I beg to move,
That this House
has considered road safety and the legal framework.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling this important debate on road justice and the legal framework from the perspective of vulnerable road users, which follows two debates on road safety held in this House over the past few weeks. The first was led by Jack Brereton, and the second was a Government debate led by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Jesse Norman.
Those important debates highlighted a range of issues that lead to avoidable road death and serious injury, particularly to vulnerable road users, such as those on foot or riding pedal cycles, but also to motorcyclists, wheelchair users, horse riders and others. As well as raising concerns about issues such as investment in highways, road design, training and The Highway Code, Members present at both debates expressed concerns about gaps in the application of road traffic offences and penalties, highlighted by the experiences brought to them by constituents following deaths and serious injuries among vulnerable road users.
I thank Brake, RoadPeace, Cycling UK and the House of Commons Library for helping me to prepare for this debate by providing detailed briefings. I secured this debate jointly with John Lamont. We are both officers of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, which last year held an inquiry entitled “Cycling and the Justice System”, culminating in a report that was published in May 2017. That report made 14 recommendations, but today we will focus on just four areas of road justice that we contend need review by Government: clarity over the distinction in charging and sentencing between dangerous and careless driving; misuse of the exceptional hardship rule in respect of driving bans; inadequate sentences for leaving the scene of an accident; and car-dooring.
All of those who are involved have no doubt that there is a need for a review. The wider context is that we and the Government share an ambition to make walking and cycling the natural choice for shorter journeys to reduce congestion, cut pollution, improve health, rejuvenate our shopping parades and save us all money. We also need to cut the cost of the effects of death and serious injury, including through lost futures and exorbitant health costs. Part of the solution is to address gaps in our road traffic laws.
The laws and their prosecution should be there to encourage safer driving, reduce casualties, improve road safety through the deterrent effect, and reduce irresponsible behaviour on our roads. The effectiveness of road traffic laws is of particular importance to vulnerable road users because irresponsible driving presents a disproportionate threat to them. It also puts people off travelling by foot or by bike, despite the huge health and environmental benefits of doing so. We generally expect high safety standards and strong obligations to avoid or minimise hazards in other risky professions, such as rail drivers and airline pilots, and other dangerous workplaces, such as construction sites. However, for drivers of vehicles, lapses of concentration that cause death or injury are regularly dismissed as accidents or carelessness, rather than something that is avoidable.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good speech in a very good debate, but will she bear it in mind that many employees in this country are put in a dangerous and vulnerable position because their employers force them to work untrained? I am thinking of Deliveroo, and those delivery people who get on a motorcycle or bicycle with no training and are put in a very vulnerable position. We have all seen it and we know that the accident rate is increasing. Employers are putting untrained people in a vulnerable position.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are strong standards in certain industries, such as for those who drive coaches and buses, and I agree that there should be a similar standard in that area. That is the only way to ensure that employers are not forcing their employees or contractors to drive too fast in order to get the job done.
We cannot afford to be relaxed about road deaths and serious injuries. The UK’s road death rate is relatively low, but sadly it is levelling off rather than continuing to decline. The legal framework and our justice system need to send the message that road crime is a real crime, and that it is unacceptable to endanger other road users. When I learned to drive 40 years ago, my teacher told me, “Always expect the unexpected,” because even if it is the fault of the dog or the child who runs out between the cars in front of the driver, ultimately it is the driver who will be responsible for their death. My teacher taught me to always drive with that in mind, whatever the driving conditions. That does not always mean driving at 20 mph; it is about appropriateness and safety within the conditions of the road, and always expecting the unexpected.
As I say, the legal framework and our justice system need to send the message that road crime is a real crime. The Government have taken notice of that need, but more action is awaited. In May 2014, the then Secretary of State for Justice, who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, responded to the road justice campaign run by Cycling UK and Brake by announcing plans for a comprehensive review of road traffic offences and sentencing. However, after substantial delays to that review, the Government announced a consultation in December 2016 on a much more limited set of proposals. Those proposals included increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving or death by careless driving while under the influence of drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment, and introducing a new sentence of causing serious injury by careless driving.
After further delays, the Government published a report on that consultation in October 2017. It recorded support for the above proposals, but noted that concerns had been expressed regarding a lack of clarity about the distinction between “dangerous” and “careless”. In response, the consultation said, the Government would work with criminal justice practitioners and victims’ groups to examine ways of improving the information available through the criminal justice process. To the best of our knowledge, no such work has yet been undertaken.
In the meantime, in September 2017, the Department for Transport announced plans for a separate consultation on cycling offences, following the death of Kim Briggs, who died when hit by a fixed-wheel bike ridden by Charlie Alliston that illegally lacked a front brake. That consultation was launched in August this year. Confusingly, it was initiated by the Department for Transport, even though the previous motor offences consultation was announced and conducted by the Ministry of Justice. There was a large response to that consultation, indicating the level of concern about singling out cycling offences based on a single fatality resulting from irresponsible cycling, when the law fails so spectacularly in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases every year in which people are killed or very seriously injured by irresponsible driving. The law is neither clear nor consistent.
The hon. Lady is making an extremely good set of points. I represent an area where walking, road running, horse riding and cycling are probably even more prominent than in the rest of the country. Since 2014, when action was first mooted, 1,800 people have died on the roads from all four of those categories and others as well. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is time to stop navel-contemplating and to start acting to protect people’s lives?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Above all, by not taking action, the Government are failing to take irresponsible people off the roads in the interests of public protection.
Are death and serious injury caused by driving a roads issue or are they crimes? I would say that they are crimes and that this issue therefore falls under the remit of the Ministry of Justice. I am therefore glad that a Justice Minister is responding today—somebody who I believe to be honourable and diligent in his work, as I saw as a member of the Select Committee on Justice.
As I say, there is a need for clarity and consistency about the distinction between dangerous and careless driving. There is a perception, particularly among victims of road crashes and their families, as well as among Members who have spoken in previous debates in this place, that public prosecutors too often favour prosecuting motorists who have caused a death or serious injury with the lesser offence of careless driving, for which they are more likely to gain a conviction than on the charge of dangerous driving. That is particularly the case because there is such a stark difference in the penalties for those offences. For death by dangerous driving, the maximum penalty is 14 years in prison, although I think the Government are minded to increase that to life in certain circumstances.
My hon. Friend has kindly referred twice to Brake, which is based in my constituency. She has not mentioned the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, whose watchword is basing good policy on good research. Is she going to say a little more about what the research needs are to make a clear correlation between what is happening on the roads and in the justice system?
I hope to be able to, but I realise that time is short, so I might not be able to go into the detail that my hon. Friend mentioned. He has just stepped down as chair of PACTS. I am also a member of PACTS, which has done an awful lot of excellent work in this place on road safety.
