With more road deaths each year than homicides and terrorist attacks combined we need a greater emphasis on road safety

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Related Theme: Roads policing

With more road deaths each year than homicides and terrorist attacks combined we need a greater emphasis on road safety

Written by a Police Constable, Essex Police

Every year around 1,700 people die on Britain’s roads – and this figure has remained static in recent years after a previous steady decline. In 2022 a Police Foundation report made the link between the failure to cut road deaths and the decline in roads policing, and called for major reinvestment in road safety. A year on there have been positive changes, but much still needs to change if we are to get serious about saving lives.

Published in association with DriveTech, The future of roads policing report made five key recommendations: for roads policing to be included in the Strategic Policing Requirement; for the national roads policing lead to be supported by a full-time secretariat; the government appointment of a Road Safety Commissioner; national implementation of the Vision Zero approach which aims to eliminate all road deaths and serious injuries; and an entity to unite experts from various sectors to anticipate future road dangers. All of these solutions were proposed to ensure that roads policing has the funding and resources it needs to keep pace with rapid changes in technology such as the move towards driverless cars.

One out of these five recommendations one has now been met. In February 2023, the government included roads policing within the Strategic Policing Requirement (SPR). While this is an encouraging step, the inclusion does not go far enough. In 2020 HMICFRS urged that roads policing should be included in the SPR to enable recognition of its importance in reducing road deaths. Yet the focus of the SPR is on using roads policing, not as an end in itself, but as a cross-cutting capability that will help improve the police response to terrorist threats and serious and organised crime. These are considered graver threats even though many more people are killed by collisions than homicides and terrorist attacks each year. Over the past decade an average of about 25,000 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads each year without any significant reductions during this time. Provisional data for 2022 shows this continues to be the case, with an estimated 29,795 people killed or seriously injured in road collisions in Great Britain last year. The inclusion of roads policing in the SPR for the first time is no small step, as it means it is no longer optional for local forces, but but the dangers on our roads still aren’t being classified as a threat to public safety in their own right and we must still fight to justify the value of roads policing.

As a cross-cutting capability, roads policing in the SPR is less scrutinised and lacks specificity about what this means for local force provisions. The SPR states forces should have access to relevant technology and officers should have the necessary training and procedural knowledge for effective roads policing, including driving capabilities and forensic investigative capacities. What it doesn’t do is suggest how local forces should be accountable for roads policing performance and how this should be measured. The SPR notes that roads policing roles range from dedicated officers to dual role officers but it doesn’t make a recommendation on the preferred model, even though the use of dual role officers can lead to the de-prioritisation of roads policing when other functions (often armed policing) are deemed more important.

The SPR inclusion does mean that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will have to reference roads policing in their police and crime plans. Charity Action Vision Zero’s upcoming review found road safety is mentioned in 95 per cent of police and crime plans, up from 77 per cent in their 2020 review. However, the level of inclusion will vary across forces and inclusion is not a guarantee of any significant action – local capabilities will still vary and a Vision Zero approach is not nationally mandated.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) National Roads Policing Strategy 2022-2025 is less equivocal about road safety but similarly ambiguous about local capacity. The strategy’s four pillars of preventing harm and saving lives; tackling crime; driving technology and innovation; and changing minds show a more balanced view of roads policing as necessary for saving lives and tackling crime. It emphasises that more than a decade of high fatalities shouldn’t be acceptable. Promisingly, it also aims to draw on academic insight.

If implemented well the goal of changing minds could aid a reduction in road deaths and injuries. The future of roads policing report outlined research showing road users’ warped perceptions of risk on the roads, for example seeing the consequences of being late as more important than the risk of collision when speeding or underestimating the likelihood they will crash. The right education and deterrents could change this. But again, the NPCC strategy doesn’t offer a great degree of oversight and accountability for local forces – there are no specific goals to meet or measures to work against. Something as simple as setting Vision Zero as a national target could help to rectify this.

Already there are plans in place for the creation of a Partnership Advisory Group for Roads Policing modelled on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies dedicated to roads policing. This would identify future threats and technological changes coming down the track and help ensure roads policing is equipped to deal with them. The group has issued a call for papers for its first meeting. But new bodies like this, however much they are needed, will not fix the problem alone.

The long-awaited Home Office/Department for Transport/NPCC joint Roads Policing Review,  launched in 2020, will hopefully lead to more joined-up working and provide some useful recommendations. Adopting other recommendations made in the Police Foundation’s The future of roads policing report could also make an impact.

But a higher level of national coordination and greater emphasis on road safety rather than just road-facilitated crime is needed if we are to get serious about reducing road deaths and stay true to the claim that British roads are the safest in the world.