Road Safety and the Legal Framework — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:28 am on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 10:28 am, 20th November 2018

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.