Reviewing our traffic laws – the promise 10 Justice Secretaries have failed to deliver

Scales of justice
It’s time for the government to deliver on its road justice promises. Photo: Shutterstock
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking has again called on the Ministry of Justice to review our road traffic laws, something previous co-chair Alex Chalk called for seven years ago. Now justice secretary, he’s able to do this. Head of campaigns Duncan Dollimore asks will he deliver on a promise his party made nearly 10 years ago?

On Monday, seven years after publishing its 2017 ‘Cycling and the Justice System’ report, the renamed All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking (APPGCW) launched its updated ‘Road Justice’ report.

I should say from the outset that it’s an excellent and punchy report. I have to admit, however, that sitting in a room in Westminster in May giving evidence to the inquiry, highlighting the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) abject failure to progress the review of road traffic offences and penalties first promised in 2014 felt weirdly like groundhog day. I’d said much the same thing in a similar room giving evidence to the first inquiry back in 2017.

Justice delayed?

The updated report does identify the progress made by other departments and agencies on the 2017 recommendations. We’ve had much-needed revisions to the Highway Code – but without the long-term, well-funded awareness campaign needed to embed changes in behaviour and ‘mindset shift’.

Many more police forces also now conduct close pass enforcement operations, and there’s been progress with third party reporting of traffic offences enabling cyclists to more easily submit video evidence of traffic offences, although the promised dashcam reporting portal in Scotland is still delayed.

But when it comes to our actual road traffic laws and anything the MoJ has promised or been recommended to do, it still seems they think there’s “nothing to be done”.

The first three of the APPCWG’s new recommendations have the MoJ’s name next to them as the institution responsible for delivery.

These are the calls for escalating penalties for repeated road traffic offences, compulsory re-testing of drivers who’ve been disqualified from driving, and increased maximum penalties for dangerous driving which, by luck rather than judgement, doesn’t cause a death or serious injury (so the concern is the potential for harm rather than the harm caused).

Those recommendations are all on pages 12 and 13 of the report. I’m not going to dwell on the detail because it’s superfluous unless the MoJ is actually going to look at our road traffic laws.

If it does, and it finally progresses the long-promised review, everyone can debate the detail of which sentencing powers need to be amended, whether re-testing should apply for every disqualification or in a wider range of circumstances and, critically from Cycling UK’s perspective, how we ensure that those who put others at risk on the roads are disqualified from driving until they don’t.

Loopholes and exceptions

The disqualification question links to the APPCWG’s fourth recommendation on closing the exceptional hardship loophole. Through that loophole, nearly a quarter of all drivers who accrue 12 or more points on their licence avoid the supposedly automatic ‘totting up’ driving ban by arguing that they’d suffer ‘exceptional hardship’ if disqualified.

Some of those who exploit that loophole, like Christopher Gard, go onto offend on our roads again. In Gard’s case, this led to the tragic death of cyclist Lee Martin, which is why Cycling UK has repeatedly called for changes to the law to close this loophole or at least significantly restrict the circumstances in which an exceptional hardship plea can succeed.

While the APPCWG has put the Sentencing Council’s name next to this recommendation as the agency responsible for revisiting and tightening up sentencing guidance, it also recommends procedural changes restricting the ability of magistrates to consider an exceptional hardship plea.

This would require legislative change so, in reality, recommendation four and issues around the inadequate use of disqualification powers and the exceptional hardship loophole are also something the MoJ desperately needs to consider.

This takes us full circle back to the need for the wider review of road traffic laws.

It’s what you said before

Chris Grayling was the justice secretary who promised a wide review of traffic laws almost 10 years ago. Eight justice secretaries have come and gone since then, with Alex Chalk now in the role.

Back in 2017, when I gave evidence in the initial Cycling and the Justice System inquiry, Alex Chalk was on the panel and co-chair of the all-party group. He put his name to the report which called on the MoJ to look at the declining use of disqualification powers and how the offences of careless and dangerous driving, and the penalties for those offences, were being used.

At Monday’s launch event for the new report, the current Conservative co-chair of the APPCWG, Selaine Saxby, confirmed that she had spoken to the justice secretary and given him a copy of the report. He now has an opportunity to progress something his party promised in 2014, which he personally supported back in 2017, and which two successive inquiries, victims’ groups and MPs have repeatedly called for.

If you’re wondering whether I’m being too critical, I should say that we’ve had nearly 10 years of delay, obfuscation and ‘pass the parcel’ on this issue. In December 2021, it looked like the MoJ was once again trying to move responsibility for this back to the Department for Transport, and ministers confirmed that officials were actively working on a ‘call for evidence’ on the review of traffic offences and penalties.

Ever since then, questions on progress have been met with a “we’re working on it” response. That’s why we’re asking the justice secretary a very simple question: will you progress what you said was needed seven years ago, and now have it in your gift to move forward, and if not, what has changed your mind?

We’ll also be at the Labour and Liberal Democrat party conferences in the coming weeks, and one of our questions will be whether those parties will commit to progress something which had cross-party support and has been delayed for a decade.

There are other recommendations within the APPCWG’s excellent report, and we’ll summarise those in a second article next week.