Road Justice – tolerating the intolerable

Every week in Bristol someone is either killed or seriously injured in road traffic incidents. If this happened on a building site it would be closed down. If one or two people were killed or injured at an amusement park there would be a HSE inquiry. On our roads these figures, and the pain and loss they represent, are accepted as the result of inevitable “accidents” rather than the predictable and avoidable incidents which they are.

Why do we tolerate this?

How can it be that 9 out of 10 cases will not be prosecuted, even when the police say the driver is at fault?

Our Road Justice group has recently provided evidence to the parliamentary Transport Committee enquiry on road traffic law enforcement.

This is following the Committee’s launch of the enquiry scrutinising the government’s policies to improve road safety. One of its items of reference “The impact of road traffic law enforcement on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians” is of obvious concern to us.

Despite very short notice, the Bristol Road Justice Group has made a submission to the Committee which can be viewed below. Our evidence drew on the work we have done highlighting the lack of enforcement in relation to incidents on the Gloucester Road and in relation to injuries caused by vehicle doorings (please see our Gloucester Road and Dooring articles).

Evidence to the Transport Select Committee Enquiry on Road Traffic Law Enforcement

From the Bristol Road Justice Group

11th October, 2015

1.0 Introduction

1.1 This evidence has been prepared by the Bristol Road Justice Group. The Group comprises representatives of CTC (the national cycling charity), Bristol Cycling Campaign (a group of local cyclists campaigning for better and safer cycling provision) and Road Peace (a national charity for road crash victims). It has been specifically produced in response to one of your committee of enquiry’s terms of reference “The impact of road traffic law enforcement on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians”

1.2 In Bristol between 1 and 2 people every week are either killed or seriously injured in road traffic incidents. In 2014 78 pedestrians were admitted to hospital due to transport related collisions, 73 of them as a result of collisions involving motorised traffic. In the same year, 48 cyclists were admitted to hospital due to transport related collisions, 44 of them as result of collisions involving motorised traffic. Many more are injured but do not need to be admitted to hospital. In 2013, the last year for which figures are available, 218 pedestrians and 232 cyclists were recorded by the police as being injured in Bristol and we know that these figures underreport the extent of the problem 1.

1.3 In our view, if this level of carnage took place on building sites in Bristol they would be closed down. If this number of people were killed or injured at an amusement park there would be a HSE inquiry. On our roads these figures, and the pain and loss they represent, are accepted as the result of inevitable “accidents” rather than the predictable and avoidable incidents which they are.

1.4 It is our belief that the lack of resources put into road policing and the lack of road traffic law enforcement influences the behaviour of the drivers of motorised vehicles, those who cause the overwhelming percentage of injuries, and therefore contributes to the horrendous levels of death and injury on our roads.

2.0 The Group’s Investigations into Road Traffic Law Enforcement

2.1 For the last two years the Group has been investigating the justice system and Bristol City Council’s responses to road danger. As a result of these investigations it has highlighted a range of issues relating to the police’s response to incidents involving cyclists and the lack of provision by the Council of safe cycling facilities. It has held a series of meetings with Avon and Somerset Police involving officers from Chief Constable down to Inspector level and with the Council. It has also taken up a number of individual cases with the Police where incidents were not or were inadequately recorded, the police did not respond to reports of dangerous driving and failed to prosecute in a timely manner.

2.2 Two studies into road traffic law enforcement have been made. The first concentrated on incidents involving cyclists on a section of the Gloucester Road (A38) in north Bristol. The second on the issue of the careless opening of car doors and cycling incidents.

2.3 Bristol City Council’s Transport Services provided us with summaries of  police reports (STATS 19) on all traffic incidents for the period between September 2009 and September 2012. These showed that on the Gloucester Road there were a total of 60 incidents involving injury to cyclists caused by motorised traffic with the large majority (80%) resulting from the familiar causes – vehicles cutting across, pulling out in front of or running into the back of cyclists, motorists opening doors without looking etc., i.e. drivers not exercising due care and attention. The recorded incidents all resulted in the cyclist needing hospital treatment although, fortunately, only in one case as an in-patient.

