Police officers will be given new powers to impose on the spot fines for careless drivers under new powers being announced by the Minister for Transport, Philip Hammond today. According to the DfT the new strategy will focus on cracking down on the really reckless drivers while also helping the responsible majority to improve their driving.
The 'responsible majority' will be helped to improve their driving with on the spot fines and an increased programme of driver education for what are deemed minor offences. From next year officers will be able to hand out fines of between £80 and £120 to drivers who tailgate or weave in and out of traffic. The new measures are part of the Government's Strategic Framework for Road Safety which is being touted by ministers as a significant break with the last Labour government's road safety strategy, which ministers characterise as being solely focused on speed or technology and which they say penalised motorists who made an honest mistake rather than targeting "boy racers" and "persistent law breakers".
"We want to make a clear distinction between those drivers who are a real danger to road safety – reckless, dangerous drivers – and those who are merely occasionally careless or who make an honest mistake," the transport secretary, Philip Hammond, said in the Daily Mail.
"That means much more emphasis on enforcement against those who represent the biggest risk and a big increase in the use of education for those who make minor transgressions.
"The big problem under the last government was using technology. Speed cameras were installed and speed became the only focus of the road safety agenda. It ceased to be a road safety agenda and became a speed agenda," added Hammond.
"That meant somebody driving at 55mph in a 50mph limit might get prosecuted but the idiot who is weaving in and out of traffic and tailgating gets off scot-free."
Road safety campaigners would point out that the last government's policy appeared to work in reducing the numbers of casualties on the roads, particularly in relation to the most vulnerable road users, and that excessive speed is the major factor in most incidents that result in death or serious injury on the roads – according to the DfT's own statistics. Undoubtedly though the levels of aggression on Britain's roads has increased while many would say that the standards of driving generally have got worse.
Government cuts to local authority and police budgets have led to speed cameras being switched off across large swathes of the country - a move that various senior policemen have warned will lead to more deaths on the road, a warning which seemed to be borne out in Oxfordshire which saw a rise in deaths when the cameras went off - which then led to them being switched back on again last month.
Given that the new strategy has only just been published it is hard to say what differences these changes will make for more vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians or what effect they will have. The police are likely to rely on video evidence when imposing fines the fixed penalty notices which may also make them willing to prosecute drivers on the basis of date and time stamped video evidence. If so they could well receive a flood of such videos next year – many commuter cyclists would contend that poor driving is the norm rather than the exception on Britain's roads.
CTC - the UK’s national cyclists’ organisation - has welcomed the Government’s proposals for fixed penalty notices for careless driving, increased fines and new indicators for road safety, as part of the new Strategic Framework for Road Safety. However, with police forces facing huge cuts, the new policies are unlikely to have a substantial impact on driver behaviour unless more traffic police appear on the roads.
Commenting on the new strategy Roger Geffen, CTC's Campaigns and Policy Director said: “A careless driving fixed penalty notice is welcome, but should only be used where no injury has occurred and the driving is demonstrably careless, not dangerous. We have concerns that too often driving which is objectively dangerous is treated by police and prosecutors as merely ‘careless’.”
He continued: “The Government needs to make a full assessment of how the system of road traffic law is operating. Too often bad driving – even where a death occurs – is going unpunished.”
The CTC also welcomed the adoption by the new Strategic Framework document of the move to base road safety targerts on the rate per mile travelled, not just on numbers of injuries - something the organisation unsuccessfully tried to get the previous government to include in its road safety strategy. The CTC is also keen to see the new strategy increase the powers for local authorities to make 20mph the standard speed limit in urban areas.
As well as on the spot fines the new strategy would also require all disqualified drivers to undergo some form of retraining, and possibly having to re-take their driving test, a crackdown on those who drive under the influence of drugs and the closure of the loophole in the drink driving law that allows motorists to request a blood test rather than a breath test, greater powers to seize the vehicles of dangerous drivers, more educational programmes for lower level offenders and a new qualification for novice drivers.
On the other hand as the Institute of Advanced Motorists has already pointed out it may also mean serious offenders could get off much more lightly in the future than they do at present with police officers perhaps unwilling to commit time and resources to lengthy prosecutions when they can simply hand out a ticket. Those drivers so far prosecuted for careless driving on the evidence of headcam footage from cyclists have received bans and points on their licence. The organisation also points out that unlike speeding what cases of of careless driving were often less clear cut.
Ministers point out that between 1995 and 2006 prosecutions by the police for careless driving dropped from 125,000 to 30,000, a figure they say reflects the increasing complexity of the law and the burden it places on scarce police resources. Another reason could be that the number of police traffic officers declined dramatically under the previous government a trend that has continued under the present administration. Earlier this year Greater Manchester Police cut the number of traffic officers from 178 to 100.
That decline in the number of traffic offiers may well prove a stumbling block to enforcement of the new strategy. Ministers though will say that it is up to local councils and police forces to decide on how best they allocate resources. Cynics might suggest that this allows ministers to announce tough new measures and then pass the blame on to local authorities if they can't fund them.
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