My Lords, over the past few years a number of financial cuts have been required of various bodies, such as education, the NHS and policing. It seems as though no one in government takes responsibility for the reduced levels of roads policing. The Department for Transport says the decline is not a problem but that if it is, it is a Home Office matter. The Home Office says that it is down to police and crime commissioners, who in turn pass it down to chief constables, who blame government cuts—a fine merry-go-round.
However, if the reason for the delay in publishing this year’s road casualty figures turns out to be operational difficulties within police forces, it is important that the Home Office should acknowledge this and reaffirm the instruction that the data, known as STATS 19, are collected in a timely and conscientious manner. There has been no explanation from the Home Office of why these figures, which usually come out in June, have been delayed until September. I wonder why has there been such a delay.
This is no mere quibble about statistics. The provisional figures published in February showed a rise in total road deaths in Great Britain in each of the past three years. The trend is in the wrong direction and we badly need good information on which to base policy. The number of specialised roads policing officers fell from 7,104 in 2005 to 4,356 in 2014. Unfortunately, I do not have more recent figures, but I am led to believe that the numbers have fallen even further. It is interesting to note that the Transport Select Committee concluded that the reduction in overall road traffic offences recorded does not represent a reduction in the offences actually committed. There simply are not enough police officers out there to take appropriate action regarding many offences in many circumstances due to the various obligations placed on them.
At present there is a lack of investment and recognition of the role that roads policing plays in protecting our communities from harm. It is one area of policing that can disrupt and detect transient criminality before it brings harm. This covers all areas, from fly-tipping to the most serious forms of harm such as terrorism, where the roads are arteries of harm. Should the benefits of roads policing be better understood, there is a real opportunity to strengthen this area, which could have a positive impact on road safety and safer communities if supported at government level.
We can make our roads policing officers much more effective and efficient if we equip them with the best technology. The UK leads the world in the development of traffic safety technology, yet we are not making progress nearly as quickly as we could and should be. We need a much faster and more proactive approach from the Government. We should be harnessing the private sector’s ingenuity and investment to make roads safer and our police more efficient. We should be doing more to support these cutting-edge businesses which provide high-skilled jobs and valuable export earnings.
When the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was passed more than 10 years ago, I had an amendment accepted that permits the use of evidential roadside breath testing instruments. After all this time, however, the Home Office has still not provided type approval for any such equipment. A number of target dates for achieving type approval have been missed and, as far as I am aware, there is now no target date whatsoever. This means that the equipment is not available to our police officers, who have to take suspected offenders to a police station for an evidential sample.
Yet it seems that type approval can sometimes be achieved quickly. The so-called “drugalyser”, which tests a driver’s saliva for certain drugs, was passed for police use by the Home Office in a relatively short time, despite the technical challenges involved. Could it be that this was due to a commitment made by the former Prime Minister, David Cameron?
Then there is the thought that the police could have multi-function cameras to serve a number of purposes: security, safety, licensing, insurance requirements and more. Equipment exists that can detect unlicensed or uninsured drivers, speeding, red light running and so on, but type approval for each camera is generally limited to a single purpose. As a result, the police are required to buy two or more cameras to do the same job, thereby adding to the costs, or simply failing to enforce. It is interesting that the University of Hertfordshire has some PhD people working on some very interesting improvements in ANPR and two of them are police officers.
One must acknowledge that the number of vehicles on our roads has increased considerably and the safety features of modern vehicles have greatly improved. We must also acknowledge that the standard of driving has fallen for various reasons, including poor driving test standards in many countries, which are legal there but not accepted here. Then we must acknowledge the improved safety devices in modern cars, which can effectively prevent road deaths in certain circumstances. However, we must also remember that in a serious collision, where the vehicle stops in less than one second, the human body is not designed to stop from high speed in that time.
Finally, there are lots of excellent specialist collision investigation units within the police. These units look for evidence that may support a prosecution—for speeding or dangerous driving, for example—but they do not look for wider causation factors, such as pressure from an employer to complete a delivery, or how the design of the car or road contributed to the collision. It has been suggested, somewhat strongly, that a road collision investigation unit should be formed and there should be an overhaul of how collision information is gathered and analysed. This would complement, not replace, the work of the police. We have separate investigation branches for rail, air and maritime accidents, so why not for people who die on the roads? At the moment roads policing operations tend to be swept under the carpet whenever possible and it is not generally acknowledged that many more people die on our roads than are murdered.