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The Government must take action, review flawed legal definitions and make our roads safer for everyone

4 min read

Labour MP Ruth Cadbury marks Road Safety Week by calling for the legal definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving to be reviewed.

This week is Road Safety Week and across the country communities, emergency services, schools and workplaces are coming together to promote road safety. 

On Tuesday, I led a Westminster Hall Debate with John Lamont MP, about Road Justice and the Legal Framework. This debate demonstrated wide cross party support for a wider review of our road traffic offences framework. Now it’s time for action from Government. 
Despite years of steady decline until 2012, the number of people killed on our roads has now remained stagnant for 5 years. In 2017, 1,793 people died on our roads: 5 lives cut short every day; another family torn apart by grief every few hours. However, our legal framework repeatedly lets down the victims of road crime.

As lawmakers, we also have a responsibility to make our roads as safe as possible, and it’s therefore heartening that MPs came together to call for a review of the seriously flawed road traffic offences.

We need a justice system which effectively deters and deals with those who behave dangerously on our roads and put others’ lives at risk. This is key to building a society which sees road deaths for what they are: avoidable, unnecessary and unacceptable tragedies, not merely ‘accidents’ or a normal part of life. 

Many valuable points were raised in the debate, but two issues stood out as receiving particularly strong cross party support: the use of the ‘exceptional hardship’ loophole in respect of driving disqualifications and the inconsistencies delivered by the current definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving. 

The ‘exceptional hardship’ loophole allows drivers to avoid a driving disqualification after receiving 12 penalty points on their license. Over 10,000 drivers in the UK currently hold valid license despite having accrued 12 or more penalty points.

This poses a severe risk to other road users, as demonstrated by one tragic case, on the 12th August 2015, when Lee Martin was killed when Christopher Gard drove into him while texting on his mobile phone. Gard had received 6 previous convictions for using a mobile phone at the wheel, and had twice avoided conviction by attending a training course. Despite his repeated offences, he had avoided a driving ban by claiming that this would cause him ‘exceptional hardship’. In the end it was Lee Martin and his family who paid the price for Gard’s inability to put down his phone at the wheel. 

The second issue raised by my colleagues was the two tier definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving, within the legal framework. Many colleagues were concerned about the lack of consistency in the application of these charges. Cycling UK’s recent report ‘Failure to see what’s there to be seen’ exposes a legal framework which not only fails to deliver justice, but also seems unable to produce anything resembling consistent outcomes. 

For example, in one case a driver failed to see a motorcyclist when pulling out from a petrol station, and they were successfully prosecuted for dangerous driving, but in another, a driver who failed to see a cyclist in a well-lit street, and hit them from behind was acquitted of all charges. In a third case, a driver failed to see a cyclist coming towards them in good weather on a straight road. They moved into the opposite lane to overtake two vehicles, where they hit the cyclist head-on. This was deemed only ‘careless’ driving. This lack of clarity in the definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving undermines the entire framework around road traffic offences. 

Various campaign groups such as Cycling UK, Brake and RoadPeace are all united in calling for a review of these flawed legal definitions, and 13,000 members of the public have written to the government in support of this campaign over the past 11 weeks.

The vast majority of us do not drive or ride in such a way as to deliberately put others at risk, but the reality is that only a short laspe of attention from a driver, or driving a few miles above the speed limit, can lead to utterly tragic consequences. The Law must send a clear message that any driving which puts others’ lives at risk is simply not acceptable. Yet the current road traffic offences, weakened by inconsistencies and legal loopholes, fail to send that important message.

It’s time for the Government to take action, as they promised back in 2014, to resolve these serious flaws, and to make our roads safer for everyone.

Ruth Cadbury is the Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth. She is a member of the Transport Select Committee

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