Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions

Ben Bradshaw Excerpts
Monday 15th November 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the petitioners who brought this subject to Parliament for debate, which reflects a growing concern in the country and, indeed, the House about how, increasingly, when it comes to road crime, the punishment does not fit the crime. Offenders all too often get off with a paltry fine, a suspended sentence or a ridiculously short driving ban, if they get a ban at all, while the loved ones of the victims are left devastated and grieving for the rest of their lives.

The debate is particularly timely because the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is going through the House as we speak, which gives the Government an opportunity to address these concerns and put right these injustices. However, I am afraid to say that, so far, I have seen little evidence, apart from warm words, that they are serious about doing so. They recommend a number of changes to some of the penalties, which may go some way to addressing some of the historical concerns around road safety and road crime, depending on how they are implemented, and may deal with some of the most egregious road crimes. However, they do not do anything to tackle the much larger number of fatal and serious injury cases that do not always attract the headlines but treat as careless driving what is actually dangerous driving and are over-reliant on prison sentences rather than driving bans, allowing offenders all too often to escape a ban by pleading exceptional circumstances, as well as severely limiting the sentences for causing serious injury, rather than death.

In my view, the Government could easily do three things—I hope they will—to go a lot of the way to addressing some of the concerns of the families here today and more widely. First, they could bring forward the full review of road traffic offences and sentences promised nearly eight years ago—not the partial review referred to in the House of Lords last week, not the limited proposals in that Bill: nearly eight years ago, we were promised by the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), a full review of road traffic offences and sentences. We need that. I ask the Minister where it is.

Secondly, as we heard, the Government could address the scandalously low maximum sentence for hit and run. I do not think that many people out there realise that the maximum sentence for hit and run, or leaving the scene of an accident, is six months in jail. As we heard from Lord Paddick in the other place, that might be appropriate for scratching somebody’s car but not for leaving somebody seriously injured or dying in the road, often with the motive of getting off being tested for drink or drugs or getting away with the crime altogether.

I have not heard a convincing argument from the Government as to why they cannot adopt my amendment to considerably increase the sentence for that offence. If there is one, I would like to hear it. I do not accept the argument that doing so would offer a way of prosecuting people unfairly for accidents that they were not responsible for. Leaving the scene of an accident, or a driver leaving someone who they know is probably seriously injured or dead, is a serious enough offence in itself to warrant a longer sentence than six months. We heard some tragic cases, but there are many more cases that we do not hear about. The number of hit-and-run cases has increased exponentially in the last 10 years, and we have to do something about that.

Thirdly, I hope that the Government will look again at how, far too often, drivers get away without a driving ban by pleading exceptional circumstances. One case that sums that up well is that of cyclist Lee Martin, who was killed by Christopher Gard in 2015. That was the ninth time in six years that Gard had been caught using a mobile while driving. He had been convicted six times, fined and sent on a driver retraining course, but he had escaped a ban by pleading exceptional circumstances before going on to kill Lee. He should have been disqualified.

In the last 10 years, 80,000 cases have occurred where road criminals should have received a ban but were let off after pleading exceptional circumstances. Courts have accepted as exceptional circumstances the need to do the school run and the effect a ban might have on a relationship—that brings the law into disrepute. The Government should do something about it. Again, I tabled an amendment to the Bill in Committee that would do that, but they have not accepted it. I implore them to look at it again when it comes back to the House of Commons.

In many cases, a driving ban is a more appropriate punishment than locking in prison someone who does not pose any danger to the public except when they are on the roads. We do not use driving bans nearly enough in this country and we do not have long enough bans when they are used.

The Government are in danger of missing an historic opportunity to use the Bill to address some of the dreadful injustices that we have heard about, and the many others that we have not heard about. To be behind the wheel of a vehicle is to be in charge of a lethal weapon. For far too long, our laws and courts have treated driving as a human right rather than a privilege to be earned and, if needed for others’ safety, to be taken away. I hope that the Government will think again and not squander that opportunity.

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Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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That is something that the Department has been looking at, and that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, has been talking to families about. We are keen to see more evidence on the reasons behind failures to stop and report such serious incidents. As I have said, it is clear that the majority of incidents that are treated as a failure to stop and report are low-level motoring incidents; however, we need to gain more evidence on the most serious cases.

In some of the cases cited today, drivers said that they felt they hit a fox or a deer. Various other people panicked. A range of justifications have been used. Whether they are true justifications or not, it is important that we understand the situation more. The University of Leicester carried out some research in 2017 on behalf of the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, but we have to build the evidence base to ensure that whatever we do to reform the offences does not have unintended consequences, but strengthens the law and gets families the justice that they deserve.

Linking death or serious injury with a failure to stop as a cause, however well intentioned, could risk creating an unfairly severe offence. The law already imposes severe penalties for vehicle owners who cause death or serious injury, but a clear causal link needs to be provided between the driver’s behaviour and the outcome. The proposals in the e-petitions essentially equate the seriousness of a failure to stop with culpability for causing death or injury. I repeat that that would create serious anomalies with other offences, which could result in potential injustices.

I want to be clear, however, that the Government are not dismissing the concerns that have been raised. We are aware of the traumatic effects of such incidents, which we have heard so eloquently expressed by Members from all parties today. We agree that there might be something wrong with the law as it stands; it may not be working as well as it should in this area. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate from what I have already said that this is a very complex area, and any change in the law should fit within the current driving offence framework. Officials from my Department have been exploring options that could be pursued in this area. They include, but are not limited to: the available penalties; how the offence operates; how the offence is dealt with in the sentencing guidance; and the potential for a new offence as part of a longer term and wider approach to road safety. I am sure that officials will consider the points raised by Members from across the House in the debate today as part of their considerations of that offence. As the next step, the Department is considering conducting a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act. Although details are still being worked on, I expect this will include failures to stop and report as an offence.

Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Bradshaw
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Could the Minister possibly address the question of where the full review of offences and penalties has reached? Is that what he was talking about? He seems to be suggesting a call for evidence on just a few areas, but we were promised a full review. Could he also say something about the use of exemptions to get off bans; is that involved in this call for evidence? It is an egregious problem.

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Government committed to carry out this review of road traffic offences in 2014. A review of the most serious offences was carried out in 2017; the outcome of that review has fed into the measures that we are bringing forward as part of the police, crime, sentencing and courts Bill that was referred to by a number of hon. Members. Baroness Vere is looking at that and seeing how we could potentially go further. The further call for evidence would seek to build on the measures that we have already identified, and are bringing forward as part of the Bill—that would be in addition to the steps we have already taken.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for what they have said; their contributions are being listened to by officials in the Department for Transport and across Government. This is an area that we have to get right. I especially pay tribute to the families who have come here and taken the time to share their stories with right hon. and hon. Members.