fringe meetings. It was stated that when police numbers had been initially reduced, some of the slack in enforcement of crime could be undertaken by the use of technology such as CCTV. This did not prove to be the case with the Government now accepting that more police officers are necessary to combat crime. Yet we are now seeing a parallel of this with road policing but without the acceptance that cameras are a supplement to road policing rather than a substitute.

2) During these meetings, the Police Federation was anxious for there to be better training and the more efficient use of police officers by the employment of civilian staff to undertake clerical work. Yet no mention of the road safety role was made until the question was put by the BMF. The reaction to this was that with greater numbers of police officers, it would be possible to increase their presence but seeing them sitting in cars (some constabularies use motorcycles too!) was not considered to be a good public relations opportunity.

3) The launch of the ACPO Road Death Investigation Manual in December 2001 seemed to be a step in the right direction especially when it appeared that the principles used in investigating homicides would lead to the drafting of detectives skilled in those techniques into traffic divisions. There was also a suggestion that through the better investigation of fatal accidents there would be more emphasis of investigating and, presumably prosecuting the perpetrators of non-fatal accidents.

4) In spite of this positive move, in the Police Reform Bill and the Home Office consultation that preceded it, there has barely been a reference to the role of the police in roads and traffic. In its response the BMF, and, indeed, the main safety organisations expressed their concerns about this omission. The BMF has always considered that the ACPO Road Policing Strategy is a poor substitute for the Home Office recognising Traffic Policing as a Core Function.

5) It appears that when officers are active on roads, their activities are frequently confined to speed checks and multi-agency operations usually aimed at a particular user group. In the case of motorcyclists, VED, number plate size and the legality of exhaust systems are targeted from gathering riders with little in the way of safety checks carried out. While such checks should remain part of road policing, this has little relevance to road safety since examples of bad riding are not addressed. Again this appears to aimed at increasing prosecutions and the issuing of tickets for the minimum effort rather than in a serious attempt to improve road safety.

6) Instrumental in the unsatisfactory manner in which the roads are policed is the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service with its heavy reliance on cases with a very high probability of winning court cases. When a case does go to court, this is often achieved by bringing a lesser charge than the one originally assigned to ensure a win. To have a case compiled by a diligent police officer rejected from being taken forward is demoralising and leads to less diligence in the future. As a victim of road accidents in the past, I have seen at first hand the lack of will to prosecute perpetrators in spite of witnesses and even admissions by those responsible. The CPS should give the police better support in dealing with offences related to standards of road use by being willing to take forward more evidentially led cases and amending its Charging Standards.

7) We have been led to believe that traffic divisions, where they still exist comprise 6% - 7% of the strength of most constabularies - about half of their size 30 or so years ago. In London's Metropolitan Police it is little more than 2% with half of those officers now seconded to street crime duties. For the first time in 15 years of organising Toy and Easter Egg Runs by the East London EVS, the police were unable to provide an escort for its most recent Easter Egg Run in March 2002. It was explained that there was only sufficient cover for emergencies indicating that an already under strength traffic division was dangerously below capacity.

8) Speaking to a number of police officers at various events and those directly responsible for enforcing traffic law has shown that they are concerned by the direction that the Police Service has taken. There is a will by police officers to undertake a road safety role and to do a good job but a lack of leadership and direction prevents this from being taken forward. To use an expression from the First World War, we appear to have lions led by donkeys

Trevor Magner

Last revised/updated 26/09/04