Parliamentary group reports on cycling and the justice system

The scales of justice: Photo Flckr cc; credit James Cridland
The All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group's report on cycling and the justice system was published today, with fourteen recommendations to reduce danger and ensure justice. It won't change things overnight, but Duncan Dollimore explains why Cycling UK welcomes the report, and how the recommendations can be used within Road Justice campaigning.

In January, I wrote a blog welcoming the inquiry into cycling and the justice system being undertaken by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG). Over 200 individuals and organisations including Cycling UK had submitted written evidence to the APPCG, who then heard oral evidence from 22 witnesses over the following two months.

Today, the inquiry report (see attachment below) was published containing 14 recommendations for action, mainly by the Government or the police, to reduce danger on our roads for cyclists and other road users, and improve the response of the justice system.

Driving is a privilege, not a right

The headline call within the report is one which will resonate with those who have repeatedly read about drivers convicted of driving offences, who then either avoid a driving ban or face disqualification for a brief period, with judicial fingers crossed that they will be safe to drive once their ban is over. With a reminder that the licence to drive is a privilege not a right, addressing the declining number and length of driving disqualifications is the priority recommendation, as outlined within Cycling UK’s press release.  

The inquiry remit was broad. It covered various danger reduction issues such as Highway Code amendment, driver testing and the priority given to roads policing, in addition to issues concerning the operation of the justice system including investigation standards and penalties. This was, however, an inquiry into cycling and the justice system, so infrastructure and space for cycling were out-with its scope.

Naysayers, sceptics and pessimists

In my January blog, I warned of the naysayers, sceptics and pessimists who would criticise the remit of the inquiry, question whether it could achieve anything, and view it through a cynical lens. I was right, they did, and they were quick to tweet. Given that Cycling UK welcomed this inquiry and submitted evidence to it, I should explain why we support the recommendations, and how we think they might be used to affect change.

Close pass enforcement

The inquiry heard evidence from PC Mark Hodson and PC Steve Hudson from West Midlands Police (WMP), the officers responsible for devising and implementing the Be Safe, Give Space initiative targeting drivers passing cyclists too close on key cycling commuting routes in Birmingham.

The WMP scheme has rightly been widely applauded, with Cycling UK describing it as the best cycling road safety initiative ever. Various police forces subsequently expressed interest in adopting the WMP close pass operation, and we supported this through our Too Close for Comfort campaign, but have had to liaise separately with 43 police forces in England as well as the respective forces in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to encourage a wider uptake.

The APPCG has recommended not only that more police forces should adopt close passing enforcement practice, but importantly that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) should clearly endorse this approach. That matters because it enables Cycling UK and other campaign groups to raise this with the NPCC and refer to the APPCG recommendation; and it also gives you and local campaign groups a reason to ask your Chief Constable why he or she won’t adopt a scheme that’s worked elsewhere, and why they’re ignoring this recommendation.   

Priority given to roads policing

The lack of priority given to traffic law enforcement was one of Cycling UK’s four key submissions to the APPCG, with roads policing being undertaken with half the budget, and why we sought funding commitments from Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) candidates standing for election last May through our Road Crime is Real Crime campaign.

Referring to the 39% reduction in specialist traffic officer numbers, the APPCG, perhaps predictably, recommended that roads policing should be given a higher priority by police forces and PCCs, but also by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

In February, Cycling UK, jointly with RoadPeace and other campaign groups, responded to HMIC’s consultation regarding its future inspection programme (see attachment below), arguing that HMIC’s inspection of police forces should be extended to include roads policing (currently omitted), with the police response to collisions and near misses prioritised.

PCCs and Chief Constables have tended to cut roads policing first whenever budgets and police numbers have been squeezed. They have been able to do this partly because their roads policing performance was not assessed and reported on by HMIC. The APPCG recommendation enables Cycling UK and others to renew our calls to HMIC to extend their inspection framework which, if implemented, should mean roads policing is given greater priority by PCCs.

Highway Code changes

British Cycling’s (BC) Turning the Corner campaign calls for a change in the Highway Code to clarify priorities around junctions, with a universal rule that when turning at a junction you always give way to people going ahead or crossing that junction, including those cycling and walking.

