Road Safety

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 1:42 pm on 3rd November 1989.

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Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury 1:42 pm, 3rd November 1989

That system must be right for motorways, and it must be right for villages.

We must not put everything on the shoulders of the police because they cannot solve the problem alone. I ask the Minister to consider whether we need a fundamental initiative. We have had the successful neighbourhood watch scheme for busting crime. Commenting on the neighbourhood watch scheme in a publication this week, the Home Office says that such schemes are a way for people in an area to get together to help stop crime and make their neighbourhood a safer place. The most dangerous thing in villages in my area is speeding vehicles.

We have had farm watch, a successful programme of community action to prevent crime—primarily theft, but also other crime—on farms. I believe that we now need a national speed watch campaign. A number of local residents in Wilton and the parish councillors of South Newton have discussed that suggestion with me. We suggest that the details of vehicles perceived to be driving through a village unreasonably—either unreasonably fast or dangerously fast—should be taken by volunteers and passed by the parish council to the police. They should write to the owners if they can identify them. Most lorries have names emblazoned on their sides, so they can be identified. The parish council should write to the chairmen of the companies and to the regional transport commissioners, asking them again and again to check the tachographs of the lorries. After all, those commissioners have responsibility for checking the operation of heavy goods vehicles.

Some people would say that this is telling tales, that it is grassing, that it is un-British and that we do not do that sort of sneaky thing. But we are talking about crime. We are talking about ruining the quality of life of whole communities, about death and serious injuries on the roads. We must act on driver attitudes and behaviour, and, as the North report says, fear of detection is a crucial factor. It is socially unacceptable to speed inappropriately.

Every hon. Member can recall stories of dangerous driving in his or her constituency. I am amazed that the big companies that let their vehicles thunder through our villages are apparently also very concerned about the environment. I regret to say that some of the greatest offenders are our big supermarket chains, which have wonderful distribution systems and are serving the consumer in their shops. Those companies are frightfully green in the shops—they have green products and say that they are environmentally friendly and reacting to social need and change. How do the goods get into the shops? They do so via great juggernauts, creating havoc in the villages of south Wiltshire.

I hope that I can bring representatives of the South Newton parish council to discuss this project with my hon. Friend the Minister and find out whether we can take it forward, perhaps on a national basis. Perhaps the residents can be a pilot in the behavioural research project which my hon. Friend mentioned, and we can get more community action to support the police who are helping to support all of us.

There was something else missing from the North report. Although the Crown Prosecution Service submitted evidence and the Director of Public Prosecutions gave oral evidence, that evidence was not published. All the good news about which we have heard today becomes but pious hope if we do not carefully consider what happens when a prosecution is being considered in the courts.

Two cases in my constituency in the past month or so have highlighted this for me. One involved an elderly gentleman who was walking along a street in a holiday town in Cornwall with his wife and friends. The pavement was narrow and the substantial overhang at the front of a coach went over it. The coach knocked my constituent down, broke his neck and he ended up with his head under a wheel. There were witnesses but there will be no prosecution of the coach driver.

Imagine my amazement when another constituent came to see me to say that while he had been driving in Dorset a car had come round a bend on the wrong side of the double white lines and there had been a head-on smash. There were witnesses in front of and behind the accident. Police on the scene took measurements, cars were written off, but no prosecution will ensue. What on earth is going on?

I tabled a parliamentary question for answer by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, which was answered yesterday. I asked whether he would list the criteria used by the Crown Prosecution Service in deciding whether or not to prosecute in respect of traffic offences. My right hon. and learned Friend said: In deciding whether or not to prosecute of traffic offences…the Crown Prosecution Service has to satisfy the two criteria set out in the Code for Crown Prosecutors…These require that there is sufficient admissible, substantial and reliable evidence to afford a realistic prospect of conviction and that the public interest requires a prosecution in the circumstances. I should have thought that both cases which I have described fitted those criteria perfectly.

I realised that that was not all. One of my constituents sent me a copy of a letter from the chief superintendent of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary, which stated: The Branch Crown Prosecutor indicates that the public interest does not call for a prosecution in every case where it appears that there is a realistic prospect of conviction. He goes on to say that proceedings should not be instigated or pursued unless there is reliable evidence of a substantial degree of blame-worthiness. He said that in the accident involving my constituent there was no evidence of a substantial degree of blameworthiness, but rather an honest error of judgment.

I spoke to my chief constable and asked what was meant by having to weigh up blameworthiness versus errors of judgment. It could mean that if I went out into the street and mowed down a lot of children, and if I could show that it was only an error of judgment, I should get off scot-free to do it again. Someone who makes such an error of judgment is likely to do so again. Both cases I have described involved professional drivers—one was a coach driver, the other a commercial traveller—yet neither is being prosecuted.

My chief constable tells me that the Crown Prosecution Service has said that to all chief constables and that careless driving prosecutions have diminished dramatically as a result. One is not allowed to consider the consequences, only the initiator and his state of mind at the time of the accident. People have been killed in Wiltshire, yet no action is taken against those who kill others when they are in a car.

I welcome the new offence of dangerous driving which is proposed in the North report. I hope that the state of the driver's mind will not be relevant in such cases, but that the consequences of the driver's actions will be. I accept that prosecution in the criminal courts is not concerned with revenge. I am not a lawyer, but I am sure that a lawyer would confirm that the civil courts are there to wreak revenge in financial terms through suing.

Deterrence is so important in road traffic offences that we should consider carefully the action of the Crown Prosecution Service in pursuing complaints by the police. Yet again, the police feel that it is not worthwhile to go to all the trouble of measuring up road accidents and carrying out their other tasks at the scene of accidents if the Crown Prosecution Service is going to say that the police should not proceed with the prosecution. This is a question of public confidence, and if we intend seriously to improve road safety there must be public confidence as well as public involvement. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that point urgently.