Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Unintended consequencies

Not before time, there's proposed safety legislation not obsessed with speeding. Proposals for new powers so police can issue tickets for bad driving are all very well, but begs the question of how you catch the miscreants. One sees drivers weaving in and out of motorway traffic, risking theirs and everybody else's necks, and just wish there was a patrol car there to scoop them up. There never is. And with the passing of a regime that thought it could enforce safety by speed cameras while reducing traffic police, maybe we are on the threshold of a new era.

We need more patrol cars like this Vauxhall Insignia
Unfortunately making new regulations does not follow logical processes. This 1993 Sunday Times column was concerned about unintended consequences. The original copy for "proposed law..." is attached.

The AA has just taken delivery of a fleet of new Ford Transits.
Sunday Times: Motoring 02 May 1993

The creation of a new offence of causing death by driving is to be looked at by the AA as soon as the proposals are drawn up for a new criminal justice bill in the autumn. It is barely a year since the Road Traffic Act introduced two offences, causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while over the prescribed blood-alcohol limit. Instead there will be a new single offence with double the existing maximum jail term of five years.

Courts will need to take account of the circumstances of accidents to make a distinction between misdemeanours with unexpectedly tragic consequences and minor shunts. 'We need to make sure that motoring offences do not get out of proportion,' an AA spokesman said. 'Causing death while at the wheel of a car must relate to similar offences in other areas, although we acknowledge public concern over the powers judges have for dealing with the lunatic fringe who drive without concern for life.'

A driver who runs into a car stationary at traffic lights is clearly culpable. But the difference between the consequences may be no more than a matter of chance. The driver of the stationary car may get a stiff neck when his headrest cushions the blow, step from his damaged vehicle and exchange names and addresses before driving off, aggrieved but alive.

Another stationary car might have no head restraints. They are a relatively recent safety feature. In an identical accident with the same degree of carelessness by the offending driver, whiplash could break the driver's neck and kill him.

Consequences in traffic accidents can often be a matter of luck - running into a car with safety features against running into one without. Driver B could face a custodial sentence of up to ten years against driver A getting a caution, a fine, and a few points on his driving licence for essentially the same misdeed, running into the back of a stationary car.

Drink-driving is a different issue. Impairment through drinking is a serious business, the courts take it seriously, and the distinction of a separate offence of causing death while unfit to drive through drink should remain.

But there is a distinction between the driver who crashes carelessly or recklessly into a bus shelter when it is empty, and the one who kills all the occupants. The difference rests only on whether anyone was in the shelter at the time. In one case it might mean a wigging by the bench, in the other a long term of imprisonment.

The logic of increasing penalties according to the consequences of transgressions, would imply decreasing them where the risks are small. Speeding at 3am on an empty motorway in clear weather would become less serious than recklessly flouting the law on a busy afternoon.

Reckless, careless, driving without due care and attention, or whatever it may be called under various road traffic acts, now generally comes to light when there has been an accident. Yet it is the bad driving that is the offence, not whether the driver knocks down a tree or kills a sheep.

In the last four years nearly 100 cases of apparently lenient sentences on drivers involved in accidents have been referred by the Attorney General to the Court of Appeal. Fourteen involved fatalities. The protests the Home Office receives over sentences on killer-drivers are overwhelming.

It is difficult not to take account of fatalities in assessing culpability, but leaving aside the drink-driving issue, not many drivers set out to kill, and pressing for fierce penalties on those who do will not do much for deterrence and could look like a cry for vengeance.

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