Due to the subjective nature of the definitions, too often we see the downgrading of cases from causing death by dangerous driving to other charges, simply because they are easier to prove. Using the term “careless” undermines and trivialises the gravitas of the offence and its impact on victims and their families. Cycling UK has done an excellent study called “Failure to see”, which expresses that stark difference in a range of different cases. I recommend that study to those involved in this subject.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is increasing concern among road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians, that greater numbers of cars are being fitted with tinted or almost smoked glass? That makes it incredibly difficult for other road users to see the face of the driver and know whether they have been seen and the driver is aware of the potential danger.
That is clearly of concern. My understanding is that there are standards for tinted glass, but whether all vehicle owners are abiding by those standards is an issue. Those cases need to be prosecuted, and we all know that the resources for finding those offences are declining.
The Government have said that they will create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, and Ministers have said they will introduce new legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. We look forward to that Bill. The charges and penalties for causing death or serious injury should be overhauled to ensure that prosecutors are not incentivised to opt for an easier won charge. We look to the Sentencing Council for that work, for which I believe the Ministry of Justice has responsibility. Overall, we ask for closer collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Transport to ensure joined-up thinking on the definition of offences, with each consulted on the other’s work. I do not mind which Department leads; I just want to see action.
Finally, I will talk about driving bans. I agree with Brake that driving is a privilege, not a right, and that those who have shown disregard for the law should not be allowed to drive. We have a well-respected system of penalty points in this country, based on the expectation that people lose their licence when they reach 12 penalty points as they clearly have too often been driving dangerously, usually with speed violations. However, there is a loophole whereby many drivers who claim exceptional hardship in court manage to avoid losing their licence. That right is not accorded to most other offences with a risk to life, so the loophole should be closed. These people have already had a second chance in totting up points. The guidelines for magistrates need to be looked at in that respect.
In most high-risk occupations, someone’s licence to operate is removed immediately if there is a suspicion that they were responsible for an offence that causes death or serious injury. The same should occur for driving offences. Anyone arrested on suspicion of an offence that carries a mandatory driving ban should have their driving licence temporarily suspended until the case reaches a conclusion or is dropped. The advantages are that it keeps the issue out of court, is understandable, is instant and avoids the “innocent until proven guilty” problem. It would also have a deterrent effect. An alternative would be for anyone charged after killing or seriously injuring another to have their licence removed as a condition of bail. In the time it takes for a case to come to court, the driver charged can continue driving, potentially putting others in danger. The first option is the better one.
Thank you, Mr Betts. My colleague the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk will cover the other issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank Ruth Cadbury for leading this debate—I was delighted to co-sponsor the application for it. The fact that we are both here today, representing different parties and very different constituencies, goes to show how this issue affects all parts of the United Kingdom. My thanks also go to the road charity Brake, Sustrans and Cycling UK for providing helpful information on the topic ahead of today’s debate.
This is absolutely not a debate about motorists against cyclists. For the record, I am both. Road users are not tribes of people competing for space on our tarmac. Road users are simply people—our constituents, our friends and our relatives—trying only to get around, whether that be on foot, on bike or by car. If we want to make our roads a safer place, the statistics do not lie: more than 99% of pedestrian deaths in the UK are caused by motorised vehicles. It does not take a degree in physics to understand that 1 tonne of metal travelling at high speed has the potential to cause greater harm than a 15 kg bike going at 15 mph on a good day. In the face of that, it is abundantly clear that if we want to make our roads safer, cutting down on irresponsible driving must be the priority.
The hon. Lady has already spoken about the need for a review of road traffic laws, particularly on dangerous and careless driving, and I would like to associate myself with those remarks. Another area that we need to look at closely is the law on hit and run offences. The current maximum prison sentence for failing to stop is six months. There is already a presumption against short custodial sentences in Scotland, and offenders are automatically let out early across the UK. That means that someone convicted of a failure to stop offence often escapes a custodial sentence completely.
I refer my hon. Friend to the case of Sean Morley, who was hit and killed on the A444 just outside Nuneaton. He survived for three hours after he was hit by a car. Regrettably, he was not discovered for several hours and he died. The driver was later convicted of failing to stop and failing to report an accident and was given a 16-week sentence. I do not think anyone would argue that that was not completely inadequate. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only sentencing that needs to be far stronger, but the sentencing guidelines given to judges?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There are too many tragic cases like that involving our constituents. I will come to that point later in my contribution.
Failure to stop means a motorist was involved in an accident with another vehicle or person and was aware of the incident, but drove off anyway, with no thought about the damage or hurt caused. However, it can also be used as a means to escape a more serious punishment, such as if a drunk driver fails to stop in order to sober up. Failure to stop is a serious offence that should be treated seriously. It needs to end and we need to increase the maximum penalty to be in line with the maximum penalty for dangerous driving.
Another relatively simple measure to improve road safety would be to look at car-dooring. I think most cyclists are aware of the danger or have had to swerve to avoid a door opening in their path. I have had to do that on a number of occasions. I welcome the Government’s announcement that The Highway Code will be reviewed to include the so-called Dutch reach, where people open a car door with the hand furthest from the door. I hope that that will be included as a requirement so that learner drivers are taught it as a standard part of their lessons and test.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury on securing this important debate this morning. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the standardisation of helmet cams for cyclists and dashboard-mounted cams would provide the sort of evidence that could help bring cases to justice such as he has described in his speech?
I am grateful for that intervention. We should look at anything that can gather more evidence to help prosecutors. Ultimately we want to make our roads as safe as possible for all road users and deter irresponsible behaviour. If cameras help to contribute towards that, they would be beneficial.
However, we need to also look at whether a new offence needs to be created. Between 2011 and 2015, more than 3,100 people were recorded as being injured or killed as a result of a vehicle door being opened negligently, including cyclist Sam Harding, who was killed in August 2012 when a driver opened his plastic-tinted door in Sam’s path, knocking him under a bus. The maximum penalty for opening a car door negligently was a £1,000 fine, so the Crown Prosecution Service tried, unsuccessfully, to prosecute for manslaughter. The driver responsible received only a £200 fine. Clearly, this area of the law might not be working and needs to be reviewed.
I am a little worried. Emotionally I want to support the hon. Gentleman, but first, the research on exemplary sentencing and a reduction in casualties is not strong. Secondly, when it comes to car-dooring as a serious offence—a lot of young and inexperienced people do it—does he agree that technology is rapidly helping us? New cars can assist us and tell us if there is a car or motorcyclist overtaking.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but for the sake of our justice system, it cannot be right that a life is lost and the person responsible for that loss of life faces only a £200 penalty as a consequence. There is surely something fundamentally wrong with our justice system if that is how it works. It is clearly not good either for the victim or for their friends and family if justice is not seen to be delivered, so I think there is a strong case to look at sentencing and the guidance given to the judiciary in such cases.
We are calling for a much wider review of road safety offences than is currently proposed. The Government have taken action, which is to be welcomed. The announcement of life sentences for causing death by dangerous driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol was overdue, although it needs to be implemented soon. The Department for Transport also has plans for a pilot scheme that will offer driving instructors training to put cyclists’ safety at the forefront of their minds when teaching new drivers, and The Highway Code review, with a focus on cyclist and pedestrian safety, is also a good step forward. However, the Government need a wide-ranging review of motoring offences as a matter of urgency.
