The secretary of state for transport was generous with his time at yesterday’s (11/5/11) launch of the Decade of Action on Road Safety. Not only did Philip Hammond MP unveil the government’s new strategic framework for road safety in person, he then stayed on for quite a lengthy question and answer session. Nick Rawlings, newsfeed editor, reports on what the minister said (and didn’t say) about how road safety will be delivered under the coalition government.
The minister believes that the vast majority of motorists are law abiding people and do not set out to deliberately break the law when they are behind the wheel; but that many of us are prone to occasional ‘lapses’ which lead to sub-standard and dangerous driving. The government believes the way to address these lapses is to ‘nudge’ people, to work with them to help improve their skills.
The phrase that he used to describe this process was: “We will work with the grain of human nature, not against it.” He specifically stated that in the past he feels there has been too much focus on the issue of speed alone.
This process of ‘nudging’ will be carried out through a combination of driver retraining via police-approved education courses for low-level offenders, reforms to the regime for disqualified drivers which will require them to retake the driving test, and a new post test driver training course.
Rather than prosecuting the majority for their lapses, he says the government will focus its efforts on cracking down on the ‘hard core of dangerous road users who are a danger to themselves and others’. He spoke of enhancing the enforcement scheme and making full use of existing powers to seize and crush vehicles.
He did not, however, make it clear how the police will go about this process at a time when their resources, like everyone else’s, are being squeezed – other than to say that the new fixed penalty notice for careless driving offences will ‘free up police resources to concentrate on the worst offenders’.
Mr Hammond also touched on a number of other subjects including: the new drugalyser and introducing a new offence relating to drug driving; introducing proportionate punishment for uninsured driving; no overarching national road safety targets, but instead devolving decision making about priorities to local communities, including local speed limits and local traffic management schemes; and enabling communities to compare their road safety performance with other communities.
Interestingly, at no point during his presentation did he mention the kind of ‘cradle to grave’ education schemes that road safety officers have traditionally delivered. Neither did he mention road safety publicity.
War on motorist
In the Q&A session, Mr Hammond was asked about his oft quoted remark about ending the ‘war on the motorist’, which he made soon after taking post – did he stand by this comment? His answer was unequivocal. “The great majority of drivers seek to drive responsibly, and having a war against the majority will not work. Instead we need to upskill and ‘nudge’ drivers who lapse occasionally, while at the same time focusing police resources on the worst offenders.”
Mr Hammond added that many drivers think that there has been too much focus on minor transgressions that are easy to prosecute, while more serious offences go undetected. This was the ‘war on motorists’ that he wants to end – and yes, he absolutely stuck by his original comments.
‘Careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving
Mr Hammond was asked whether there is a clear enough distinction between ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving – is there a danger that introducing a fixed penalty notice for ‘careless’ driving could downplay the seriousness of ‘dangerous’ driving?
Mr Hammond said that the government’s intention is to devolve power back to the professionals – in this case the police. “I have no doubt that an experienced police officer will be able to distinguish between the two offences,” he said. He pointed out that over the past decade there has been a significant decline in the number of prosecutions for careless driving, and that the new fixed penalty notice is designed to address this by making the process of prosecution simpler.
What does success look like?
In the absence of national road safety targets in the new strategic framework, Mr Hammond was asked, ‘What does success look like?’. While expressing the government’s desire to see a continuing decline in casualties across the UK, Mr Hammond said that it would be up to local communities to set their own goals, and to hold local service providers to account, adding that some areas of the country have ‘quite a bit of catching up to do’.
The next question came from a police officer who supported the new fixed penalty notice for careless driving, but had concerns about implementing new legislation about drug driving. This is a complex area, he said, and is there a danger that this could turn out to be something of a ‘feeding frenzy’ for lawyers seeking to challenge the new drug drive laws. Mr Hammond acknowledged that this could be a complex process, given the large number of drugs that people use. He admitted there is no ‘silver bullet’ offence, but that the new drugalyser equipment and changes to the law will make it easier for police to prosecute.
Funding for research
Finally, he was asked about the reduction in government funding for the kind of research that is vital in order to develop evidence-led approaches to road safety. He rather dismissed this point, saying that the pattern of research has changed, with less government-led studies and more involvement from the private sector. He cited research by vehicle manufacturers to improve vehicle safety and support drivers, and the use of technology to make the roads network safer.
There is no doubt that Mr Hammond is an articulate man, and that he presented the new strategic framework in a clear and competent way. His relaxed manner and the ease and skill with which he dealt with the Q&A session was impressive.
And few will argue with the basic principle of wishing to rid our roads of the most dangerous minority, while at the same time upskilling the majority of drivers.
His presentation perhaps poses more questions than answers for road safety officers, in terms of their role going forward. There is little doubt that the RSO’s role is going to change; the challenge for the profession now is to work out how it can best contribute in an environment where increased enforcement and driver re-training appear the be the key pillars in the government’s efforts to change driver behaviour.
Editor, Road Safety GB newsfeed
Click here to read the DfT’s press release: ‘Better enforcement and education to cut road deaths’.
Click here to read the DfT’s report: ‘Strategic Framework for Road Safety’.