Traffic police and other enforcement agencies
It puts many people off cycling, can make those who already cycle anxious and, worse, injure and kill.
Of course, several factors influence how many people are harmed or die annually on the roads. Traffic volume, weather, awareness campaigns, better vehicle safety and medical care etc. can all play a part, but so does the capacity of enforcement agencies to deter, detect and proceed against road crime.
Note: this page covers driving. For cycling, which causes negligible risk to others, please see our briefing on cyclists and the law.
Road safety and enforcement
Thousands are hurt in or affected by traffic collisions each year in Great Britain: between 2013 and 2022, more than 1.6 million people were injured on the roads, a figure that includes 17,000+ fatalities, almost 1,100 of whom were cyclists.
While the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured (KSI) per billion miles cycled has fallen over recent years, they are still over-represented in casualty statistics (GB): from 2015-19 (pre-pandemic ‘normal’ years), cycling made up only about 1% of traffic and 2% of trips, but cyclists accounted for 14% of reported KSI.
And, importantly, these figures are limited to incidents reported to the police – a good proportion of collisions are not, even if someone ends up seeking medical help.
It is impossible to say how many of these people were hurt by offending drivers because casualty and justice data aren’t linked (but should be, in our view). Nevertheless, records of the factors that police at the scene think could have contributed show just how prevalent ‘injudicious action’ (especially speeding), ‘driver/rider error or reaction’ and ‘impairment or distraction’ are.
Enforcement works a little differently in each of the four UK nations but, generally speaking, the police are tasked with investigating crime reports, gathering evidence and liaising with the prosecution service over charging decisions (although they can make some charging decisions themselves).
Thirty-nine territorial police forces operate in England, and four in Wales. A single service covers Scotland, while another covers Northern Ireland.
Below we explain why governments should make traffic law enforcement a policing priority, and why we need all forces to:
- maintain a visible presence on the roads
- deal appropriately with bad drivers
- make it as straightforward as possible to report bad driving
- follow up on reports, support victims and keep them informed
- collect and share comprehensive data on crashes and near misses
- enforce 20 mph limits.
The benefits of roads policing
Most people are less likely to drive irresponsibly or illegally if they know there’s a strong possibility of being caught, something that often came up when the Department for Transport reviewed roads policing in 2020 (see Cycling UK’s submission).
How much capacity the police have to detect and deal with road crime, therefore, influences driving behaviour.
Not only that but, if fear of detection made more drivers think twice about breaking the law or manoeuvring unsafely, the result would be good for the police too because officers would then have fewer reports, offenders, collisions and near misses to process.
They’d no doubt apprehend higher numbers of other kinds of criminals too, given the known link between motoring and other types of offences.
But it’s not just a case of apprehending offenders - educating drivers is imperative too.
Our Too Close for Comfort campaign was, in fact, inspired by the ‘Close Pass’ operation pioneered by West Midlands Police. Many other forces have followed suit, advising thousands of motorists on overtaking cyclists at a safe distance.
For more on policing and its benefits, see:
- Why we need more traffic police, Cycling UK (2018)
- Roads Policing: Not optional – an inspection of roads policing in England and Wales, HMICFRS (2020)
- Roads policing and its contribution to road safety, PACTS (2020)
- The Future of Roads Policing, The Police Foundation (2022)
- How methods and levels of policing affect road casualty rates, Travelwest (2019)
Prioritising road crime / roads policing strength
Government priorities for policing change over the years and may differ between UK nations. Typically, though, the threat of terrorism and public disorder receive more attention than road crime.
Inevitably, this influences how forces allocate resources locally, as does the presence or absence of galvanising national targets for road casualty reduction. Not all governments in the UK set them, (and, if they do, they’re not always the best sort).
Overall, however, the long-term goal of Vision Zero – that no one should die or suffer life-changing injury on the roads – is making headway.
Without a high-level, national steer to tackle road crime, however, the stronger the risk of a ‘postcode lottery’ over: how effectively individual forces address bad driving; how willing they are to enforce 20 mph speed limits; how responsive they are to reports of bad driving; and how they handle not only collisions but also their aftermath (which includes supporting victims - see below).
Likewise, central coordination is vital for developing the specialist skills of road crash investigators, and ensures that systems are optimised (e.g. automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) and online reporting).