The Government are right to look again at the law surrounding injury or fatalities caused by cyclists. I have every sympathy with Matt Briggs, who lost his wife, Kim, when she was killed by a reckless cyclist. Kim’s father is a constituent of mine who lives in Coldstream, my own town. It makes no sense to focus on cycling offences without reviewing the much greater number of motorist offences. It is time for the Government to improve road safety for our most vulnerable road users, clear up the inconsistencies caused by the current dangerous and careless driving offences, and review the law on penalty points and hit and run offences.
My party rightly has a reputation for being tough on crime, but I feel we make an exception as a party—indeed, we make an exception as a society—if the crime is committed behind the wheel. Perhaps it is because cars are so commonplace and so central to our daily lives that their potential danger has become normalised. It is time to tackle this issue and send out a clear message to the small minority of irresponsible motorists that the safety of vulnerable road users is more important. I look forward to hearing from colleagues during this debate and from the Minister at the end.
Order. We have nine Back-Bench speakers to come, which means an absolute maximum of four minutes each. Please do not go any longer than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I want to talk about deaths and serious injuries caused by dangerous drivers and the legislation around sentencing.
Many Members will be aware that in response to pressure and campaigning from bereaved families, MPs and the road safety charity Brake with its “Roads to Justice” campaign, the Government finally agreed in December 2016 to hold a consultation on sentencing for those who cause death and serious injury by dangerous driving. The consultation ran until February 2017 and received more than 9,000 responses.
In October last year, the Government announced that, as a result of the consultation, they would introduce tougher sentences for those causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving, including the possibility of life sentences to replace the current maximum sentence of 14 years. When that was announced more than a year ago, there was much relief among campaigners and bereaved families that at last the Government were taking action to ensure that other families would not have to suffer the same injustices. Not only were those families sentenced to a lifetime of grief at the loss of a loved one, but they suffered the injustice of seeing their loved one’s killer receive a prison sentence of just a few years.
Ian and Dawn Brown-Lartey, in my constituency, had a 25-year-old son, Joseph, who was killed by a 19-year-old driving an uninsured and unlicensed hired Audi at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. He ran through a red light and smashed into Joseph’s car, killing him outright. Joseph’s killer was imprisoned for six years in May 2015 and has since been released on licence after serving half his sentence. Joseph’s father, Ian, has accused the Government of paying lip service to their promises a year ago to impose stiffer punishments on the most dangerous offenders who cause fatal crashes, because nothing has happened since then. No draft legislation has appeared and, despite numerous questions, letters and debates, no changes have been made to the sentencing guidelines. The longer the Government drag their feet over implementing the changes, the more families will continue to suffer.
In just the past two weeks in my constituency we have had one fatality and two cases of serious injury to pedestrians on our roads. In two out of the three cases the drivers were arrested for dangerous driving. When I read those stories in the local paper, my heart sank at the thought of the anguish that the victims’ families must be going through, not only in dealing with death or serious injury, but knowing that, with the law as it stands, if the drivers are convicted of dangerous driving they will serve only a short sentence.
With the anniversary of the Government’s announcement that tougher sentences would be introduced, and with no action having yet been taken, I again wrote to the Ministry of Justice asking when the legislation would be passed. Disappointingly, the message I received yesterday was that there was no available legislative slot to introduce a Bill, or a suitable Bill that could be used to introduce the changes. So families continue to suffer, and the Government, having promised bereaved families more than a year ago that they would take action, have delivered nothing.
I thank Ruth Cadbury and my hon. Friend John Lamont for bringing this important issue to the House’s attention. It is right that we adequately address the problem of accidents that lead to death and serious injury on our roads. I am grateful for the attention given to providing the safest possible road network through good legislation, and for the tangible impact it will have in saving lives in my constituency and across the country. That is to be welcomed.
However, I implore the Government to consider the safety of horses and their riders in any measures to improve the law for vulnerable road users. Having listened carefully to concerns raised by constituents in west Cornwall, and having worked closely with the British Horse Society over recent years, I am disappointed that the opportunity created by reviewing and altering both the guidance and the law has not been adequately used to consider the safety of horses and their riders.
Horses and their riders are often forgotten as vulnerable road users compared with cyclists and pedestrians. Given the direct similarities between the way in which drivers should view cyclists and horse riders when passing, it makes sense to link the two in the review of guidance and legislation. My friends in the British Horse Society recently provided me with the current statistics on horses and riders who have been injured or killed as a result of road traffic accidents, and they are truly damning. Some 237 horses have been killed, 40 riders have been killed and 899 horses have been seriously injured. Furthermore, 85% of those incidents have been a result of drivers passing too fast or too close. For a rural constituency such as mine where there are many horse riders, that is a wake-up call, and the Government should recognise it as such.
There have been improvements in the awareness and consideration given to horses and their riders, in large part as a result of education campaigns such as the British Horse Society’s “Dead Slow” campaign and partnerships with the police and driving institutions. However, that is not enough. More needs to be done at Government level to ensure that horses and their riders are a key part of the national debate on road safety. I call on the Government to include in any change to legislation strengthened sections relating to the safety of that important and vulnerable group.
Fresh advice and guidance should explain not only why drivers should take extra care and slow down when passing horses but the consequences of passing too close and too fast. At present, only section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988—“Careless, and inconsiderate, driving”—can be used if horses are passed too fast or too close. I am simply asking for a more conscious and deliberate effort across the nation to educate drivers on the needs and risks of those riding a horse, and for the definition of a road traffic offence to be strengthened. Those measures would save lives of drivers, riders and horses, and spare all those concerned the distress of dealing with such dreadful accidents.
More must be done. I urge the Minister to work with the Roads Minister to take seriously recent requests that the Government consider and then implement speed limits and minimum distances when drivers are passing horses. That is not a perfect answer, but it would be a significant step and a statement of intent that horses and their riders are recognised as a vulnerable group and will no longer be overlooked in this debate.
I urge the Minister not to overlook the matter of equestrian safety when exploring new road traffic offences and subsequent sentencing. The similarities to cyclists are stark. It therefore makes no sense to turn a blind eye to the matter of horse safety, given the opportunity to improve road safety for vulnerable road users.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding over the debate, Mr Betts. I am pleased to follow Derek Thomas. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury and John Lamont on securing this important debate. I also thank the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, Cycling UK, and Brake for their briefings.
Today’s debate concerns the legal framework. First, the police need to catch those who break road safety laws, and to do that they need to be there. I would be grateful if the Minister advised us on what discussions he has had with Ministers in the Home Office about the loss of road traffic officers in recent years. Secondly, sentences need to be handed down. Thirdly, there need to be clear legal definitions and fair punishment.
As we have heard, Cycling UK, along with road crash victims’ charities Brake and RoadPeace, are calling for the Government to review road traffic offences and penalties to ensure that the law delivers just and safe outcomes for all road users. I was concerned to learn that the number of driving bans imposed by English and Welsh courts has declined by 60% in 11 years, from 155,000 in 2005 to just 62,000 in 2016. Will the Minister clarify what is happening?
