Is lax enforcement making roads less safe?

The road safety charity Brake published a report in April which revealed that 49% of UK drivers admitted to breaking traffic laws, either through inattention or deliberately. This provokes the critical question: are offenders simply no longer afraid of being caught? With traffic volumes on the rise, and the first increase in overall casualties in reported road traffic accidents since 1997, greater consideration needs to be given to enforcement. This is the topic that the Transport Select Committee has decided to examine this autumn in an inquiry on traffic law enforcement.

In 2014, road deaths increased by 4% compared with 2013 to 1,775, with three-quarters of deaths being pedestrian casualties. The number of people seriously injured increased by 5% to 22,807. Of particular concern is another year of rising cyclist casualties, which rose by 9.5% to 21,287 despite pedal cycle traffic only increasing by 3.8%. This is part of a long-term trend that the Department for Transport calls an "ever increasing problem".

The vast majority of accidents from all types of vehicles arise from a road user failing to look properly, though over 20,000 accidents were caused by a driver or rider being careless, reckless or in a hurry. What's more, around 6.2% of drivers thought that they had driven while over the legal drink-drive limit.

The last government faced sustained criticism from road safety campaigners for a lack of leadership. The 2011 Strategic Framework for Road Safety included the introduction of a fixed penalty notice for careless driving. The framework remains the key policy document in this area, and although it has a strong focus on enforcement, it is not supported by action in other areas. For example, major cuts in local authority funding have hit road safety hard. Home Office policy on policing does not prioritise road safety and, as a result, resources are limited – indeed the Police Federation has said that in order to enforce the law on dangerous, inconsiderate and careless driving, "people, equipment and technology need to be maintained at a level commensurate with demand".

In drawing up the framework in 2011, the then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond rejected the idea of including road safety targets. ACPO warned that "when chief constables are looking at how they manage their resources and deliver in terms of safety, they will not necessarily look at roads policing because there are no national targets". With decisions to deploy officers to traffic duties being at the discretion of individual chief constables, there is a risk of a disjointed, inconsistent national picture.

Technology is one of the keys to successful enforcement, but the huge reduction in visible, in-person enforcement in recent years is a concern. Technology can be very effective in deterring and capturing certain kinds of behaviour on the road, but it cannot replace people.

Genuine quandaries arise from this debate: does it matter that a speed camera views a one-off error of judgment on the road as equivalent to somebody who deliberately breaks the speed limit every day? Does that same camera spot the fact that the driver is not wearing their seatbelt?

Brake's report on the state of UK driving showed that unsafe practices UK drivers noticed most were distraction (for example from mobile phones), tailgating, speeding and risky overtaking. Some of these acts would be more effectively captured by a camera, others by a police officer. There is no
one-size-fits-all approach to tackling such behaviour and it is clear that technology and effective policing both have their role to play in combating them.

This whole debate plays out in a climate of ever-tightening budgets and stretched resources.
Given that 49% of UK drivers admit to breaking traffic laws inadvertently or otherwise, the danger of these offences may not be recognised, despite the potentially devastating consequences.
Tough, effective, fair enforcement should be the goal, in order to improve safety on our roads and prevent the devastation suffered by too many.

I hope our inquiry draws attention to this important issue and look forward to hearing from a wide range of people and organisations.

Reference: Transport Times, October 2015 Issue

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