Thursday 5 February 2015

Criminal Prosecutions arising from Road Traffic Collisions

Yesterday the 'watchdogs' for both the CPS and the Police produced a report following their joint inspection of the investigation and prosecution of fatal road traffic incidents.  I gave a short interview to the BBC about this report which can be seen here:

Having naturally read the report before talking about it, there is more I would have wished to say had time been available.

The report is of course welcome in that it pulls no punches in demanding a better standard of decision making and communication with families following fatal road traffic collisions.  Indeed I would add that a better standard is also required in non-fatal collisions and even in non collision incidents too, but it makes sense to start at the top.  If that cannot be got right there is little hope for other cases.

Having said that I found the report disappointing in a number of respects.  There appeared to be a degree of complacency about the drop in casualty rates without a recognition first that this drop is much lower for cyclists than it is is for other classes of road user and second that the number of people seriously injured is stubbornly high.  This suggests that the recorded improvements in fatalities are due far more to high quality NHS trauma teams and less to any improvement in driver behaviour.  Given the report's acceptance that the number of fatalities  of cyclists 'has attracted much media attention', it is very disappointing that limitations in data are said to have prevented investigating the way in which the deaths of cyclists are treated compared to other road users.  This is a great shame and I hope their recommendation about improving monitoring and analysis of data is followed and permits the public and charities, as well as watchdogs, to see what differences there are.  After all we are all given every encouragement by the State to cycle and protection from the agencies of the State seems the very least we should be entitled to expect in return.

There is, however, no evidence from the report that the Inspectors felt the status of the victim as a vulnerable road user to be relevant to the way in which investigations and prosecutions should be handled.

As it was, only 2 of the 72 cases investigated in this report involved cyclists.  More (21) involved pedestrians but the Inspectors were critical of overcharging (yes, overcharging) in 4 of those cases that involved running down a pedestrian at night because prosecutors and police 'imposed an unrealistic standard of driving on the suspects in these cases'.    I do not of course know the details of these cases but the fact that the Inspectors said that of all 4 cases involving pedestrians at night leaves me very uneasy about their approach to vulnerable road users.

Further the Inspectors criticised the CPS prosecutor who oversaw the fatal cases in his area (and so seems to have been the rare example of a specialist) for encouraging the police to submit to him all road traffic cases involving a fatality where there was a surviving third party.  As I said in my interview, it seems eminently sensible to have a specialist prosecutor look at cases that the police are inclined to dismiss with 'NFA', at the very least where the victim is a vulnerable road user.   The sad case of Michael Mason epitomises what can go wrong if this does not occur.  This criticised prosecutor was in my view exhibiting good practice which the Inspectors ought to have recommended be followed elsewhere.

So there is more condemnation of over than of undercharging in the report.  Which is odd since of the number of cases investigated (72) it appears from the tables that 60 cases resulted in charges of which (it seems) 49 were taken to trial and there were 44 convictions.  These figures are not remotely consistent with overcharging.  The DPP was being given a grilling on Radio 4 this morning over the decision to pursue a FGM case.  I pass no comment on the wisdom of that decision, but she was right to point out that the test for a prosecution is not the same as a test for a conviction.  However in traffic cases (alone) it seems that guilt must be as plain as a pike-staff before a prosecution is ventured.

Ultimately it is outcomes that matter and I fear this report has lost an opportunity to stiffen the resolve of the police and CPS to ensure that dangerous and careless drivers (particularly those that drive dangerously or carelessly in the vicinity of vulnerable road users) are made to account for their conduct.

Conversely I should add that performance is patchy by area.  I have encountered traffic officers and CPS prosecutors who really are committed to doing their utmost to make the roads safer for us.  I am not sure this report gives those delivering best practice sufficient encouragement.

Finally there is perhaps an irony that this report was produced on the same day that Transport for London approved the N-S and E-W Cycle Super Highways in London.  I urge that, great though that victory is, we do not let it detract from the importance of deterring bad driving.  We have a very long way to go before we can just not use the roads if we do not like the quality of driving encountered there.