Our Lawless Roads

The scales of justice: Photo Flckr cc; credit James Cridland
'Our Lawless Roads' is the detailed report the national road victims' charity RoadPeace published yesterday which calls for a reversal in the cuts to traffic police numbers. With falling prosecutions, increased numbers of drivers failing to stop after collisions, and deliberately aggressive driving on the increase, Cycling UK believes we need visible roads policing to ensure offenders fear the consequences if they're caught. Duncan Dollimore looks into Our Lawless Roads.

Crunching the statistics

Yesterday, 10 May, the charity RoadPeace published its report which looked at road policing, casualties and driving offences since 2010 in England and Wales. Policing falls under the remit of the Home Office (with 43 independent forces), casualty statistics are kept by the Department for Transport (DfT) via Stats19, and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) records information about prosecutions and outcomes. With separate data tables and no unique reference numbers to cross reference any Stats19 recorded casualties against an MoJ outcome (despite Cycling UK's repeated requests for this), the system seems almost designed to discourage the type of holistic overview undertaken within RoadPeace's Our Lawless Roads report.  

Fortunately, RoadPeace has crunched the numbers. The report's foreword, from Baroness Jenny Jones, sets out the concerns regarding the impact, particularly for vulnerable road users (VRU), of the ongoing cuts to roads policing; that "more and more drivers appear to be getting away with bad driving and many others with causing death and injury"; and the link between the declining number of drivers prosecuted and ever decreasing roads police numbers.

Though crucially important, the concerns expressed regarding falling road police numbers, and the over reliance on driver education courses despite the absence of evidence to determine their effectiveness, are not new. Cycling UK has repeatedly questioned the viability of effective road traffic law enforcement with half the budget. We share the same conclusions as the Transport Select Committee report (TSC) last year, that offences such as careless driving are not being detected, and that for enforcement to be effective there must be a likelihood that offenders will be apprehended. What all of this means for detection and enforcement of hit-and-run offences, especially in the light of events and press reports in recent weeks, is particularly worrying.

Propensity not to stop - in Preston

I last blogged about hit-and-run offences last October, after the tragic death of 15 year-old Dylan Crossey following a friday night hit-and run as he cycled along Chainhouse Lane near Preston in Lancashire. One of Cycling UK's local campaigners contacted me about both Dylan's case and the disturbing chronology of cyclists injured in collisions where the driver involved failed to stop. The scale of the problem with drivers fleeing the scene following collisions with cyclists was clearly displayed just by looking at recent press reports in the area surrounding Preston. 

Fourteen year old Jack Connor was left concussed on Lightfoot Lane east of Preston last July, with a dislocated shoulder and broken wrist following a collision involving a silver VW 4x4 vehicle, the driver of which checked Jack was breathing before leaving the scene. When Jack's mum Julie Connor asked whether certain inquiries had been made at a local building site, and whether any CCTV had been checked, she was unimpressed to be told by the police that "there's only so much we can do". What can be done, and what could be done with increased resources or different priorities, are not the same thing. 

Adrian Smith was another Lancashire cyclist left for dead in the middle of the road following a hit-and-run last September, again near Preston. Riding home when he was knocked over the bonnet of a VW Golf turning right, Andrew broke his cheek and lost several teeth, requiring an operation to his badly damaged hand. His wife Ruth raised similar concerns regarding priorities and delays looking for and accessing CCTV footage, expressing her anger that "the police are so stretched that they can't come out to something like this for hours".

Other reports referred to a 45 year old cyclist taken to Royal Preston Hospital with internal injuries in August 2016 after being dragged across the road when hit by a Land Rover Discovery; a 59 year-old cyclist taken to Royal Blackburn Hospital last June; and another cyclist taken to the same hospital in March 2016 with a broken ankle. In each case the drivers involved failed to stop.    

There is little to suggest that, since I blogged about this last year, the peculiar reluctance of some Preston drivers to stop after hitting cyclists, or the police priority given to such cases, has changed in any positive way. In March 2017, Lancashire Police appealed for witnesses after the driver of a white van in Preston failed to stop following a collision with a 48 year-old cyclist, who was stationary at traffic lights at the time. 

Invisible roads policing

Having perhaps picked on Preston to prove the point, I should make it clear that I have not done so to suggest that officers within Lancashire Police are disinterested. Rather, their problems detecting and prosecuting cyclist hit-and runs are just an example of a widespread problem.

In 2010 there were 171 full-time equivalent officers dedicated to roads policing in Lancashire. By March 2014 this was down to 142, and to only 113 by March 2015, the third largest fall in roads police numbers over that year in all 43 police forces. This is exactly what RoadPeace has highlighted in its report. It's the enforcement of road traffic offences, such as hit-and runs, that requires officers on the street and visible roads policing, rather than offences which just rely on electronic enforcement eg speeding.   

Inside and outside London     

The five year period covered by RoadPeace's report witnessed a 28% reduction in roads policing offices outside London, whereas within London, where Transport for London has funded roads policing, the cuts have been less drastic (11%). Senior Police Officers and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) forced to defend budget decisions will often say that it is not the number of officers deployed which is important, however, although it would be naive to suggest that the absolute number is the only issue, RoadPeace's analysis of the collision statistics casts doubt on this dismissal of the need for visible roads policing.

