The government's 'Roads Policing Review' is asking the wrong questions

Roads policing needs to combine education and enforcement: the example of 'Operation Close Pass'

The government's 'Roads Policing Review' is asking the wrong questions

The fact that the government is conducting a review of roads policing is a step forward. However it's frustrating that they are still only considering half of the issue, says Cycling UK policy director Roger Geffen.

The government's Roads Policing Review consultation has now closed and Cycling UK's submission has gone in. Roads policing is a hugely important topic - Cycling UK has spent many years calling for a revival of roads police numbers, and pointing to mounting evidence that recent failures to reduce road casualties may well be related to reductions in roads policing.


 Roads police numbers v car and cyclist injury nos, 2007-16
Graph: Roads police numbers v car and cyclist injury nos, 2007-16

Yet, completing this submission did not feel at all satisfying. The government's questions had only covered half of what needed saying.

They had asked multiple questions seeking evidence that roads policing is effective at improving driver compliance with the rules of the road, and reducing casualties. We were able to point to plenty of it. As we have done many times before: in our roads policing briefing, in our written and oral evidence to a Commons Transport Select Committee inquiry on the subject, in our submission to the government's Cycling and Walking Safety Review (see the summary and full versions) ...

One of the most important conclusions from this evidence is that the biggest deterrent to committing road crimes (and other forms of crime) isn't fear of the severity of the punishment. It's fear of being caught. Yet, faced with crimes that rip lives apart - such as death on the roads - politicians' first response is so often to call for tougher sentences. A better answer would surely be to put more resources into preventing these crimes from occuring in the first place. That's why roads policing is so important.

One of the most important conclusions is the biggest deterrent to committing road crimes isn't fear of the severity of the punishment. It's fear of being caught. 

Roger Geffen, Cycling UK's policy director

Prioritise roads policing

Our response's single most important recommendation - nay, plea - is that the Home Secretary add Roads Policing to the Strategic Policing Requirement (SPR) for England and Wales.

Chief police officers are legally required to take account of the SPR when setting priorities for their police forces. The current SPR, written in 2015, focuses on terrorism, organised crime, cybercrime and public disorder - but omits roads policing, even though road crime causes huge numbers of deaths and serious injuries.

Faced with mounting financial pressures, it is unsurprising that police chiefs find it easier to make cuts to roads policing, even though these are hugely damaging to public safety. And by making it feel unsafe to walk or cycle, they are also hugely damaging to our health, our air quality and our climate.

Roads policing also tackles other forms of crime

Another intriguing discovery I made was when looking for evidence that roads policing is effective not just at improving road safety, but also at preventing other forms of crime too. I came across a small-scale study from Huddersfield. Conducted in 1999, the researchers had looked at the offending history of the owners of cars parked illegally in disabled parking bays, compared with the owners of other cars parked nearby. They found that:

  • A fifth of those illegally parked in a disabled space would occasion immediate police interest, contrasted with 2% of legally parked cars.
  • A third of keepers of cars illegally parked in a disabled space have a criminal record, contrasted with 2% of legally parked cars.
  • Half of those vehicles illegally parked in a disabled space had a history of traffic violations, contrasted with 11% of legally parked cars.
  • A fifth of those vehicles illegally parked in a disabled space were known or suspected to have been previously used in crime. None of the legally parked cars were.
  • One in ten of those vehicles illegally parked in a disabled space were currently in an illegal condition, compared to 1% of the legally parked cars.

There is plenty more evidence that roads policing is highly effective for detecting criminals who are wanted for other reasons. Yet roads policing has still borne a disproportionate share of police force cuts in recent years.

Linking education and enforcement

A really important aspect of roads policing is the educational and awareness-raising activity which needs to accompany any effective enforcement campaign, particularly for offences which some sections of the public believe are not particularly important.

50 years ago, enforcement of drink-drive laws was seen by some as a wholly unjustified infringement of people's civil liberties. The combination of education and enforcement has turned that around completely

Education helps build a societal consensus of why the law (and its enforcement) is necessary, while the enforcement ensures that this consensus isn't undermined by a minority being seen to flout it with impunity.

Education helps build a societal consensus of why the law is necessary, while the enforcement ensures that this consensus isn't undermined.

Roger Geffen

The West Midlands Police's Operation Close Pass is another excellent example of how to combine education with enforcement. Plain-clothed police officers cycle in a particular area, observing drivers who overtaken them with too little room to spare.


An undercover police officer dressed as a cyclist is observed by a police officer
West Midlands Police Operation Close Pass in action. Photo Sam Jones / Cycling UK

When this happens, the cyclist police officer radio's ahead to a colleague who pulls over the driver. It is explained to the driver that the cyclist they close-passed (often without even noticing) was in fact a police officer, but they are also someone's child, someone's parent or grand-parent. And that close passing is really intimidating, because it comes so close to actually being really dangerous.

Operation Close Pass was linked to a 20% reduction in cyclists' serious injuries within its first year. It has been widely praised (not least by Cycling UK!) and widely copied by other forces (thanks to Cycling UK's backing). Yet we still haven't seen this same combination of education and enforcement being applied to speeding, mobile phone use or illegal parking. It is high time the principle was applied more widely.

'Post-crash' policing

Still, the biggest shortcoming of the Department for Transport's review was the lack of any questions about the 'post-crash' aspects of roads policing. By that, I mean the investigation of collisions, the role that the police often play in making charging decisions, and victim support.

One form of investigatory work which particularly concerns us is the investigation of footage from webcams (and indeed from dash-cams).

My colleague Keir Gallagher has already written about Cycling UK's investigation into the postcode lottery of how police forces handle video footage submitted to them. Eleven forces were clearly making good use of it, showing what can be done. the other 32 either couldn't tell us what they were doing, or failed to respond.

However, road crash victims are also really concerned about police failings when making charging decisions. These decisions aren't always passed on to the CPS. If the police think an offence was merely 'careless' rather than 'dangerous' driving, they can decide to bring this charge themselves, even if it involved serious injury.

And once that decision has been made, the victim cannot insist on a review of the charging decision because - you guessed it - the driving was only 'careless', and therefore not a sufficiently serious offence to warrant an appeal!

The quality of the victim support provided by the police is also hugely variable. Some road crash victims cannot sing loudly enough in praise of the 'Family Liaison Officer' (FLO) who has supported them in the aftermath of their case. But all too often, it is clear that FLOs are desperately overworked, under-resourced and in some cases very poorly trained.

If victims can't even find out whether it was the police or CPS who made a decision they are unhappy with, that makes it doubly hard to challenge it.

Roger Geffen

Victims, including bereaved families, all too often complain that they aren't kept informed about the progress of their cases. Some don't even get told about trial dates. But before their case even gets to court, they sometimes find they aren't being told about decisions on whether or not to charge the driver, or what charges to bring. And if they want to object to such a decision (eg because the driver has merely been charged with a 'careless' driving offence rather than a 'dangerous one - or hasn't been charged at all), victims often have to battle for information on which authority made the decision, let alone receive an explanation.

If victims can't even find out whether it was the police or CPS who made a decision they are unhappy with, that makes it doubly hard to challenge it.

Conclusion

Ultimately, prevention is the most important aspect of roads policing. 

That means having enough visible officers to provide an effective deterrent to crime, backed up by the awareness campaigns which ensure the public understands why the law matters and supports its enforcement.

But the police also need the capacity, capability and support needed to deliver high-quality investigations, charging decisions and victim support.

The government's review really needs to consider these aspects of roads policing as well.

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