In June 2017, more than 10,000 drivers in Britain were still allowed to drive despite having more than 12 points on their licence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth mentioned. Will the Minister tell us whether that troubles him? Moreover, last year, police forces in England and Wales carried out the fewest number of breath tests since records began in 2002, according to Home Office figures. Is that indicative of a policy change from the Government, or does it also reflect a reduction in police traffic officer numbers?
The prevalence of uninsured drivers, which PACTS links to dangerous driving, road casualties and wider criminality, is also worrying. Will the Minister advise on whether that troubles him? What discussions have taken place with the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council to address those matters?
Along with PACTS, I support the establishment of a new offence of causing death or serious injury by dangerous and careless cycling. However, we would like the Government to commission a broader review covering a wider range of dangerous road behaviour, rather than focusing just on cyclists. Cycling UK has issued suggestions on what such a review, akin to what was promised in 2014, could examine. It advises that the review should clarify the definitions of “dangerous” and “careless”, review the accompanying maximum sentences, remove the ability of convicted drivers to avoid driving bans routinely, increase the £1,000 maximum penalty for car-dooring, and ensure that any revisions to cycling offences and penalties reflect key differences between driving and cycling.
Clearly we need a full review. As a cyclist myself, I see other cyclists ignoring the rules of the road. Some cyclists need a judicial shock, but other road users need one even more. The numbers killed and seriously injured on our roads have stagnated in recent years. The Ministry of Justice has an important role to play in protecting the vulnerable and reducing those figures. I look forward to hearing how the Minister intends to assist with that project.
I associate myself completely with the comments made about the need for greater clarity on the definition of careless and dangerous driving, for tougher penalties and tougher action on driving disqualification, and for tougher penalties on hit and run drivers.
I will raise some issues that have not been mentioned so far, which are highly relevant to road safety. I have constituents who work in the haulage industry who tell me that the rest centres provided for them in retail distribution centres are often such that they cannot rest. They are noisy and crowded, and there is nowhere that is comfortable for them. They are prevented from lying down in the bed in the back of their trucks during rest periods. That says to me that many drivers who are getting back into their lorries after a supposed rest period are not rested, and that they could rest safely if they could sleep in quietness in the back of their cabs. That is not allowed in many retail distribution centres, which is a serious issue. I would like the Minister to take that back to the Department for Transport.
Another road safety issue is people registering their vehicles at addresses of convenience—a Post Office box address. When a letter comes through the door because the person has been speeding, the authorities cannot take action. Bedfordshire police did a major study of that a few years ago, and I pay tribute to Sergeant Sean Quinn. The study showed that thousands of penalties were not being acted on because cars were being registered at addresses of convenience. That is a serious issue that puts some drivers beyond the law and puts us all in danger.
There is a similar issue with foreign licence plates. So far this year, Central Bedfordshire Council has issued 335 parking enforcement notices to vehicles with foreign plates, 250 of which have been cancelled because they cannot trace the driver. That applies not only to parking but to speed cameras. Again, drivers can drive with impunity. It is an offence not to register a foreign vehicle if someone has been here for six months. The police cannot track that, and I do not believe that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is doing so either. That is another loophole in the law that makes the roads more dangerous for us all.
False number plates have also been drawn to my attention. People make up a false number plate, and then commit crime or drive dangerously. Again, they cannot be traced and are beyond the law. That too is a serious offence, which I do not think that the authorities have caught up with properly.
Potholes are highly relevant to the debate. A constituent told me about £500 of damage to his car recently. For a cyclist, of course, swerving to avoid a pothole can lead to serious injury or death, and has done on a number of occasions. That is why I welcome the extra money going towards our roads. We need to realise that potholes can lead to serious injury or death for cyclists.
I completely support the points that have been made about car-dooring. The Dutch reach should be standard; it should be taught by every driving instructor and made part of the driving test, because we all need to get used to using it. I speak as someone who drove into the open door of a council dustcart many years ago and was injured.
Finally, we need a degree of civility and understanding. Whether we are on a horse, in a car or on a bicycle, we need to show one another courtesy and civility. It is not difficult to slow down or pass wide. Motorists, cyclists and horse riders are all in different positions, but proper courtesy and consideration to all of us would keep us all safer.
Order. I have to reduce the time limit to three minutes because there seem to be more hon. Members who want to speak. I will need to call the winding-up speakers at 10.29 am.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I welcome this opportunity to debate road safety again. I have said on many occasions that although I do not think that any one approach alone can make our roads safer, an improved legal framework is essential if we are to reduce deaths and deliver justice for victims and their families.
In 2017, we saw the highest number of road deaths since 2011. In West Yorkshire, 815 people were killed or seriously injured in road traffic crashes last year. The child casualty rate in my constituency is 52% higher than the national average, and progress in reducing deaths and serious injuries has been 30% slower than elsewhere. Indeed, my constituency has one of the highest rates in the country of children being killed or seriously injured on our roads.
In the short time available, I would like to focus on a few areas in which we need to make changes; I hope the Minister will be able to respond to my points. First, as ever, I must raise the issue of how the law deals with drivers who cause death through dangerous or careless driving. As many hon. Members present will know, in October 2017, following a consultation, the Ministry of Justice announced a series of changes to the law on death by dangerous and careless driving, including life sentences for those who cause death by dangerous driving and for careless drivers who kill while under the influence of drink or drugs, as well as a new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving. The Government now claim that those changes will be incorporated into a review of cycle safety.
I have to say that that is completely unacceptable. It is right that the Government review cycle laws, but it is just not good enough that the changes already announced to sentencing are being rolled into an open-ended process. Those changes have still not been implemented, and we have not received a satisfactory answer about why there has been a delay. We still do not know when the changes will finally come into force. I appeal to the Minister to take the opportunity to finally give us some answers.
Finally, I turn to points and disqualification, in particular the “exceptional hardship” loophole. We must ensure that the exceptional hardship rule, which allows drivers to keep their licence even when they have reached 12 points, is not abused. Data from the DVLA shows that in Bradford alone, more than 200 hundred people successfully used the exceptional hardship argument last year to escape a ban. Across Britain, 11,000 drivers still have their driving licences, despite passing the points limit of 12. Some have 40 or 50 points. We cannot allow drivers who have consistently broken the rules to continue driving. It makes a mockery of our laws and puts other road users at risk.
As always, I will end with a reminder of the immense human cost of dangerous driving. Every family who has lost a loved one in a road crash knows just how devastating it is. Anything that we can do to make our roads safer, including creating a stronger legal framework, must be done as a matter of urgency.
Inactivity is far more dangerous to people’s health than cycling or walking. We need to get the message out loud and clear that cycling and walking are great for our health, and we need to get Britain moving. One of the greatest deterrents, however, particularly for parents, is fear of the danger of our roads.
