An administrative affair

driving licence

I have a licence to drive. The state permits me to operate a vehicle on the public highway. To get this privilege, I had to demonstrate competence: to pass a driving test administered by the state. It’s the state’s job to ensure that when you use the public highway the motor vehicles you share it with are operated by people of established competence.

Everyone who has passed a driving test knows there are many ways to bring your competence into question. Top of the list is colliding — with a tree, a gatepost, a parked car or (whisper it) another road user. No one expects to pass a driving test in which they have collided with something or someone.

Driving examiners protect the public from drivers who are not demonstrably competent. Police officers investigating highway collisions should be empowered to do the same. In real life as much as in a driving test, a collision brings a driver’s competence into question. Investigating officers should as a matter of routine take and keep the licences of drivers involved in a collision until the investigation — or a subsequent court hearing — has removed the question over their competence. (This suspension should be for a minimum period — at  least 24 hours — to remove pressure on officers to resolve the matter on the spot.)

It would be a great inconvenience for drivers who collide, but there is no question here of reversal of the burden of proof or of punishment without trial. This is an administrative matter, protecting the public from drivers whose competence is currently in question. No right is being infringed. A licence to drive is a privilege requiring a demonstration of competence. It should be routinely suspended while that competence is being investigated. Who supports sharing our roads with drivers whose competence is in question? 

It is a sad thought, but the certainty of an immediate end to one’s journey and the added inconvenience of getting one’s vehicle impounded if no one else is available to drive it, would do more to improve driving standards than the currently remote prospect of conviction for a driving offence.


RDRF Conference 2014

Attending the Road Danger Reduction Forum’s annual conference this weekend has moved me to resume writing here. If you weren’t at Southwark Town Hall on Saturday, here is what stood out to me.

Tony, Lord Berkeley, RDRF president, chairing the morning session, mentioned the Labour Party’s commitment to a new Transport Bill. He spoke also of the need for “a complete review of existing legislation” regarding conduct on the roads. A faint hope, perhaps, but worth nourishing.

Bob Davis, RDRF chair, was encouraged that the conference was booked out soon after it was announced. He compared the ‘road safety’ lobby’s focus on protecting “vulnerable road users” to Mae West’s observation:

Every man I meet wants to protect me.
I can’t figure out what from.

Most problems on the road stem from otherwise good people doing bad things. the culture of carelessness and its indulgence is what needs tackling. It begins with ourselves: recognising our own prejudices and working against them. We need to campaign to

stigmatise behaviour that endangers others

Close overtaking is the main source of KSIs.

Amy Aeron-Thomas of RoadPeace spoke eloquently to the statistics. In London in 2013, 2,000 people killed or injured in collisions. A person on foot 180 times more likely to be hurt than in a car. Police issued 7,275 Fixed-Penalty Notices for speeding, but only 5 boroughs averaged more than a single FPN a day for exceeding 30 mph. London sees only 2 FPNs/day for dangerous driving and 6 for careless driving. Ten times more charges brought for drunken driving than for dangers driving. Magistrates do not ban drivers for using phones while driving.

The definition of dangerous driving refers to disregard of other road users The definition of careless driving does not. RoadPeace asked the CPS if that implies disregard of other road users gets prosecuted as dangerous driving. The CPS says not.

National crime statistics: what gets included in the totals shows a bias to crimes against property. Dangerous and careless driving is included, but not drunken driving or hit-and-runs. Dangerous driving is excluded from statistics for violent crime. No count is kept of victims of road crimes.

Our culture of indulging carelessness behind the wheel is reflected in statistics that fail to capture the extent of road crimes and the damage inflicted.

Brenda Puech for Living Streets spoke of the 80 hit-and-run incidents a week in London, a shocking 20% of all collisions; of 400 KSIs a year from hit-and-runs.

The everyday normality of people getting killed on the roads.

She reviewed police analyses of the causes of collisions. Investigating officers more commonly blame pedestrians for failing to see cars than drivers for failing to see pedestrians.

Charlie Lloyd for the London Cycling Campaign spoke of 10% of cycling KSIs being caused by ‘dooring’ – careless opening of car doors. He examined Met. Police claims of a “crackdown” on road danger in its 2013  Operation Safeway and found of 14,269 FPNs issued only 93 were for careless driving.

Sgt Simon Clarke of the Met. Police spoke warmly of the new Road and Transport Command, with 2,300 officers, more than double the 1,000 officers of the former Safer Traffic Command. His enthusiasm for his work was encouraging.

My take-away from the conference: there is scope for an umbrella campaign against the culture of carelessness. It should be conducted on behalf of the general public, not ‘pedestrians’, ‘cyclists’ or anyone else who can be labeled as a special-interest group.

It might as well start by challenging  representations of Mr Toad as high-spirited and lovable:


No more Toad on the Road! 

Killer questions

Judge John DeedThe driver whose lorry killed Eilidh Cairns in Notting Hill in 2009 was fined £200 for driving with uncorrected defective eyesight. Private Eye reports he subsequently failed an eyesight test and had his licence revoked. Then last year he got it back. This year he was questioned by the police after his lorry struck and killed 97-year-old Nora Gutmann on the Marylebone Road.

The Cairns family has asked the High Court to quash the the “accidental death” verdict and order a new inquest. They argue that “There was a failure to consider the wider impact of Eilidh’s death and the huge problem facing cyclists in London.” From

However, Jonathan Hough, representing the coroner, insisted that the incident was of a type that is “tragically common,” and that no element of it would lead the coroner to consider that it “illustrated a systemic problem or that it might call for some specific response.”

Here we see what follows from the vandalisation of our public space. The roads are dangerous. Sadly, some cyclists who insist on riding on them will die. People operating dangerous vehicles have a duty of care, but not the kind of duty of care that delays traffic.

Note the incoherence of the argument. Such “incidents” are “tragically common” – therefore there is no question of a systemic problem.

Cycling deaths are normal and require no wider inquiry by a coroner. Where is Judge John Deed now we need him most?

Private prosecutions

Rumpole Of The BaileyIn changing culture, law has multiple uses.

The most obvious is normative: new laws redefine what behaviour is acceptable. It did not require many prosecutions for racial abuse to teach us to guard our tongues.

There are also ways to use the existing law. Existing law may encode rights ignored by custom. Many cyclists see police reluctance to prosecute incidents of ‘road rage’ as an example of this.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service do not have a complete monopoly on criminal prosecutions. It is possible for private parties to prosecute where the authorities decline to do so.

One hears tales of motorists deliberately endangering cyclists, where the police fail to prosecute despite evidence that seems ample. Perhaps LCC should establish a legal fund to mount some exemplary private prosecutions?

Should collisions be illegal?

I had an eloquent essay in mind for this, but perhaps it’s better just to pose the question.

Society tolerates collisions as ‘accidents’; police bring charges only when they find clear evidence of wrongdoing. But hey, there was a collision. Make that the offence.

Declare a duty of care that is proportional to the danger posed. If an SUV is five times more likely than a conventional car to kill a pedestrian in a collision, then weight the scales of justice with a greater duty of care.

Extend the same duty of care to all road users – and let cyclists ride on the footway.

Don’t suppose that every collision would be prosecuted, no more than every instance of racial abuse gets prosecuted. But do remember what the possibility of getting prosecuted has done to change race relations in the last half century.

Law has an important normative role in changing culture.