Road policing in the UK

Key facts

  • Roads policing in the UK focuses on the ‘fatal four’ major causes of death and serious injury on the roads: drink-driving; drivers using mobile phones; not wearing a seat belt and speeding [1];
  • There was a 27% reduction in roads policing officers outside of London between 2010 and 2014 [2];
  • 30 out of 42 police forces in GB recorded a fall in roads policing officers between 2014 and 2015;[3]
  • The 2010 Emergency Budget saw a 27% reduction in the Road Safety Revenue Grant and the abolishment of the Road Safety Capital Grant (£17.0 million) [4].

 Political priority and direction

The Home Office published its first National Policing Plan in 2002 [5], to bring together “the Government’s priorities, performance indicators and plans for new developments”. [6]

It set four priorities for police forces to implement at local level, these were:

  • Tackling anti-social behaviour;
  • Reducing volume, street, drug-related and violent and gun crime;
  • Combating serious and organised crime;
  • And increasing the number of offences brought to justice.

Road policing was relegated to two paragraphs in the 52-page document, under the heading of ‘Other policing responsibilities’ and only received a separate ‘Roads Policing Strategy’ in 2005. The strategy set out four key areas for action, known as the ‘fatal four’:

  • Drink-driving;
  • Drivers using mobile phones;
  • Not wearing a seatbelt;
  • And excessive and inappropriate speeding. [7]

In 2011, the Department for Transport published its Strategic Framework for Road Safety which pledged to ensure “tougher enforcement for the small minority of motorists that choose to drive dangerously” [8]. Then in 2015, the Road Safety Statement committed the government to “taking tough action against those who speed, exceed the drink-drive limit, take drugs or use their mobile phone while on the road”. [9]

In spite of these commitments, the Road Traffic Law Enforcement Inquiry carried out by the Transport Select Committee in 2015 criticised the UK government for failing to support engineering and education schemes with effective enforcement. Suggesting that the fall in overall road traffic offences did “not represent a reduction in offences actually being committed” but a reduction in the numbers being caught by the police. The Transport Select Committee charged the Department for Transport with tackling the problem by “use of specialist officers, and appropriate use of technology” to ensure that road users would be aware that they could be detected carrying out illegal behaviour and that they would face repercussions. [10]

Reducing numbers

The level of enforcement on our roads is woefully inadequate, struggling to keep check on the wide ranging duties they are expected to perform across a large geographical area. Between 2010 and 2014 the UK has seen a 27% reduction in the number of specialist road traffic police on the roads (falling from 5,338 to 3,901) outside of London. While 30 out of the 42 police forces reported a fall in road traffic police between 2014 and 2015 (352 fewer officers) and only 12 police forces reported an increase in numbers.

At a regional level the breakdown of roads policing numbers is slightly more complex, often dependant on Police Crime Commissioners, local agendas and political will at the local authority level.

For example:

  • The West Yorkshire Police Force saw the highest reduction in road traffic officers over 2015, losing 91 specialist officers;
  • Avon and Somerset Police Force saw a 35% decrease in road traffic police between 2014-2015;
  • Essex Police Force saw its road traffic police double from 72 to 148 between 2014-2015;
  • Devon and Cornwall Police Force saw an increase of 31 road traffic officers between 2014 and 2015. [11]

In the 2015 Transport Select Committee carried out the Road Traffic Law Enforcement Inquiry, which concluded that “the number of specialist roads policing officers has been declining for years” and recommended that the Home Office seek to “maintain the number of specialist road traffic officers”. [12]

According to Home Office research, traffic police officers spend about 26% of their time dealing with traffic incidents and only 5% of time on traffic related checks. [13]. According to a 1998 report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, “most forces saw road policing as a peripheral task, often seen by management as a repository of vehicles and officers to be redirected to ‘more important work’.”[14] This is despite a Home Office research report that outlined the key role traffic police play in catching many criminals through enforcement checks [15].

However, it is difficult to maintain the number of road traffic police due to the loss of departmental funding. The 2010 Emergency Budget saw a 27% reduction in the Road Safety Revenue Grant and the abolishment of the Road Safety Capital Grant (£17.0 million) and this has begun a trend in reducing funds and resources available to roads policing. While speed cameras and the National Driving Offender Retraining Scheme have proved sources of funding for traffic law enforcement policing and support for the remaining road safety partnerships. 

Equipment availability

With falling numbers of road traffic police we have seen an increased level of reliance on assistive technologies to support arrests and secure convictions. The 2015 Road Traffic Law Enforcement inquiry determined that in modern road traffic policing “technology is essential” to delivering safety irrespective of policy [16]. The Department for Transport Road Safety Statement (2015) committed them to working together working together with the Home Office, “enabling the police to use modern enforcement technologies, while protecting the privacy of law-abiding people” [17].

Advanced technology is available in equipment such as drugalysers which can detect the presence of drugs at the roadside, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras for catching uninsured drivers and portable computers with licence-holder information, to name just a few. Yet much of the equipment available is under-utilised or simply unavailable.

Certain law enforcement devices, e.g. drugalysers and breathalysers, used by the police are statutorily required to be of a ‘type approved by the Secretary of State’. This is known as ‘type approval testing’ and requires tests to ensure that the devices used are accurate, precise, reliable and consistent, so any evidence they generate can be relied upon. However, the type approval process is a rigorous process which takes time, as a result it has taken a long time to obtain a ‘type approved drugalyser’, of which there are only two available which can test for cannabis and cocaine (2 out of the 16 illegal substances to have in the system while driving) showing that there is still a way to go.