England & Wales
Unfortunately, in 2022/23 roads police in England and Wales outside the Metropolitan Police area* accounted for a lower proportion of the total police officer workforce than they did a decade ago - 3.1%, as opposed to 4.4%.
Although a downward trend for both the total workforce and roads policing officers has reversed recently, there were 21% fewer roads officers in 2022/23 than in 2012/13 (4,369 down to 3,438).
The strength of the total workforce, on the other hand, which is largely a national matter, increased by 13% (from c.99,200 officers to 112,500):
Indeed, roads policing numbers have been falling for longer than this – see this parliamentary answer from 2012, giving figures going back to 2002/3.
- See RoadPeace’s dashboard for individual forces.
*The Met is by far the biggest force, so if it reclassifies officers (which it did most notably in 2014/15), it skews the overall picture. Their data have therefore been excluded from these figures.
According to Police Scotland’s response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request we made, the force employed about 555 police officers (full-time equivalents) in 2022/23. This is about 3.3% of the entire force, a proportion that has barely changed over the last decade.
We also asked the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) how many full-time equivalent traffic officers they employ. It amounted to 167 in 2023, or about 2.5% of the entire force, about the same as it was in 2014.
Note, some traffic officers spend time on other work.
Police and Crime Commissioners, England & Wales
In England and Wales, communities have some say in how their locality is policed because they elect Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) who set their force’s objectives. With speeding and anti-social driving often serious community concerns, Cycling UK believes that road safety should be a priority for every PCC. This is why we take action at PCC election time. (The Mayor is the PCC for London).
Equally, Cycling UK believes that all partnerships between local authorities and the police (e.g. Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnerships / Community Safety Partnerships), should take bad driving as seriously as any other offence when formulating, resourcing and implementing strategies to tackle crime.
Note: the motoring offence data published by each nation is not necessarily like-for-like – please refer to the sources for more detail.
In England and Wales (E&W), the police have recorded around 5,700 to over 6,000 ‘causing death’ and ‘dangerous driving’ offences every year since 2016/17:
Most of the above, especially ‘causing death’ cases, ended up with a ‘charged/summons’ outcome. It can, however, take a while for offences to be assigned an outcome, so each year’s crime figures are updated every time a new report is published – the above is therefore a snapshot (data accessed November 2023).
Please note that, in Cycling UK’s view, too many drivers are not charged with 'dangerous' driving even when the crime fits the current legal definition of it. They may be charged with ‘careless’ driving instead or not charged at all, so their offences aren't covered in the chart above.
While Police Recorded Crime (E&W) logs only the most serious driving offences, the courts process thousands of others as well. The total grew from almost 310,600 in 2013 to about 470,700 in 2022 (+52%), most now being speed limit offences (41% in 2013, 52% in 2022).
Meanwhile, Recorded Crime in Scotland, 2022-23 reports: “Between 2021-22 and 2022-23, the number or road traffic offences decreased by 2% from 111,987 to 109,320. Over the longer term, there was a decrease of 63% since 2013-14.” These figures, however, exclude speeding offences recorded via the Safety Camera Programme.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) referred 32,343 motoring offences for prosecution in 2013, but only 27,574 in 2022 (-16%). (Figures represent a snapshot of the day they are extracted from the database, and are therefore subject to amendment).
As with casualty figures, several factors besides roads policing capacity can influence rises or falls in how many driving offences are recorded each year.
Although there’s no clear alignment with the c.10% rise in licence holders in Britain over the last ten years, technological advances (e.g. speed cameras and ANPR), legislative changes (e.g. on mobile phones) and, in E&W from 2013/14, establishing local ‘traffic courts’ to streamline the process for low-level offences have almost undoubtedly made a difference.
Not all offences, though, are prosecuted and logged by the courts. The police may offer drivers who’ve committed less ‘serious’ breaches a National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme (NDORS) course instead. In 2022, about 1.5 million were sent on a speed awareness course alone. Some ‘retrained’ drivers may change their behaviour, at least in the short term, but Cycling UK believes they should still be prosecuted.
Whatever each year’s driving offence figures do or don’t reflect, however, they can’t measure how intimidating bad driving is for vulnerable road users, nor do they suggest that the police are managing to deter the thousands and thousands of drivers who keep putting others at risk.
