Roads policing protecting cyclists - with half the budget?

Police officers cycling Photo Flickr; cc Chicgeekuk
The Government has been told that traffic law enforcement needs specialist traffic officers and visible roads policing, but the numbers keep falling alongside the decline in detection of traffic offences. Whilst political will and more resources are needed, does the West Midland's close pass scheme show how, whilst we're waiting, clever enforcement can mean getting more for less?

Invisible roads policing and evaporating enforcement

Most people will be able to guess my age when I say that I can still remember the days when a cycle ride or car journey would often take you past a traffic officer's patrol car. It was a visible reminder of a roads policing presence and that non-compliance with the rules might have consequences and, potentially for drivers, points on your licence. It made you think about your driving.

Policing on our roads ensures enforcement, one of the three "E's" by which the Government seeks to achieve its policy goals in road safety: education, engineering and enforcement. If, however, you asked yourself how often you see a traffic police officer on patrol, rather than responding to an incident, you might conclude that the enforcement "E "has been slowly evaporating for years. 

There must be a likelihood of apprehension

Last year, the Transport Select Committee's (TSC) report on traffic law enforcement highlighted the dangers of ineffective enforcement. They concluded that the lack of specialist dedicated road traffic officers means that 'minor' offences such as careless driving cannot be effectively detected and enforcement action taken.

Referring to the decline in specialist traffic police officer numbers over a number of years, the TSC cautioned that whilst education and engineering are important they cannot stand alone, and that for enforcement to be successful there must be the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended.  

​There is a growing concern that the lack of dedicated road traffic officers means that 'minor' offences such as careless driving cannot be effectively detected and enforcement action taken - there must be the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended.

Transport Select Committee report on traffic law enforcement March 2016

More to do with less

Cycling UK's evidence and submissions to the TSC identified the 37% reduction in traffic officer numbers in England and Wales (E&W) in the ten years up to March 2014, during which period overall police numbers had fallen by only 3.5%. There have of course been variations regionally and between different police forces, but the 43 police forces in E&W and the single forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland all face a similar problem: more to do with less money.

According to the National Audit Office, the funding to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) in E&W decreased by £2.3 billion (25%) in real terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16. The PCCs have had to make the difficult choices about where they wield the axe, and which services are cut. They receive no guidance on this, as the Government suggested in their response to the TSC report, that decisions about the allocation of resources and how traffic offences are enforced are matters for PCCs and Chief Constables, not them.

That's partly true, but when the Government's strategic policing requirement spells out policing priorities, such as organised crime and public order offences, and is silent on issues which arguably affect more people, such as community and road traffic policing, it is hardly surprising that cash-strapped PCCs cut the latter services first.

Prior to the PCC elections last year, Cycling UK sought a commitment from the candidates that they would treat 'Road Crime as Real Crime' and that they would increase both the resources they allocated to roads policing and the numbers of traffic officers. The response from many was that they desperately wanted to, but didn't know which services to cut instead and, alarmingly, the traffic police cuts are continuing. 

Fake news and statistics

Tracking the decline in traffic officer numbers is not as straightforward as it might seem. In June last year, Daniel Zeichner MP endeavoured to clarify the numbers and received a response from the Minister for Policing Mike Penning claiming that full time equivalent traffic police numbers in E&W had increased from 4,356 in March 2014, to 5,220 by March 2015: a seemingly remarkable increase in 864 officers in one year following a ten year decline.

Closer analysis revealed something less rosy. Outside the Metropolitan Police Force, traffic officer numbers had fallen from 4092 to 3901 in the same year, whilst the police workforce tables revealed that the Met had increased its traffic officers from 264 to 1433!

Too good to be true, and the reality was that the anomaly with the Met's figures arose from the consolidation of existing units to form the Met's new Road and Transport Command Unit. This meant some officers roles were re-classified and reported in the workforce tables differently, not that any of that was obvious from Penning's smoke and mirrors answer to Zeichner.

Taking the Met out of equation to compare like with like, traffic officer numbers in the other 42 E&W force areas then fell from 3901 in March 2015 to 3436 a year later, which equates to an alarming 47% reduction in traffic officers outside the Met over 13 years.

Perilous state of British policing

The police are acutely aware of the consequence of traffic officer reduction. The National Police Chiefs Council told the TSC that road policing was a specialist skill-set that could not be replicated by regular front-line operational officers. The TSC also noted that the number of detected motoring offences had more than halved over the past decade, when there was no evidence to suggest increased compliance by road users and the reduction in overall offences recorded did not represent a reduction in offences actually committed.

Worryingly, there is little sign that the roads policing dilemma facing many forces is improving. Each year, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report on the effectiveness of the E&W police forces through its PEEL assessment (police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy). Last week HMIC's 2016 report was published, with HM Inspector Zoe Billigham referring to the "potentially perilous state of British Policing", and focussing particularly on the erosion of neighbourhood policing, one of the police functions which, like roads policing, has disproportionately faced the brunt of funding cuts.

There's nothing in the HMIC report about roads policing, because this is omitted from all of HMIC's assessment criteria. Imagine you're a PCC or Chief Constable needing to make or implement cuts. You have an annual PEEL assessment, which looks at pretty much everything else you do, but doesn't consider roads policing. Indirectly, you are already been nudged towards reducing that service.

Cycling UK, together with fellow campaign groups led by RoadPeace, recently submitted a joint response to the HMIC (below) concerning their proposed inspection programme for this year. We specifically asked for the inclusion of roads policing within the PEEL assessment to make it clear that this a fundamental part of policing, not a Cinderella service.

West Midlands Police and the close pass operation

In truth, however, there is currently no new money so, whilst continuing to lobby and campaign for roads policing to be allocated more resources and greater priority, we also need to support the police whenever they display the ingenuity and courage to think outside the box and come up with clever, cost-effective enforcement ideas, particularly those which target the safety of cyclists.

That's precisely what West Midlands Police did with their absolutely fantastic "Give Space, Be Safe" close pass operation, using out of uniform officers on bikes to record and report drivers who overtook cyclists dangerously close. Cycling UK described this last year as "the best cycling road safety initiative ever", but perhaps as important from the police resource perspective, this targeted close pass operation isn't complex, doesn't require vast expenditure or numbers of officers, and shouldn't break anyone's budget.

Watch out for the close pass roll out

Cycling UK has been looking to encourage other police forces to roll out similar close pass enforcement operations, and a number of forces have expressed significant interest. We would love to see a reversal in the decline of traffic officer numbers, but here and now, with the current police budgets, encouraging the police to copy best practice which has real benefits for cyclists is equally important.

That's why we will be making a big announcement tomorrow regarding our plan to extend the West Midlands scheme across the UK, and how you can help.

If you want to see police officers enforcing the law for the benefit of cyclists, or you're concerned about dangerous overtakes and driving that's just too close for comfort, then watch out for our news tomorrow.