The APPCG recommendations support BC’s proposed universal rule and further Highway Code revisions regarding how to overtake cyclists. Though there have been some amendments, the Highway Code has not been fully reviewed for nine years. Various vulnerable road user and road safety organisations have been pressing the Government to commence such a review, and these recommendations, together with the 27,000 Turning the Corner signatures, add significant weight to those arguments.

Driver testing

Two of the APPCG recommendations concern educating drivers, the driving test, re-tests and issues including eyesight checks. Whilst separate to the recommendations concerning disqualification for those convicted for bad driving offences, they touch upon similar questions: what someone should demonstrate to be licensed to drive; what they must do to retain that privilege; and in what circumstances their licence should be forfeited.   

In part, the recommendations are cycling specific, with reference to overtaking distances and safe methods of opening car doors being an element of the training and testing process, though more frequent eyesight checks and re-testing of professional drivers are of relevance to all road users.

Again, Cycling UK has campaigned and lobbied on these testing and licensing matters for many years, but the APPCG recommendations afford an opportunity for wider road safety group pressure, with reference to the cross-party parliamentary group support.

Driving disqualification and loopholes

Moving on to measures to ensure justice for cyclists and other vulnerable road users, the key recommendation concerned driving bans, which have fallen by 62% over the last ten years.

Incredibly, as outlined within Cycling UK's evidence to the APPCG, the number of people escaping disqualification where bans are supposedly obligatory has more than doubled during the same period, whilst the percentage of people disqualified following conviction for offences where a ban is discretionary, rather than obligatory, has fallen from 13% of offenders to less than 3%.

The reluctance to disqualify drivers is also apparent from the increasing number of drivers each year who avoid disqualification despite having more than 12 points on their licence, up to over 8,600 last year. Drivers who accrue more than 12 points on their licence within a three-year period are supposed to be automatically banned from driving for a minimum period of six months under the totting up provisions. They can, however, dodge this by pleading that the loss of their licence will cause them exceptional hardship.

Cycling UK has repeatedly highlighted how the exceptional hardship plea is abused, with fatal consequences in the case of Lee Martin, killed in 2015 whilst cycling by texting driver Christopher Gard. Six weeks before driving into Lee, Gard appeared in court and argued that his family would suffer hardship if he lost his licence. He had six previous convictions for driving whilst using his mobile phone, and on two further occasions had avoided penalty points by attending a re-training course in lieu of prosecution.

Gard was given a ninth chance, kept his licence, and was texting at the wheel again the day Lee's family suffered what was truly an exceptional hardship, in stark contrast to the mild inconvenience Gard sought to avoid if banned from driving as a repeat offender. 

The APPCG has specifically referred to Lee's case as an example of the failure of the exceptional hardship plea, and recommended that the Government should examine the reasons behind the decline in the use of disqualification as a penalty, and in particular, the effect of the exceptional hardship scheme.

Getting bad drivers off the road is crucial for the safety of all road users, but particularly the most vulnerable. Cycling UK made this call earlier this year as a key part of our response (see attachment below) to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation on motoring offences and penalties. The Government's response to that consultation is now delayed until after the general election. Nevertheless, Cycling UK will be writing to all of the political parties this week seeking election commitments towards the safety of vulnerable road users, with specific reference to the APPCG report and this particular recommendation.

We need commitments to deal with drivers who cause danger on our roads, and to ensure that we get back to a licence being a licence, not an entitlement. 

Collision investigations

Following the acquittal of the driver prosecuted for causing the death of cyclist Michael Mason, I wrote a blog which concluded with observations about priorities for future Road Justice campaigning. One of these was that police collision investigation standards are urgently required, with accreditation and increased transparency as called for by RoadPeace through their collision investigation campaign.  

RoadPeace's submissions to the APPCG highlighted the dilution of national guidance on collision investigations in cases involving death or life-changing injury, the absence of any guidance for serious or slight injury cases, problems with victim-blaming, different procedures between police forces, and the need for national standards. 

Cases involving cyclist fatalities which demonstrate why changes are needed include: Eilidh Cairns, referred to specifically in the APPCCG report, whose sister Kate Cairns, founder of See Me Save Me, gave evidence to the inquiry; teenager Daniel Squire; and 12 year-old Jake Mitchell.

