Wednesday 30 June 2010

Crime and Punishment

Our new Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, is today calling for a reduction in prison numbers with a greater concentration on alternatives to custodial sentences.  I am no criminologist and have no special insight into whether, in general, we are locking up unnecessarily large numbers of criminals for unnceceasarily long periods when perhaps the risks of reoffending can be addressed in other, less expensive, ways.

Readers of my blog will perhaps think me vindictive about motorists who kill cyclists, and it is true that my experiences on the road combined with my horror on finding far worse that has happened to others, does lead me to a firm conclusion that those who commit serious motoring crimes should be dealt with harshly.  I believe that, neither because I am vindictive nor because I lack compassion for people who have sullied otherwise blameless lives with an isolated period of stupidity nor even because I think stern punishment will prevent the individual from committing another offence.  It is purely because there needs to be a strong deterrent to bad driving so as to influence the behaviour of all motorists.

I am no anthropologist but I suspect as a species we have evolved to take very great care for our own preservation.  The pain mechanism and, as we gained higher levels of consciousness, a disinclination to die have, I am sure, bestowed a huge evolutionary advantage.  Likewise the urge, just as strong, to safeguard our children and with descending degrees of strength, our other relatives; those we know; members of our tribe and so on.  However there has not been much of an evolutionary advantage to giving thought to the preservation or well being of complete strangers, and especially those of another tribe (with whom we appear to have evolved to be quite warlike).  We have only in very modern times been more sensitive to, say, the bombing of enemy cities and have set up International War Crimes Tribunals and the like to deter the worst excesses of war.

You may, by now, feel that I have gone completely off the point.  However my experience on the roads leads me to feel that to some motorists, because I am on a bicycle, I am not just a complete stranger but worse am a member of a different tribe.   Even if there is no active hostility (and sometimes there is!) I just do not matter.

If in a motor/bicycle collision the motorist were at significant risk of suffering severe trauma I have no doubt there would be fewer such collisions.  Why?  Because the brain has been fine tuned by millions of years of evolution to take extreme care for self-preservation.  However the motorist is virtually immune from death or other trauma when his car runs down a bicycle.  If only one person could survive a motor/bicycle collision it would in many ways be fairer if that were the innocent party, but that cannot be arranged.  The best our imperfect legal system can do is to impose a tough sanction.  Once the brain thinks 'If I do not notice or pass this cyclist with care and run him down, I may end up in prison' then, at least, we kick start something in the brain which chimes with powerful instincts of self-preservation.

Tough sentencing in these circumstances is, in my view, likely to save lives and is therefore required.  Whilst looking at non-custodial penalties though, periods of disqualification need to be looked at again.  Parliament has authorised Courts to ban drivers for life but they shy away from long driving bans for fear that they may lead to non-observance of the ban.


  1. I concur with everything you have stated, punishment is a penance for a is seen as acceptable to have road rage.

    It is a self defeating issue...people dont cycle because the roads are overcrowded and dangerous....but if these very people were to stop driving the 10 miles or less to work the roads would not be overcrowded and dangerous!

    What is needed is education and REAL sustainable transport policy backed up with suitable penalties..

    I see at least 3-4 counts of dangerous and illegal driving daily...but as a law abiding citizen, there is no way for me to report and stop the culprits...

  2. If a driver is going to continue driving regardless of whether they're banned or not, then the court should just ban them anyway.

    That way they're committing an offence for which they can be further arrested, and/or fined if caught. We need the idea of driving as a 'privilege', that can be forfeit, and not a 'right'.

  3. If we don't take people's driving licenses away for bad driving because they might carry on driving anyway, why do we bother with the seemingly-almost-pointless one-time-only driving test and driving licences?

    The driving licence is awarded to people who have demonstrated that they are capable of driving safely on public roads. A licence is required because driving is a difficult thing to learn to do, and because drivers can (and sadly do) cause much death and serious injury by their actions. If a driver demonstrates that they are not, in fact, capable of driving safely, surely society must take their licence to drive away from them?

    If someone accidentally shot someone with a licensed gun, would the courts decide that they could keep the gun licence because they'd keep shooting even if their licence was taken away?

    @John Berry: Sussex Police have the excellent Operation Crackdown website, where cases of dangerous, anti-social and illegal driving can be reported. They have taken real action against repeat offenders, and even uncovered other criminal activity linked to motoring offences.