I will add to points made by other hon. Members by speaking about those drivers who escape all consequences. I suggest to the Minister that we need to get across the immediacy and certainty of consequences. The line between careless and dangerous driving is a very blurred one; today’s careless driver is tomorrow’s dangerous driver. We need to ensure that people do not entirely escape consequences and that they know what will follow. I agree that we need to close the exceptional hardship loophole. Merely inconveniencing and fining those who are at the beginning of their journey to becoming dangerous drivers is not enough.
I also ask the Minister to consider the role of restorative justice. To give an example, I got the phone call that no parent wants to get, telling me that my daughter was unconscious in the back of an ambulance. While wearing hi-vis in a cycle lane, she had been knocked off her bicycle by a careless or even dangerous driver who was in a hurry and was turning into a side road. If my daughter had not been wearing a cycle helmet, she would undoubtedly have been killed or very seriously injured. I was shocked that she was interviewed in the casualty department while she was still concussed.
There were no consequences whatever for the driver. My daughter is not a vindictive person and nor am I, but at the very least I would have expected someone to investigate the incident. Witnesses came forward and were happy to testify, but nothing happened. When someone has been very seriously injured in such a collision, restorative justice could play a role. I hope the Minister will consider how we can ensure that drivers meet the person whom they have injured. Until that takes place, they should face some immediate consequences—a ban, at least.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Let me take the opportunity to contextualise the debate by showing the real impact of unsafe road behaviour when appropriate action is not taken. We should all aim for zero deaths and injuries on our roads and pavements, and the only way to achieve that is by supporting road safety with practical investment and appropriate legislation.
On Saturday, I attended a beautiful service at St Martin’s church at Birmingham’s first World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. I was extremely honoured to have been invited to the event by RoadPeace. It was touching to remember all those who have lost their lives. Since the day was first commemorated 25 years ago, more than 30 million people have died on the world’s roads, including in the horrific scenes in my constituency last year in which six people were killed.
To bring focus to the issue and to the need for strong and fair judicial structures around road safety, I would like to read an extract from the poem that I read this weekend alongside my hon. Friend Jack Dromey:
“This is not the way things were supposed to be
To stare at a plaque with the words ‘Remember me’
And be filled with thoughts of you.
It had seemed that time was limitless, and there was still so much to say;
It had never occurred that one so full of life could be confined to yesterday.
Back then, road deaths were just stories to us, small segments on the news,
And we never quite understood all the fuss;
Until we became the next family to walk in those shoes.”
In one terrible 24-hour period, three young people and four others were seriously injured on Greater Manchester roads. Our road traffic laws are failing to deliver justice or promote road safety. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must review road safety in its entirety and ensure that we have measures to protect vulnerable road users such as those who have been killed in Greater Manchester?
I absolutely agree.
The poem that I have just read was written by Lucy Harrison, the sister of my constituent. She lost her brother when a car going at 93 mph hit him as he crossed the road. Having had him taken from them, his family had to go through a trial and the Court of Appeal before the driver who caused the crash, and who had failed to stop, was given a sentence of four and a half years. The driver is now due to be released after serving just two years.
One point that Lucy has raised is that people talk about the incident as an accident. These crashes are not accidents. Road safety legislation is in place to make sure that people feel safe on and around our roads. If someone breaks the law and commits a crime on the road, we must call it what it is. She is therefore calling for tougher sentencing and a change in society’s perception of death by dangerous driving.
Any road policy designed to keep all road and pavement users safe, regardless of their mode of transport, requires an effective road justice system. A year on from the announcement of tougher sentences for drivers who kill, the Government have failed to introduce legislation. Families of road crash victims across the UK are still waiting for justice. As Lucy says, people need to see that her brother
“was a human with a family, not just a statistic, because it can just be like another road death where he became a statistic or a story.”
On behalf of Lucy, Tony Worth and the many other families of victims, I urge the Government to deliver justice for road crash victims and keep the dangerous drivers off the road.
I thank Ruth Cadbury for bringing this debate forward.
The Road Safety Foundation’s annual report, “Getting back on track”, which was launched in partnership with Ageas UK, clearly says that if we had been on track to halve road deaths in this decade, in line with international targets, an extra 2,549 people would not have lost their lives between 2010 and 2017. Some 1,793 people were killed in road crashes in 2017, and 73 people were killed or seriously injured every day. Motorcycle fatalities increased by 9% from 319 in 2016 to 349 in 2017. In comparison with what the UK Government spend on education and GP services, £35 billion, or nearly 2% of GDP, is lost as a result of road crashes each year. There is a financial cost.
As other hon. Members have done, I want to talk about how this issue has affected me. My brother Keith, who is 6 feet 2 inches, was involved in a motorbike accident. Now he has carers who come in four times a day. He cannot manage his money. He cannot walk without a cane. He cannot speak or think like he once did. My mother looks after him, and everyone tries to help. Sometimes, we see the accidents but not the effect on the families. An accident in a sport that Keith loved has had a very clear impact on him and our family.
Across our constituencies, there are those who have lost loved ones, or who have lost their limbs or their way of life in an accident. More than saving money, better road safety is about saving lives and the quality of those lives.
We have talked many times in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber about road safety, and I want in particular to mention road safety around schools. Two schools in my constituency have 20 mph zones around them, but there are many others that still have a need for safety, such as Grey Abbey Primary School, which dates back to 1847 and sits on a 90° blind bend in the road. There needs to be help for that.
Ring-fenced funding would mean more traffic-calming schemes, and more traffic-calming schemes would mean fewer accidents; importantly, reduced speed means less damage to children. Texting while driving and distracting friends while driving also need to be addressed. It is estimated that if the Government were to invest £75 million per year over the next five years, 1,450 people would be spared the trauma of death or injury. The value of injury prevention exceeds half a billion over the same period. For every £1 invested in safer roads, £4.40 of economic value is created. The figures on the finances are very clear.
While we do not have a devolved Government in Northern Ireland due to the intransigence of Sinn Féin, I ask the Minister to ring-fence funding and ensure that the relevant Department in Northern Ireland understands what is expected from that additional funding.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury on securing this debate. As we have heard, this is an increasing problem and an ever present danger on our roads. Just two months ago in my constituency, over a four-week period there were three deaths on our streets—Emscote Road, Radford Road and Banbury Road—and numerous road traffic accidents.
We have to change attitudes on how we view and use road space. As was mentioned by Dr Wollaston, we need to encourage more people to use the road space, while making provision for the safety of all users. These are not motorways; they are roads for all to use. Alongside introducing changes to the legal framework, we need to ensure that we are changing behaviour at the same time.
Clearly, there are many causes. There are increasing pressures in modern life—pressures to get to work and to get the kids to school, and so on—but there are also a greater number of delivery drivers. More and more people are using the internet to shop and there are more and more deliveries to home and so on. Many of those delivery drivers, in the new gig economy, are being forced to work at such a pace that they are perhaps less observant of regulations and other road users than they might ordinarily be. They are under more and more pressure. Likewise, new housing developments around our towns put more pressure on the central town area infrastructure, with insufficient capacity to deal with the additional road use.
We also see a lack of enforcement of speed limits on our streets, with fewer police and the removal of cameras. When I served on the county council, I and other Labour councillors introduced a speed watch programme. It was great, but wearing high visibility jackets was hardly a deterrent to people speeding in our towns.