The level to which cyclists feel unsafe on the roads due to a perceived failure to enforce traffic law is at odds with the Government’s aim to promote cycling, and must be addressed.
House of Commons Transport Committee: Road traffic law enforcement. Report on the Committee’s inquiry, at which Cycling UK gave evidence. March 2016.
Training, investigation and outcomes
As with any crime, quality of evidence may be a deciding factor in how successfully an offender is prosecuted, or if they’re prosecuted at all. This means:
- investigating incidents that result in very serious injury as thoroughly as those that result in deat.
- gathering evidence and witness statements in a timely and thorough fashion
- interviewing the driver as a matter urgency
- expediting the capture of any CCTV footage (which may otherwise be wiped)
- following up proactively
- avoiding victim-blaming (i.e. assuming a vulnerable road user is at fault for whatever harm befell them).
For this to happen, the police need high quality, standardised collision investigation training, including advice on the practical and legal issues facing cyclists and other non-motorised users, and on the latest, welcome changes to the Highway Code.
Cycling UK also believes the police should always refer serious injury collisions up to the prosecution service for a charging decision, not just those that result in a fatality and, if they don’t, be expected to justify their decision.
Pursuing reports of seriously bad or aggressive driving, even when it manifests as a ‘near miss’, is equally important. This helps the police compile dossiers on persistently bad and potentially lethal drivers, and pinpoint road infrastructure problems to refer to the local council highways team.
Clearly, it takes time to train new roads police officers, which makes it all the more important to sustain recruitment at a level that reflects how crucial their function is for public safety.
Online reporting systems / camera footage
Video evidence captured from the road (e.g. by dashcams or helmet/handlebar-cams) has significant potential to help the police deal with behaviour that puts others a risk. It's particularly useful for reporting dangerous overtaking of cyclists (or ‘close passing’), given how challenging this issue can be to police.
All forces in England and Wales now offer the ability to upload footage at the time of making a report of road crime, but this is not sufficient in itself.
For the sake of consistency, and to make sure that video evidence is always and everywhere used to its full potential, it's vital that all police forces:
- ensure staff/officers who review footage to identify criminal behaviour are specifically trained on common issues and how to identify them, e.g. judging how close a driver is when passing someone cycling
- provide sufficient resource to staff and systems so that all reports and submissions can be dealt with in a timely manner
- monitor the reason for the report (e.g. speeding, close passing), the vehicles involved, and what action is or is not taken against the potentially offending party and why, so that the system can be monitored for effectiveness (research by Cycling UK has found that very few forces currently do this)
- update people who've submitted footage about whether and what action has been taken as a result of their reports - especially crucial if the behaviour in question put them at personal risk, thus making them a victim as opposed to a witness.
At the time of writing, neither the Police Service in Northern Ireland nor Police Scotland offers such a system.
Good support services, regular updates and clear explanations are as important for people harmed or bereaved by road crime as they are for the victims of other crimes.
For example, if officers decide to downgrade a driving offence from ‘dangerous’ to ‘careless’, despite the fact that the act in question fits the legal definition of ‘dangerous driving’, victims need to be told who made the call and why. Without that information, challenging such decisions can prove very difficult indeed.
Clarity on all charging decisions is also important in the wider interests of transparency, accountability, systematic collection of data and identifying scope for improvement.
England & Wales and Scotland issue codes of practice for the victims of crime, while Northern Ireland issues a charter. (Note that some rights apply only in certain circumstances, and please check that you're looking at the latest version - these links go the version available at the time of writing).
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
By law (largely UK), employers must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees while at work, including when they are driving. They must also ensure that others are not put at risk by work-related driving activities.
Cycling UK believes HSE should stress these responsibilities to employers, given that a recent study found that nearly one in three road deaths involves a driving for work trip, and 39% of pedestrian deaths involve a working driver.
Traffic Commissioners (GB)
Traffic Commissioners are responsible for the licensing and regulation of those who operate heavy goods vehicles, buses and coaches, and the registration of local bus services.
HGVs in particular pose a disproportionate risk to cyclists and pedestrians, so we need Traffic Commissioners to deal with rogue operators appropriately and, again, be resourced to do so.