Cycling UK's response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on driving offences and penalties

The scale of things: by Jesse Loughborough via Flckr cc
With over 9000 responses to the Government consultation on driving offences and penalties a clear message has been sent - the system needs an overhaul, and just tinkering with it won't do. Here's what Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK's senior road safety officer has told them they should start with - we'll see if, as the Prime Minister promised on day one in office, this is a government that will listen.

What weight do they give to public opinion?

Last week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that over 9000 responses had been received to its consultation on driving offences and penalties, one of the largest ever for a MoJ consultation. In other matters the Government ethos seems to be that, once you've asked the public for their opinion, you have to follow it through. It remains to be seen whether that approach is question specific, or whether the opinions of victims, bereaved families and road safety groups are a more nebulous concept.

If I sound sceptical that's because when this review was first announced in May 2014, following lobbying through Cycling UK's Road Justice campaign, the stated intention was to carry out a full review of all driving offences and penalties. As the timescale for the review developed an elastic quality, that intention evaporated so that 31 months later, when the consultation was finally launched, what was left was a cut-price narrow remit review falling short of what's needed to tackle driving standards on our roads.  

A sticking plaster or a cure

With restrictive consultation questions focussing largely on the penalties for the most serious offences leading to death and serious injury, there is a risk that the opportunity to carry out a wider review will be squandered, ignoring the question of whether the current definitions of and distinction between careless and dangerous driving are fit for purpose or could be radically improved.

The premise of the questions on penalties seems to be that longer prison sentences for those who kill on the roads is the priority, without recognising that there is also an urgent need to consider the increased use of disqualification from driving as a sentencing option, with legislative change to ensure that more drivers are disqualified for longer periods. Debating the length of the jail term for the worst offenders, whilst ignoring sentencing and disqualification for repeat offenders and those committing common driving offences, sounds like a sticking plaster not a cure.

An open invitation

Given that Cycling UK has been stressing the need for this to be a comprehensive review for over three years, and that MoJ officials were telling us last September that the review would include the legislation concerning careless and dangerous driving, we decided we wouldn't be constrained by restricted questions, and would take Justice Minister Sam Gyimah at his word.

Answering questions in parliament in December about whether the review presented an opportunity to consider the maximum penalties for failing to stop after an accident, Gyimah encouraged contributions to the consultation, notwithstanding the absence of any specific consultation question. He further acknowledged that one of the questions was intended to be an open question, and that submissions or specific concerns not reflected within the consultation questions could be included.

Gyimah's invitation is repeated within the Government's own impact assessment of 24 November last year, which encourages people to comment on the Government proposals "and / or provide other options", and confirms that the Government will "consider other options that may arise from responses to the consultation".

Where to start fixing the system

So, having been told that this was going to be a full review of motoring offences when the review was announced, that responses beyond the specific questions were welcomed, and of course remembering the Prime Minister's assurance in her maiden speech outside 10 Downing Street on 13 July, that hers was a government which would listen, Cycling UK were happy to accept Gyimah's kind invitation and included within our response our thoughts and suggestions on wider issues including the need for:

  1. A complete review of the distinction between careless and dangerous driving, with three alternative proposals put forward for consideration regarding how bad driving offences and the standard of driving could be better defined and determined;
  2. Legislative change to ensure greater use of disqualification as a sentencing option, including the introduction of minimum disqualification periods for certain offences and the removal of or significant amendments to the exceptional hardship loophole, used by thousands of drivers like Christopher Gard each year to avoid a disqualification under the totting up provisions, because it might cause them inconvenience or hardship; 
  3. A review of both the scope of and penalties for the offence of car dooring, a construction and use offence with a maximum £1000 fine, to include consideration of an new offence of opening a car door so as to cause death or serious injury, which would carry greater penalties;   
  4. An increase in the maximum penalties available for the offence of failing to stop after an accident, specifically in those cases where another road user is left on the roadside in need of urgent medical attention. 

Tinkering, tuning or an overhaul

A copy of our full submissions are attached, and many of the points made replicate our written submissions and oral evidence given two weeks ago to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG) inquiry into cycling and justice system. The APPCG intend to publish their report and recommendations in late March, so that the MoJ can consider those recommendations prior to responding to this consultation in May.

Having heard from campaign organisations such as Cycling UK and RoadPeace, together with victims including Julie Dinsdale, we hope the APPCG will be prepared to support the submissions we have made to the MoJ, with a request that it does what it promised, and carries out a full review rather than merely tinkering around the edges of a system that needs an overhaul, not fine tuning.