Dangerous Driving — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:25 pm on 8th July 2019.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 5:25 pm, 8th July 2019

It is a pleasure to see you presiding, Mrs Moon. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to the petitioners. I thank Brake and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety for their briefings, and I thank the Petitions Committee for facilitating the debate. I thank my hon. Friend Helen Jones for her excellent introductory speech, and I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Colleen Fletcher.

Apart from the specifics in the briefings, which I will come to, my concern is that government generally, this Government in particular and society do not attach enough seriousness to road deaths—let alone those caused by dangerous driving, which cause even more pain. If there were 1,500 deaths a year in aviation or on trains, there would be a demand for a public inquiry, and with the number of road deaths stagnating in recent years, we need to address this issue much more seriously. The Government’s refusal in 2010 to set a target for casualty reductions, abandoning a 30-year consensus of all Governments since the Thatcher Administration, is indicative of the coalition and now this Conservative Government’s relaxed approach. We had seen a gradual reduction in road deaths over the decades, but since 2010 that has stalled.

Our general attitude to road deaths is far too complacent, and it sends all the wrong signals. It creates a climate of “roads deaths happen”. When they are committed as part of another crime, they are not condemned as heavily as they ought to be. It is almost as if these deaths—murders—are obscured by all the deaths happening on our roads. Road crashes are the cause of more deaths among young people than anything else. The Government proposed a Green Paper for graduated licences for new—mostly young—drivers to impress upon them how serious a step it is to get behind the wheel of a vehicle. The Green Paper disappeared.

We do not create the appropriate attitude in our new drivers: that, as many colleagues have said, they are in charge of a lethal weapon and, if they use it to cause harm or death to others, there are serious consequences. Just as we do not approach this issue appropriately from an educational or training point of view, nor do we do so from a legal one. We need to approach driving much more seriously.

I am not generally in favour of mandatory sentences because the bench and judges should have discretion, but if my family—my child or my grandchild—were the victim of one of the atrocious crimes we have heard about, I would want the full extent of the law used against the criminals who perpetrated that crime. I would want the penalty under the law to be appropriate, as so many colleagues have said. The law is lacking, to say the least, and the Government know that. They have promised change for years. The question to the Minister, who is held in high regard across the House as a man of integrity, is: when will it happen?

I turn to the briefings, and the one by Brake in particular. Brake says:

“Deaths and serious injuries on our roads cause terrible suffering every day. This suffering is often compounded by a flawed legal framework which lets serious offenders get away with pitiful penalties and allows dangerous drivers back on our roads. We are calling on the Government to finally implement the tougher sentences for killer drivers it announced in…2017”.

Two of its demands are: to bring forward legislation that implements maximum sentences; and to simplify and improve legal definitions of unsafe driving behaviour, and specifically the use of “dangerous” and “careless”. Brake continues:

“It cannot be right that the average prison sentence for a driver who has killed someone through dangerous or illegal driving is four years. When we consider that the minimum sentence for domestic burglary with no additional charges of bodily harm is three years.”

It is a very powerful point. Brake also echoes a point made by my hon. Friends:

“In 2014, the then Secretary of State for Justice…promised a full review of all road traffic offences, yet this promise remains unfulfilled.”

Why is that?

Brake also mentions the 2016 consultation:

“Brake does not, however, agree with the Government’s contentions in their response that ‘There is a risk that juries may be less willing to convict…Juries would be able to receive clear direction that a range of penalties would be available in sentencing, with precedent shown, negating this as an issue.”

Brake discussed the important issue of careless and dangerous driving, and called for the legal definition of unsafe driving to be simplified and improved. It wrote:

“The maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving is only five years, compared to 14 for causing death by dangerous driving.”

Brake discussed the contrast between the two sentences and found that

“since it was introduced in 2008…in the first few years after the new charge was introduced, the number of ‘death by dangerous driving’
convictions dropped off as the number of deaths by careless driving convictions increased. In 2007…there were 233 death by dangerous driving convictions, this then fell to 114 in 2011, when there were 235 death by careless driving convictions.”

The question is whether one rate of conviction is coming down while the other is going up, resulting in lower penalties for people found guilty of a less serious offence. Brake thinks there is a relationship between the two rates of conviction, so perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

Brake has also stated:

“Additionally, the use of the term ‘careless’
in cases where driving has resulted in death and serious injury undermines and trivialises the gravitas of the offence and its impact on victims and their families.”

The Minister knows that language is critical, and that “careless” just does not convey the seriousness of the crime. I agree.

The issue of dangerous driving is hugely important to the safety and wellbeing of all our constituents. The Government have been making the right noises and the right promises. So many deaths are caused by human actions: speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, the use of drink and drugs, or using a mobile phone—all deliberate human actions. Such actions are perhaps not criminal or serious enough for people to be charged with the most serious offence, but road deaths are caused by human beings who make decisions and do not care about the rest of us. Those people need to be brought to boot.