Whilst the number of people killed and seriously injured (KSI) fell between 2010 and 2015 by 1%, VRUs faired much worse. Motor vehicle KSIs dropped by 9% whilst VRU KSIs increased by 5%. Tellingly, looking at KSIs for cyclists only, in London where roads policing was prioritised more than elsewhere, their KSIs fell by 17%, whereas outside London they increased by 21%. 

There are of course other factors in play, not least the construction of more dedicated cycling infrastructure in London and the safety in numbers effect. London's decrease in KSIs has occurred whilst the city's levels of cycling have increased at a faster rate than most areas of England and Wales. The pattern with cycling KSIs is also broadly reflected in the KSIs for pedestrians and motorcyclists, with London seeing much more significant reductions.

Whilst RoadPeace acknowledges that it is not possible to state unequivocally the cause of the difference in VRU KSI rates inside and outside London, it does conclude that "it is hard to imagine that the effect on enforcement of the decline in the numbers of traffic police has not played a major role". Perhaps the tale of Lancashire hit-and -runs reflects this.

RoadPeace's report analyses court prosecutions for what it refers to as non-fatal but serious offences (only dealt with by the courts), including failing to stop, driving whilst disqualified and alcohol or drug related driving offences. Overall there has been a 19% reduction in prosecutions of these cases, but failing to stop prosecutions have fallen by 32% over five years. It seems highly unlikely that such a drop reflects a decline in the number of drivers failing to stop, rather that, as appears to have happened around Preston, the number of drivers leaving the scene has increased. That conclusion is supported by the casualty statistics which indicate that reported casualty hit-and-runs have increased across England and Wales by 5% over five years, and that's just the incidents actually reported.

Who's to blame? 

The link between roads police numbers and the hit-and-run figures stood out when reading a report full of statistics about various safety critical matters. In large part because recent depressing news stories concern incidents of people deliberately driving aggressively towards cyclists, where assault is often a better description than either careless or dangerous driving, are still in my mind.

These included that of 54 year-old Ian Jackson in Essex. Ian sustained a broken nose and facial injuries when he was pushed off his bike by the passenger in a car whose driver slowed down whilst overtaking him, seemingly to facilitate the assault. Video footage also captured the moment another cyclist in Sussex miraculously escaped injury, in part due to some outstanding bike handling skills, when an overtaking van driver appeared to drive into him to force him off the road.  Predictably, neither driver stopped.  

Having been interviewed on radio about both of these incidents, I have been frustrated to watch the twitter feeds and phone in debates move seemlessly from a discussion about manifestly dangerous behaviour, with potentially tragic consequences for the cyclists, to whether cyclists should pay road tax, ride nearer the kerb, or just vacate the roads for motorised use. BBC Sussex's unhelpful contribution was to tweet a link to the overtaking van video asking "who's to blame", before deleting the tweet following a barrage of criticism, claiming it was merely trying to "stimulate debate". Next time I say something utterly stupid, dangerous and offensive I might try that defence.  

Consequences of a Cinderella service

The actions of these drivers in Essex and Sussex, and perhaps as importantly the response from some either blaming the cyclists, minimising the incidents, or attempting to present a wider false context regarding cyclists as generically irresponsible road users, brought it home to me that there are still some drivers who simply don't get it. They don't realise that deliberately driving at a cyclist or knocking them off isn't a minor issue. It's not like a spat in the pub. Somebody might die, and they could go to prison.

If people don't think this type of behaviour is serious, one of the reasons has to be the impression that there are no consequences for their actions. They can just drive off. Unless they are unlucky, they're unlikely to be caught, seen by a police officer, brought to justice or held to account. If roads police numbers keep being cut, and roads policing remains a Cinderella service at the bottom of many Police and Crime Commissioners' lists of priorities, this won't change. That's the message to take from the Lawless Roads report.

As I mentioned last week when reporting on the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group Report (APPCG) on Cycling and the Justice System, one of the APPCG's 14 recommendations concerned the priority to be given to roads policing. Within Cycling UK's submissions to the MoJ consultation on motoring offences and penalties earlier this year, we also specifically called for a review of the fail to stop legislation, to include increased penalties for leaving the scene when someone has been injured (contrasted with the fail to stop cases involving a car park scrape or minor vehicle damage).

A realistic prospect you'll be caught

Unless people think, as the Transport Select Committee identified last year, that there is a realistic prospect they will be caught, and that there are real consequences for failing to stop when a cyclist or other vulnerable road user has been injured, the situation is unlikely to improve.

Unfortunately, pending 8 June and a new Government, opportunities to shout about RoadPeace's report, the APPCG report, and press the MoJ about legislative change are limited. Road safety is not grabbing the Brexit election headlines. The Lawless Roads report is however an excellent piece of work by RoadPeace, bringing together a raft of data, only a fraction of which I have referred to within this blog.

Post 8 June Cycling UK will be working with RoadPeace and others to try and make sure that politicians, PCCs and senior police officers take action to reverse the trends RoadPeace have identified. We have had reports form the TSC, the APPCG, RoadPeace and many others. It's time people listened to the common calls.