I would welcome more 20 mph zones in our town centres, which would send out a very clear message for more measured speeds in our town centres. I would like to see tougher sentences on people who fail to stop—the existing six months for leaving the scene of a crime is ridiculous. Likewise, the loophole for those who have 12 points on their licence is quite ridiculous, given the seriousness of their convictions. Finally, is it acceptable to have insurance products that insure someone against losing their licence? I would say not.
I recently stood down as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for transport safety, and retain my role as chair of the charity the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. I stood down because I now chair the World Health Organisation’s Global Network for Road Safety Legislators.
This issue is rightly called the greatest epidemic of our times by the United Nations. Some 1.3 million people are being killed on our roads, and 10 times that number are being seriously injured. It is an enormous challenge for all of us.
When I introduced my first private Member’s Bill, to ban children from being carried unrestrained in cars, and when we started PACTS and organised the seatbelt legislation, we had one mantra, which was to base all our work on great research. If there are good laws based on great research, enforced rigorously and fairly, that leads to results, and we have seen a reduction in deaths and serious injuries across most of Europe. We need to expand that further. This is a timely debate, as it is Road Safety Week. We have this fine organisation, PACTS, which has organised its work over many years on research, on good laws and on keeping the population of the country with us, which is very important. My plea today is that we keep our minds on evidence-based research.
I know about the feelings when someone is tragically killed. I came into this road safety area after a terrible accident on returning with my number two daughter from her christening. It was a dreadful smash, and thank God we survived. Ever since then, I have been passionate about saving these lives, but we can get carried away. This is not about vengeance. The laws should be right and commensurate. Sometimes, we see appeals for tough legislation and tough penalties, and we can get carried away. I believe that if we look at getting the balance right and carrying the public with us, we will get a reduction and we will get better.
We are lucky to be seeing better technology, but I would add a word of caution. Technology in cars is improving all the time. People are safer and safer, in the safest of cars, but it is the vulnerable road users—the pedestrians, the cyclists, and those on little motorised two-wheelers most of all—who are being killed all over the world. This is a United Nations sustainable development goal, and it is as important here as it is all around the world.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on securing the debate, and thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is clear that we have some long-standing road safety campaigners in the Chamber today.
This debate has clearly struck a chord with my constituents, if my inbox is anything to go by. Like many others, they are concerned that the legal system is not quite operating in a manner that is fair, just and consistent between different types of road users. We heard some tragic stories from hon. Members about families who have been affected by dangerous and careless driving through the loss of loved ones, and that of course reminds us what this debate is ultimately all about.
A number of consultations and initiatives have been announced by the Government, although, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth flagged up, they have tended to proceed in a rather slow, piecemeal fashion. This debate allows us to look at a number of the issues in the round.
Ultimately, as Preet Kaur Gill said, what we want to see is a country where there are no fatalities on the road and where road users are as safe as we can make them. Clearly the legal framework has an important role to play. As the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk rightly pointed out, this is not about drivers against cyclists or any other road users. The emails that I have received highlight that, as he pointed out, 99.4% of pedestrian deaths in the UK involve a motor vehicle. The key challenge that we have is to answer the question of how we protect other road users against cars and other motor vehicles.
A number of Members made compelling arguments for some of the reforms that are suggested in the report of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, “Cycling and the Justice System”. From my reading of the report, it contains a lot of sensible ideas. Prevention is clearly better than a cure, and I have no difficulty in supporting revisions to The Highway Code to address ambiguities about the responsibilities of road users—for example, in situations where cars are turning into side roads. I welcome some of the Government announcements on that.
Derek Thomas was absolutely right to mention horse riders’ safety, which constituents have contacted me about. He set out some of the alarming statistics about deaths—both of riders and horses—on the roads. Some 85% of such incidents are caused by drivers passing too fast or too close to horses. Campaigners argue that The Highway Code should include, at the very least, a strengthening of section 215 to include the British Horse Society’s “Dead Slow” advice to drivers on how to pass horses safely.
Among the other APPG suggestions, I would be happy to see changes to the format of driver testing to encourage better behaviour towards cyclists and pedestrians. I certainly would be sympathetic to, and supportive of, increased retesting of those who have committed offences. I am quite surprised that graduated driver licensing has not been brought up today, because I think there is still a strong argument for it. There is strong evidence that the benefits of such schemes outweigh any problems they might cause.
To come to the crux of the matter, the most difficult area of the debate is probably the adequacy of the offences that are applied to bad driving. I suppose that we aim to ensure that offences and the available punishments reflect both the level of blame or culpability in a driver’s behaviour and the impact that that culpable action has. A patchwork of offences seems to have developed over the years, and it is probably now time to consolidate them and ensure that they are comprehensive and fair.
It is absolutely true that there has to be a distinction between careless and dangerous driving, but perhaps those terms are not perfect. After all, careless driving is, very often, dangerous driving. Andrew Selous made the point that the term “careless” tends to sound trivial; perhaps words such as “negligent” or “reckless” would better reflect the legal distinction in driver behaviour. He also made some good points about the provision of road haulage rest facilities—the statistics show that many people involved in road traffic accidents are driving in the course of employment, so it is imperative that we ensure that those who drive for a living are supported in any way possible to do that safely.
While motor vehicles are the biggest challenge that we face, and cyclists are infinitely more sinned against than they are sinners, there are questions about how the law should deal with careless, reckless and dangerous cycling, as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk acknowledged. Given that we deal with serious cases by relying on Victorian laws that were designed for horses and carriages, it is probably time for an update to deal with the rare occasions when cyclists cause serious accidents, especially for pedestrians. In Scotland, there are offences such as culpable homicide and culpable and reckless conduct, but it is questionable how appropriate and practical those would be. A new statutory regime appears to be justified, but it is important to clarify that this is about ensuring justice—it is absolutely not about punishing cyclists. As Dr Wollaston said, we absolutely want more people to cycle.
On the stage at which offences have been proven, generally I would not seek ever-increasing sentences if education, technology or enforcement can provide an answer. However, it is alarming and surprising that we have on our roads more than 10,000 motor vehicle drivers with 12 or more penalty points on their licence, and that there has been a 60% drop in driver disqualifications in the past 10 years. It is essential that there is research on the reasons for those trends, because certainly they raise concerns that the current legal framework is at risk of being undermined by how it is implemented.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised the issue of hit and run. I am surprised to hear that the maximum sentence is six months, because that offence is akin to perverting the course of justice. That is something that perhaps has to be looked at again. I also sympathise with what he said about making car-dooring a specific offence. As Mr Sheerman reminded us, all of this has to be based on research.
Our roads are certainly safer than in past times, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, and the justice system has a role to play. I thank all Members for their contributions today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury for securing the debate. I also thank Cycling UK, Brake and RoadPeace for the considerable campaigning that they have done in this area over the years.
