Friday, 6 November 2015
The first oral evidence session for the Transport Select Committee's Inquiry into Road Traffic Law Enforcement was on Monday 2nd November. I tuned in with anticipation as I am very much in favour of Law Enforcement action particularly against those who endanger cyclists. The Inquiry's terms of reference include the impact of road traffic law enforcement on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. As indicated in my previous post the Committee has received some powerful written evidence from those who feel that when they cycle they are entirely unprotected by the law.
Two police officers, an Inspector and a Superintendent, nobly traveled up from the Midlands and the West Country to assist. Whether the Metropolitan Police or the ACPO lead for traffic policing were invited or will be attending on a later date, I do not know. It would be good to know that someone of Commissioner or Chief Constable rank who has some responsibility for allocating resources and setting policy takes the subject matter of this Inquiry seriously. After all there are those, like me, who assert that the police are on occasion letting down cyclists in a serious way with their lack of law enforcement against those who endanger, threaten, harm or even kill cyclists on our roads.
What particularly animated the Committee members appeared to be parking and especially the length of time roads were closed following a collision. No doubt important topics but arguably peripheral to the terms of reference which were particularly upon enforcing the law against dangerous and careless drivers (a subject which I believe merits undiluted scrutiny).
The Chair though did bring the discussion around to cyclists in the closing minutes of the police evidence. the evidence went as follows and I have annotated my thoughts thus:
Q39 Chair: I want to ask you about cyclists on the road. Cyclists feel that their safety is not considered sufficiently. What do you do if you think that a motorist is acting in a way that endangers a cyclist? What actions are taken?
Superintendent Keasey: They are subject to the law.
I think he means motorists that endanger cyclists are subject to the law rather than cyclists are subject to the law but both are true and neither quite answers the question.
Q40 Chair: They are subject to the law, but is the law used? Spot on!
Superintendent Keasey: Yes, where we have the evidence and where it is corroborated. The difficulty is often that it is one person’s word against another’s, just like it would be for one person driving a car against someone driving another car. There is no different standard in the way we approach it and whether we prosecute or not.
Most criminal trials will involve a Court determining whose word is credible and whose is not. A conflict of evidence is not of itself sufficient reason to take no action. This is what was said about bringing prosecutions for sexual offences 20 years ago but nobody in that field would suggest this today. Some accounts are inherently credible some denials are inherently incredible. There is no formal requirement for corroboration and this is too easy a basis to dismiss virtually all complaints of bad driving.
There should be a very different standard depending upon whether the suspect has (nearly) hit a person on a bicycle or whether that suspect has (nearly) hit a Chieftain Tank. It is a serious aggravating feature of a bad driving offence that the suspect has endangered a vulnerable road user and the police ought to recognise that and act accordingly.
Q41 Chair: Cyclists feel that there is not enough concern about their safety. Are you disputing that?
Superintendent Keasey: No; there is concern. If you look at cyclists and pedestrians, they are probably more likely at the moment due to their numbers to be subject to serious injury. They are quite rightly allowed to use the road, and they should be, but it is the education of drivers. If you look abroad to Holland they are very used to it. They are often cyclists and motorists so they are much more aware of the gap you need to give space between a cyclist and a car on a left-hand turn.
If there is concern what then is to be done about it ? Rates of injury are probably not as bad as the Superintendent suggests and are in any event not the point of the question. Perhaps we should be grateful for the expression of view that we should be allowed to use the road but (whatever prescience there might have been of a notorious forthcoming Metro article) nobody in mainstream politics thinks otherwise and it is slightly worrying that a police officer feels the need to state it. Having ruled out banning cyclists from the roads the answer then is not prosecution but 'education of drivers'. Education along the lines of Carlton Reid and Chris Boardman's how to overtake a cyclist film is certainly to be lauded. However this Inquiry is about enforcement and leaving it to cyclists to educate drivers is not enough. We have all experienced aggressive deliberately bad driving that would not have occurred in the presence of the police. The reality is that bad drivers know they can get away with punishment passes, brake testing, tail gating, left hooking, speeding and other deliberate behaviours that endanger cyclists.
Q42 Chair: Inspector Cox, are you concerned about that?
Inspector Cox: From a rural point of view we do not have huge cycle issues. There is a corroboration issue when we get complaints from cyclists, even with cameras potentially. If there is not a corroboration factor it becomes one word against another, so the chance of prosecution is very slim. Certainly if it is detected or witnessed by a police officer, action is always taken, but it is a challenge. Although I represent a rural area, we have Bristol and Swindon in there, some fairly big urban areas, and we do not have an issue with our cyclists getting killed. Perhaps our drivers are more aware because they drive in a rural area a lot of the time, where they have to be a little bit more aware. In places like London, clearly there is a lot more pedestrian and cycle traffic meeting vehicular traffic. We do not get that quite so much in rural areas.
The answer then is 'no' he is not concerned about that at all. A pity as cyclists are being killed and injured in his area and tragically one young man died cycling in his patch the very next day. He added to what the Superintendent said about corroboration by saying that lack of corroboration was an issue even with evidence from cameras. This is quite incomprehensible and proves the point that the police are exhibiting inappropriate reluctance to prosecute offenders even where there is clear evidence.
Apparently the behavior has to be 'detected or witnessed' by a police officer in which event problems with corroboration simply melt away and action is always taken. I would welcome specific evidence of cases where such action has been taken. I have never come across such a case and suspect they are very rare.