The APPCG has recognised this, indicating that too often weak investigations undermine subsequent cases, and called for higher standards of investigations to include eyesight testing and checks of mobile phone records.

A separate recommendation, though related to the same issue of gathering and assessing evidence, concerns the bane of many cyclists: the reluctance of many police forces to consider any camera or video evidence they submit. The APPCG has pointed out that this undermines cyclists' confidence that their safety is a priority for the police, and recommended that common and easy to use standards for downloading camera evidence should be developed and implemented as quickly and consistently as possible.

Careless and dangerous driving offences 

Whilst supporting the APPCG's report, it would be remiss not to admit that the absence of more robust recommendations regarding the definitions and charging standards for 'careless' and 'dangerous' driving was disappointing. This was one of the main points in Cycling UK's submissions, identifying the decrease in the number of people prosecuted for careless and dangerous driving offences, the artificial inflation of the test for prosecution, and the downgrading of the threshold between dangerous and careless driving, leading to either undercharging or no charge at all. ​

Our submissions reflected those made earlier this year to the MoJ consultation which I have already referred to but, regrettably, although the APPCG acknowledges the concerns raised by various witnesses concerning the charges and penalties for bad driving offences, their recommendation merely identifies the confusion between careless and dangerous driving, and that the MoJ should examine in more detail how these offences are being used, including the available penalties.   

Cycling UK believes that the current classification of careless and dangerous driving offences, how driving standards are assessed, and charging standards, are simply not fit for purpose. They must be changed, with the standard of driving required being more objectively determined.

Currently, the law requires jurors to consider whether another driver’s standard of driving fell 'below', or 'far below' the standard which they believe would be expected of 'a careful and competent driver', whatever that standard might be. We are asking jurors to apply a standard that few understand, and which is far too subjective. Campaigning to change this will be one of the priorities for Cycling UK's Road Justice campaign.

Other recommendations

The remaining recommendations are detailed within the APPCG report (see attachment below), but in summary are for:

1. The wider adoption of collaborative and targeted freight enforcement operations to tackle offending by some commercial operators, similar to the approach taken by the London Freight Enforcement Partnership;

2.  The Department for Transport and the MoJ to research the growing disparity between road casualty figures (under-reporting of road casualties, especially those of cyclists), and track those through the justice system;

3. The length of time within which a notice of intended prosecution can be issued to be extended, to prevent offenders avoiding justice when cases are not processed quickly enough;

4. The police and Crown Prosecution Service (England & Wales) to ensure that victims and bereaved families are always kept adequately informed throughout the process of deciding charges;

5. Any increase in the small claims limit (affecting civil compensation claims), to be limited to £2,000 rather than £5,000 in respect of cyclists' personal injury claims (though as we reported last week the Government has at least postponed if not abandoned its proposed civil compensation reforms). 

Purdah and elections

In truth, the timing of publication of the APPCG report means it will not be possible to engage with Ministers pending the election on 8 June. It was crucially important for the report to be published now, however, not least because the MPs involved in writing it might not all be back in Westminster on the 9th. They needed to get the report out before the end of this parliamentary session.

As already indicated, Cycling UK will be writing this week to the various political parties seeking election commitments and, subject to obtaining candidate database details in sufficient time, are likely to be running a 'Vote Bike' campaign for the June election. We will also be looking to engage wider support from other vulnerable road user and road safety groups to carry on campaigning on many of the issues identified within the APPCG report.

It would be naive to imagine that an APPCG report on cycling and the justice system will suddenly lead to a volte face by government, and an epiphany elsewhere regarding the issues which concerned cyclists and organisations gave evidence about, as reflected within the report. Yet that does not mean that there is no point or purpose to this report.

I await the first comments suggesting that the APPCG is just a talking shop, that much of this has been said before, and that nothing will change. If you are a pessimist, however, you are unlikely to achieve anything through campaigning. That's because you have to be in it for the long haul, accepting that there may be many defeats and set-backs along the way.  

A cross-party report such as this is not a silver bullet, but something else to reference, something to stick in front of new MPs in June, something to make a noise about to make sure that Road Justice issues are matters that politicians, PCCs, senior police officers and others have on their agenda and in their minds, when they make decisions. That's why we welcome this report.