I agree with the good doctor, Dr Wollaston: walking or cycling is clearly far better for people’s health than driving. From the contributions that we have heard today, it is clear that many aspects of our road traffic laws are uniquely problematic. I declare that I was a prosecutor for many years—one of those people who make a number of decisions about whether to charge somebody with reckless driving, driving without due care and attention, dangerous driving or other offences of that nature. I will explain some of the challenges that we faced as prosecutors.
We have heard that it is all too easy for someone who is not an inherently dangerous person to drive in a manner that none the less causes obvious and foreseeable danger, which explains the apparent reluctance of some jurors to convict drivers of offences that they can easily imagine committing themselves. That possibly also applies to justices of the peace and magistrates in the lower courts. Many colleagues have mentioned examples where it appears that the law has not been applied properly. The framework for dangerous and careless driving is unclear; more importantly, it is applied inconsistently. That obviously sends a poor message to people—it shows that our justice system is perhaps not operating effectively. As a result, it causes distress to the seriously injured and to bereaved road crash victims. It also reinforces the idea that road danger is to be tolerated rather than eliminated.
Cycling UK has highlighted a case of a driver seriously injuring a pedestrian outside east London’s Westfield shopping centre in February 2017, for which he received just nine points on his licence after pleading guilty to careless driving. He then sent his friends a bragging WhatsApp video saying, “Nine points ain’t stopping me from driving.” Nine months later, he was swerving in and out of traffic at 68 mph on a 30 mph south London street, killing a 19-year-old woman who had crossed the road in front of him. Other videos found on his phone included one captioned “ripping the road at 146 mph”, suggesting that he enjoyed driving dangerously and illegally on a regular basis. The failure to treat his first offence as dangerous driving allowed him to keep his licence, with fatal consequences. Obviously not everyone is in that situation—we have to keep perspective on this—but it demonstrates one of the problems that occurs in courts.
We know that the current distinction between careless and dangerous driving depends largely on whether the court believes that the accused person’s actions fell below, or far below, what would be expected of a competent and careful driver or cyclist. As we know, those terms are highly subjective, and they allow for huge variation in interpretation by individual magistrates and jurors. The distinction is supposed also to relate to whether a defendant’s actions objectively caused danger that should have been
“obvious to a competent and careful driver”.
Evidently, however, prosecutors and courts continue to act as if the defendant’s state of mind were still relevant, despite the removal of reckless driving from the legal framework in the Road Traffic Act 1991. That suggests to me that there is a need for a review into the definitions of “dangerous” and “careless” offences in order to clarify whether the distinction relates to the level of danger caused by the defendant’s actions—an objective test—or to their state of mind, a subjective test.
I hope hon. Members will forgive me for being a bit technical with some examples. An objective test would be clarified by retaining “dangerous driving” but defining it as that which had caused danger that should have been obvious to a competent driver paying due care and attention, without depending on whether the defendant’s actions fell below or far below the standard expected of such a driver.
The lower-tier offence should perhaps be renamed “unsafe” or “negligent” driving, to clarify that the distinction has nothing to do with the driver’s state of mind. The need for that has been demonstrated in the car-dooring offences that hon. Members have mentioned. One example is cyclist Sam Harding, who was killed in August 2012 when a driver opened his car door into Sam’s path, knocking him under a bus. The driver had darkened his car windows with plastic tinting film, reducing their transparency to about 17% of normal levels. The CPS, concerned at the inadequate £1000 maximum penalty, charged him with manslaughter, but was unsuccessful. He received just a £200 fine.
That and several other fatal car-dooring cases, in which the drivers received fines of between £30 and £955, clearly indicate the need for tougher penalties and perhaps a review of legislation on the issue. It is shocking that between 2011 and 2015, 3,108 people—including 2,009 cyclists—were recorded as being injured by a vehicle door being opened or closed negligently. Eight of those incidents resulted in fatalities.
We must be serious about strengthening the role of the justice system in deterring irresponsible road use and removing unsafe drivers from the roads. It is only right that the Government set up a review of road traffic offences and penalties. I remind the Minister that in 2014, the Ministry of Justice promised a comprehensive review of road traffic offences and sentencing, largely in response to the representations of various road crash victims’ groups. After substantial delays, however, the scope of that review was later reduced to two proposals. The first was to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving, or for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, from 14 years to lifetime imprisonment. The second proposal was to introduce a new sentence of causing serious injury by careless driving. Has the Minister considered the concerns about that? Has the new offence been created, or has anything been done in relation to that?
When the offence of causing death by careless driving came into effect in 2008, prosecutions and convictions for causing death by dangerous driving fell over the following five years by 46% and 51% respectively, as that charge was rapidly overtaken by the lesser new charge, even though the definitions of careless and dangerous driving remained unchanged. There are serious concerns that the proposed introduction of the offence of causing serious injury by careless driving would again lower the bar between dangerous and careless driving, with yet more inadequate sentences. In any case, the proposals would cause huge numbers of problems. We ask that the Law Commission look into this area properly.
I will give some background explaining one of the reasons why we have these anomalies. I remember that when I first started prosecuting a long time ago, in 1987, lawyers, prosecutors and judges—they and their sentencing guidelines were what the law was about—would not often look at the injuries, but would put the emphasis on the actions. There was the feeling that at a small lapse in judgment could cause fatalities, yet people who drive recklessly might cause no injuries or damage and would be dealt with in a very different way. That dynamic is what has caused some of the problems with traffic legislation since then. I know that things have changed and the laws are different now. As a prosecutor, I remember when the new legislation came in and we could look at fatalities and injuries caused. A number of new offences were introduced in order to deal with that matter.
Will the Minister support calls to launch a wide-ranging review of road traffic offences and penalties, as was promised in 2014? I suggest that some of that review be carried out by the Law Commission, so that it can clarify the definitions of dangerous and careless offences, or replace them entirely. It needs to be made clear whether the distinction is supposed to relate to the level of danger caused by the defendant’s actions—an objective test—or their state of mind, which is a subjective test.
The review should also consider the accompanying maximum sentences, and perhaps make greater use of driving bans for offences where danger has been caused by someone who is not obviously a dangerous person, while retaining custody as a sentencing option for more obviously reckless behaviour or for repeat offenders.
I will not comment on individual cases—the courts made their decisions, and it would be improper of me to comment on them.
Driving ban sentencing needs to be looked at again. Many hon. Members have referred to how the exceptional hardship plea is being used, and suggested that courts and magistrates have been granting it too readily. That clearly needs to be looked at. Maybe there needs to be a change in the sentencing guidelines that magistrates take into account when deciding whether to grant exceptional hardship. That area also needs to be revisited and reviewed. With respect to car-dooring offences, the Law Commission should perhaps consider whether there should be an accompanying offence that carries licence points.
I await the Minister’s response on a number of the issues I have raised, including the need for the Law Commission to look into these matters.
I will do, Mr Betts; it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to take part in the debate. It is extraordinary; some of our most active and fittest colleagues are gathered in the Chamber to debate something that is very close to their hearts, and close to the hearts of millions of people up and down the country.
