It’s been a busy festive period for road safety consultations. In the last few week’s major consultations on tougher penalties for the most serious driving offences have arrived alongside one for allowing learners on motorways.
Supporting the learners on motorways proposal is something of a no brainer for a road safety charity. The new regulations would only allow tuition with an Approved Driving Instructor (ADI) in a dual controlled car and would be entirely voluntary. No need to travel from Orkney for a motorway test!
Although motorways are our safest roads they do require unique skills which it seems we are all supposed to gain by experience. Given the predominance of tailgating and middle lane hogging at the top of the nation’s driving hate list, it seems not all drivers do! But, don’t forget that anyone can benefit from a motorway refresher or confidence boost tomorrow with an IAM RoadSmart module.
The Justice Department consultation is much more complex and nuanced. On the face of it putting ‘causing death whilst using a motor vehicle’ on the same footing as murder sounds attractive and fair. Ironically this was the case many decades ago when the clamour was to have more specific motoring offences – what goes around comes around!
Victims’ groups do quite rightly feel outrage when courts only ban or fine those convicted of involvement in a fatal crash. The structure of offences that starts with careless driving and rises to causing death by dangerous driving was meant to offer a proportionate response, but also seems to encourage a ‘plea bargain’ culture where a lower charge is applied to ensure a conviction.
The reality is also that the current maximum sentence of 14 years in prison is seldom applied. Sentences are creeping up but even if life is available it may not be used. Bereaved families are also upset when a guilty plea and good behaviour or time spent behind bars leads to a shorter sentence. These are however fundamental principles of our justice system that go well beyond motoring offences.
At IAM RoadSmart we are listening to our members’ views on the government’s proposals through a web poll. Getting the balance right between punishment and prevention is not going to be easy. There is very little evidence that tough penalties make the worst drivers stop and think before committing deliberate offences.
Human error figures highly in most crashes and we don’t really know if fear of a long prison sentence will solve the problem of momentary lapses or inattention. Thankfully fatal crashes are very rare events but that does mean very few us expect to be involved in one.
At IAM RoadSmart we think that targeted help to change behaviour at the lower end of offending is a more positive approach than ever increasing penalties in an environment when few feel they might get caught. Speed awareness and drink drive rehabilitation courses do appear to reduce reoffending. The evidence for the effect of a prison sentence on motoring offenders is less well known. Given the current bad press for our prison service the thought of spending any time behind bars would worry most law abiding drivers. But will that improve their day to day driving - a good topic for future research I think.
Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research