2.4 We then investigated the police’s response to what was a clearly identifiable problem with motorists’ behaviour and so picked out a sample of 25 of these incidents. These were all ones which appeared, according to the police’s own reports, to be due to the lack of care and attention of the driver and where a site visit showed no possible mitigating factors for the motorist’s behaviour.

2.5 A series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) were made for details of the numbers of the sample incidents where action was taken by the police. The police’s answers revealed that in only 2 of the 25 incidents were drivers charged with dangerous driving and in a further 1 case a fixed penalty notice was issued. Put another way, in 88% of cases where there appeared to be evidence of the driver being responsible for the incident and injury to a cyclist no action was taken.

2.6 Various “reasons” were put forward for this inaction. Firstly, that there were no independent witnesses. Given the incidents all took place on one of Bristol’s busiest shopping streets it is difficult to believe that much effort went into finding witnesses. Secondly, that in many incidents “no offence had been committed”. This finding would seem to directly contradict the narrative on the police’s own incident reports. A more convincing reason, given unofficially, was that since the cutting of the police’s accident unit, individual officers have responsibility for prosecutions and cases tend to languish at the bottom of busy in-trays.

2.7 Following a number of meetings with senior officers, the police have accepted that improvements to their service are required. They have undertaken to review procedures, instigate training and improve supervision. The Road Justice Group is waiting to see these improvements being translated into changes to cyclists’ experiences on the ground.

2.8 The second investigation was into the issue of the careless opening of car doors and cycling incidents. In some areas of Bristol up to 20% of road traffic incidents resulting in injury to cyclists are the result of motorists carelessly opening vehicle doors. In the last five years for which figures are available, 128 cyclists were injured in this way, 17 of them seriously (defined as requiring a stay in hospital)2, and again due to underreporting these figures are likely to underestimate the extent of the problem1. Injuries from this type of incident are caused not only by impact with the vehicle but also, and often in the more serious and potentially fatal cases, when the cyclist is knocked into the carriageway and the path of following vehicles.

2.9 As it is an offence under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to open “any door of a vehicle on a road so as to injure or endanger any person” we made a further request under the FOI to find out what action the police had taken in relation to these incidents.

2.10 The figures provided by the police showed that in the 128 reported incidents of injury caused to cyclists by motorists referred to above, the police brought prosecutions in only 10 cases (9 of them successfully)3. Given the police’s generally low rate of prosecutions for road traffic incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists and the recent finding that for the Crown Prosecution Service even fatal road traffic incidents “no longer enjoy the priority they had in earlier years”4, these figures are perhaps not surprising however they are of major concern to cycling organisations.

2.11 To date there has been no campaign by the police of enforcement, education and engagement with motorists to address this issue. However in response to our raising the issue the police have stated “We are aware of the issue around car doors and have discussed it with a number of cycling groups. We are committed to pursuing prosecutions for road traffic incidents where injury has been caused wherever possible and would encourage cyclists, as with all road users, to report incidents to us.” The Bristol Road Justice Group is awaiting proposals for action around this issue from the police.

3.0 Concluding Remarks

3.1 It is our belief that the police need to take a much more focused role in driving down road traffic incidents. This should include targeted action on issues such as car doorings and joint action with other agencies to address clusters of incidents.

3.2 Bristol is introducing a rolling programme of 20 mph zones. The benefits for vulnerable road users of lower road speeds are well documented and the effects on levels of injury proven. Initially the police sent out mixed messages as to the enforcement of these new speed limits. They now need to instigate a concerted campaign of enforcement and education to rectify the impression that speeding motorists will not be dealt with.


1 Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: 2013, Department for Transport

2 Source BCC Highway and Transport Management Service. page 34 “Under-reporting of pedal cyclist casualties”

3 FOI response dated 20 April 2015.

4 Joint Inspection of the Investigation and Prosecution of Fatal Road Traffic Incidents, HMIC, 2015.