I will begin by reflecting on the point made by my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston, which was that, fundamentally, there is much more that we can do to protect cyclists, but we also need to reinforce the central message that immobility is much more dangerous for one’s health than walking or getting on a bicycle. In fact, the beginning of all this has to be our understanding of just how powerful and beneficial cycling and walking can be. Cycling is not only—as most of us who cycle know—the quickest way of getting to this place in the morning, it is also a way of moving that is much less damaging to the environment and much better for our health in the most astonishing range of ways. It is better for our weight, our bowels, our hearts, our skin, our sex lives—[Laughter.] Yes, much better for our sex lives; recent studies in the United States have shown that men who cycle regularly have the sex life of somebody five years younger than the average. Cycling is also much better for happiness. It should be greatly encouraged, and the more people we can get cycling and walking, the better.
The corollary is that if we are to encourage people to walk and cycle, we need to make sure that they can do so safely. Far too many people still are injured or killed while cycling. In any given year recently, more than 100 people on bicycles have been killed on the roads. We need to take that seriously, while also putting it in the context that, overall, we are making huge improvements in road safety.
Famously, for example, in 1926 when far fewer people owned motorcars, 5,000 people were killed on the roads. As recently as 1966, 8,000 people were killed in motor accidents in a year. Today, although still far too high, the number is 1,700—despite the fact that far more people own motorcars than in 1966 or, of course, 1926. We therefore should not be entirely gloomy. The second thing to put into context is that, as some right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, it is not only cyclists whom we need to think about in terms of vulnerable road users.
My hon. Friend Derek Thomas pointed out that 40 people a year on horses are killed on the roads, and far fewer people ride horses than bicycles, so proportionately someone is much more likely to be killed on a horse. About 400 or 450 people are killed walking and, as Mr Sheerman reminded us, a similar number are killed on motorcycles—people are extremely vulnerable on a motorcycle on the road. Finally, of course, the largest number of people are killed in a motor vehicle. We should not suggest that anyone killed in a motor vehicle somehow deserves it because many are innocent victims, including children and families, who just happen to be travelling in that vehicle when it is hit.
Any approach to the subject therefore has to be comprehensive. I want to pay particular tribute to Ruth Cadbury and to my hon. Friend John Lamont, the Member for the borders. They managed to provide a very comprehensive description of the range of things that need to happen if we are to protect cyclists. That begins right at the beginning in the way that we train people who drive motorcars, so with The Highway Code, and thinking about things such as the Dutch reach and how tests are conducted or professional drivers might be retested. It extends to road design and, as my hon. Friend Mr Jones pointed out, questions of enforcement, not only sentencing but how the police conduct themselves, how evidence is gathered and how prosecutions are brought. As my hon. Friend Andrew Selous said, it also extends to thinking about rest periods for drivers, the potholes in the roads or, as Matt Western pointed out, questions of a changing gig economy and the kind of people travelling in our vehicles.
All of that needs to be the context, which is why we argue strongly that any real response must take into account not just us in the Ministry of Justice but the Department for Transport and the Home Office. Nevertheless, I am a Minister from the Ministry of Justice, so I will touch briefly on some of the legal issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk emphasised the serious issue of failure to stop. In examining it and making progress, we need to take into account the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the expectations of someone to report a driving offence, and of a burglar or murderer to report their offence: the premise, or presupposition, is that the driving offence is an accidental act. We therefore expect an individual of good will to have a duty of care and a responsibility to help the vulnerable victim in a way that the individual involved in other types of crime might not. That fundamental understanding of the difference between this type of crime and others should inform the approach that we take to the question of the failure to stop and the strong arguments made by my hon. Friend from the borders and others that we should increase the penalty.
Jim Fitzpatrick mentioned hardship, again a very serious point. There seems to be a serious discrepancy in the number of people able to claim extreme hardship. A small footnote to that, however, a caveat, is that it is important to remember that not all those claims of extreme hardship relate to the individual driving the motorcar; they often relate to the dependants of that individual—for example, a child with special needs who requires motorcar travel. Extreme hardship can therefore extend beyond the individual to the family. Nevertheless, I recognise that the number of people making such claims seems disproportionately large.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes mentioned restorative justice, but at the centre of everything is the question of careless or dangerous driving. That was discussed by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, Stuart C. McDonald, who reflected on those distinctions, and Yasmin Qureshi, who made some interesting jurisprudential points on culpability and consequence or, as she framed it, the objective test of the damage done compared with the subjective question of intent.
That is not something that should be trivialised or put aside—it is a fundamental principle of English law. On the one hand, we have the incredibly stark and horrifying impact on the victim and the victim’s family—the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about that eloquently and movingly. That death and its consequences are final, destroying a life and the families that surround it, with eddying ripples that extend into broader society. On the other hand, that has to be balanced, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield pointed out, with seriousness about the nature of what happened at that moment. Some situations are genuinely accidents, and in others some of us might feel, “There but for the grace of God go I.” There is an important distinction between a careless act and a dangerous act. All of that needs to be balanced with the impact on the victim.
We have therefore concluded that we must now extend the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving to a life sentence, and the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink—alcohol—to a life sentence as well. That has been a difficult decision because of the question of balancing the impact on the victim with the culpability of the individual. However, in the end, the conclusion must be that someone who commits an extremely dangerous act in a vehicle is driving a weapon and committing an unlawful act. Ultimately, if a death results, that is morally equivalent to unlawful act manslaughter. Individuals under the influence of drink or drugs who get into a vehicle knowingly propel an extremely dangerous weapon, having consciously made a decision to incapacitate themselves. That is in direct contravention of their duty of care towards other road users and is therefore equivalent to gross negligence manslaughter. They should therefore face the penalty of a life sentence as a maximum.
In response to the questions asked by Liz McInnes, therefore, we will be do that. I will not delay people or waste their time with explanations about why, particularly in the middle of Brexit, parliamentary time has been limited, or why we feel that we need to take a comprehensive approach that brings in the Department for Transport and the Home Office, but we are determined to do it. That is because cycling is incredibly important for our health, our environment and our connections with landscape and society. We have a particular duty of care and obligation to vulnerable road users. With that, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to an extremely stimulating and important debate, which will change the law.
I, too, thank all Members who have spoken today. I will not have the chance to refer to everyone, so I will pick up on the issue of deterrence.
I am not a vindictive person and I am not generally into stiffer penalties, but driving is something we all do—most people drive—and we all want to avoid accidents. The deterrent of charges and penalties can be a factor in improving driver behaviour. I believe that that is why driver behaviour is better in Germany in my experience. A different kind of deterrence to do with civil litigation is, I think, behind the much better driving that I experienced in the United States. This area of law is one in which deterrence is useful. Many Members also picked up on the inconsistency between penalties and sanctions, in particular when talking about the distinction between careless and dangerous driving.
I thank those Members who mentioned their constituents and families who have been affected by such tragedy, because that is, after all, what we are dealing with today. I welcome the fact that the Minister has again announced the increase in the maximum sentences and that there will be a review. He also mentioned that the MOJ and the Department for Transport will work closely together so that there is consistency in message, approach, consultation and response.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered road safety and the legal framework.