Fail to stop law shows no compassion or humanity
People make mistakes, and sometimes they make those mistakes on our roads.
That might sound like an odd thing for me to say, when I’ve been campaigning for over six years for the government to deliver on its 2014 promise to review our failing road traffic laws, but our road justice campaign has always been about better laws that are consistently applied, to discourage and appropriately deal with irresponsible behaviour on our roads; not just tougher and longer sentences.
Five Flaws: Failing Laws
So, we’ve repeatedly called for more drivers who cause danger to be banned, and the closure of the ‘exceptional hardship’ loophole that allows thousands every year to avoid a supposedly automatic driving disqualification, despite having 12 or more points on their licence – one of the failings in the UK’s road justice system highlighted in our Five Flaws: Failing Laws report.
But there’s one road traffic law which has led to outcomes and sentences which we’ve long felt were insulting to victims and their families, and presented a perverse incentive for offenders to flee the scene following a collision.
The solution to these so-called ‘hit- and-run’ offences is simple: we just need tougher penalties where someone fails to stop after a collision involving actual or potential serious or fatal injury.
A multitude of sins
The maximum sentence for failing to stop after a collision is six months' custody, which is perfectly adequate in many cases.
The current fail to stop offence, however, covers a multitude of sins from failing to report that you’ve scraped someone’s paintwork pulling out of the car park, and sneaking off without leaving a note, to just leaving someone dying on the roadside without calling for help – perhaps to give yourself enough time for the alcohol to leave your system before you hand yourself in.
Here’s an example of how the system works currently.
A callous, calculated decision
A man is walking along a single-track road when someone drives into him, dragging his body 18 metres, but the driver doesn’t stop, subsequently claiming he hadn’t realised he’d hit anything, which the court doesn’t believe. Sometime later, a second driver hits the body on the road, but they stop and call the ambulance, but the victim's dead by the time the ambulance arrives.
The first driver had been drinking alcohol prior to the collision, but by the time his dad reports him to the police hours later, it’s too late for a toxicology test. He admits driving the car and pleads guilty to failing to stop, but the prosecution can’t charge him with causing death by careless or dangerous driving, which carry longer sentences, because they don’t think they have enough evidence about the standard of his driving.
The driver is the only witness, so he’s sentenced for failing to stop, receiving a four-month prison sentence suspended for a year, with a 12-month driving ban.
Now imagine you’re Mark Saltern, Ryan Saltern’s father. You’d be right to question why Wayne Shilling’s callous, calculated decision to leave your son fatally injured on the roadside, buying time to get the alcohol out of his system, isn’t dealt with differently to a car park scrape case, and why the system sometimes creates a perverse incentive for the drunken driver to compound their selfish behaviour rather than calling for help.
Harrowing stories, far from unique
It’s because of case like Ryan’s that Cycling UK and our allies, while repeating our calls for a wider review of traffic offences and penalties, have specifically called for a new fail to stop offence with a maximum 14-year prison sentence where someone flees a collision knowing that they’ve seriously injured someone, or where that should have been reasonably obvious to them.
And, as my colleague Roger Geffen explained when reporting on a recent Westminster debate, Ryan’s case is tragically far from unique, with many families recounting their own harrowing story.
As Roger says in his article, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) is currently winding its way through Parliament. Next Monday, Peers in the House of Lords will be pushing again for changes to the Bill including the new fail to stop offence I’ve mentioned, the closure of the exceptional hardship loophole, and a commitment to undertake the long-awaited review of road traffic offences and penalties. The first one, the introduction of a new fail to stop offence, could be easily introduced with a simple legislative amendment – and it ticks the ‘why wouldn’t you?’ box.
No Compassion or Humanity
Why wouldn’t you act to improve the law to close a perverse incentive and create a meaningful penalty to deter people like Shilling from driving off following a potentially fatal collision?
But so far, it’s felt as though the government hasn’t quite grasped the scale of the problem. Cases like Ryan’s are treated as the exception, implying that the system is working well generally. It isn’t, and to demonstrate that we’ve now published our No Compassion or Humanity report, outlining 18 cases tragically similar to Ryan’s, demonstrating why our fail to stop laws need to be changed.
Why wouldn’t you?
Whilst the PCSCB is back in the House of Lords on Monday, it will return to the House of Commons in the end, so we need MPs to keep on asking ministers questions about the amendments outlined in this Cycling UK briefing:
- Why wouldn’t you introduce new fail to stop laws to deal with cases like Ryan’s?
- Why wouldn’t you close the exceptional hardship loophole?
- When will you start the review of traffic offences promised seven years ago?
So, if you can imagine how you would feel if you were Mark Saltern, or the family or friends of any of the victims in our No Compassion or Humanity report, please use our online action to ask your MP to ask Ministers these questions.
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But why are Cycling UK leading on this?
Well, as my colleague Roger explained in his article, this isn't just about securing justice for seriously injured and bereaved crash victims, vital though that is.
It is also about taking unsafe drivers off the road, which, along with safe infrastructure, could play a hugely important role in maximising the health, environmental and other benefits of walking and cycling.
So please email your MP, asking why they wouldn’t support these things?