Lack of coherence

At present, police officers in the UK must have a reason to justify stopping a driver to carry out checks on them or their vehicle. Typically, this would be that the driver was committing a traffic offence, or there was evidence of impaired driving, including speeding. This makes it impossible for officers to carry out targeted and random checks on drivers or vehicles in the UK.

A recent TRL study for Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary is one of very few research projects which have tried to quantify the benefit of high profile traffic policing and targeted campaigns in the UK. Concentrating their attention on the ‘fatal four’ (drink-driving, speeding, mobile phone use and not wearing a seatbelt) TRL has carried out an investigation into the number of lives which could be saved with increased and targeted enforcement aimed particularly at high risk groups. [18]

The high-risk groups suggested by TRL included:

  • Drink-driving drug checks, particularly in the evening and during the night, targeted at young male drivers;
  • Speeding checks of 17-30 year olds on weekend evenings, targeted at drivers and riders;
  • Seatbelt use checked in taxis and vans in particular, as well as the rear passenger seats;
  • Checks on mobile phone use, both hand-held and hands-free, during the daytime. [19]

Accident investigation

Most road deaths are investigated by just one or two officers with little resource or time. Road crashes resulting in serious injury are often allocated even fewer resources. Yet over three times as many people were killed on the roads in England and Wales (1,732) [20], than there were homicides (573) in 2015 [21].

Effective police investigation is a key element in securing the decision to prosecute by the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as a conviction in court. Furthermore, it can provide information for future investigations and road safety campaigns. The Department for Transport is currently trialling Road Accident In-Depth Studies (RAIDS) which differ from those carried out by the police because they are designed to understand how people are injured than necessarily determine responsibility for the crash. Nevertheless, this clearly emphasises the importance of effective crash investigation to road safety. [22]

A good step towards this securing effective and efficient accident investigation would be to adopt the National Police Chief’s Council’s Road Death Investigation Manual as a statutory requirement. [23]

Case study: Selby

Driver fatigue is difficult to detect as a contributory factor, but it can be done with thorough investigation.

The detailed investigation into the cause of the Selby train crash has been described as one of the biggest criminal investigations ever undertaken and was the decisive factor in securing the conviction of Gary Hart for causing death by dangerous driving, and should act as a benchmark of good investigation following a fatal or serious injury crash.

The jury at Leeds Crown Court decided that Hart had fallen asleep at the wheel, although he claimed his vehicle had suffered a mechanical fault, causing it to veer off the M62 motorway onto the rail track, causing the crash. According to the BBC, nearly 1,000 officers were involved in the case, 1,216 statements taken, 1,962 lines of inquiry were pursued and 1,985 exhibits logged. Teams of experts spent three weeks examining the crushed vehicle looking for the smallest detail which would point to the cause of the crash and piecing together more than 800 fragments to prove that there was no mechanical defect on Hart’s vehicle. Police also reconstructed the journey made by Hart, starting at his home in Lincolnshire, to prove he had been speeding and traced other drivers, who had seen Hart driving erratically at high speed. While Hart admitted he had set off at 5am, having had very little sleep, the police discovered, from his phone and internet records, that he could not have slept at all [24].

This case proves it is possible to amass evidence of fatigue, leading to conviction. There are characteristics that typify a crash caused by a fatigued driver, including a lack of braking; weaving in and out of lanes; or veering slowly off the road at an acute angle, often at a bend in the road. Fatigued drivers are more likely to crash at night, or in the early hours of the morning and lengthy motorway journeys. It has been estimated that incidents of fatigue occur in 3% of the UK driving population. [25]

Not all fatal crashes need weeks of painstaking investigation in order to secure a conviction in court, but we owe it to road crash victims to ensure that dangerous drivers don’t ‘get away with it’, due to under-resourcing of investigations.


End Notes

[1] NPCC, Policing the roads in partnership: A five year strategy (2015-2020), 2015
[2] Data from parliamentary question asked by Jack Dromey MP answered on 12 May 2016 and covers financial years from 31 March 2010 to 31 March 2015. Excludes Metropolitan Police, as merging of units leads to data from this force being incomparable with other forces
[3] RAC Press Centre, 2015 sees a fall in numbers of dedicated roads policing officers
[4] HM Treasury, 2010 Emergency Budget, 2010
[5] Home Office, The National Policing Plan 2003-2006, 2002
[6] House of Commons, Traffic Law and its Enforcement: sixteenth report of session 2003-4, Ev39, Q340
[7] NPCC, Policing the roads in partnership: A five year strategy (2015-2020), 2015
[8] DfT, Strategic Framework for Road Safety, 2011
[9] DfT, Working Together to Build a Safer Roads System: a British road safety statement, 2015
[10] House of Commons Transport Select Committee, Road Traffic Enforcement: Second report of session 2015-16, 2016
[11] RAC Press Centre, 2015 sees a fall in numbers of dedicated roads policing officers
[12] House of Commons Transport Select Committee, Road Traffic Enforcement: Second report of session 2015-16, 2016
[13] Ogilvie-Smith, A; Downey, A; Ransom, E;Traffic Activity & Organisation Study, Police Research Group, Police Research Series Paper 12, 1994
[14] HMIC, Road Policing and Traffic: HMIC Thematic Inspection Report 1998, 1998
[15]Rose, G,The criminal history of serious traffic offenders, Home Office Research Study 206, 2000
[16] House of Commons Transport Select Committee, Road Traffic Enforcement: Second report of session 2015-16, 2016
[17] DfT, Working Together to Build a Safer Roads System: a British road safety statement, 2015
[18] TRL, Effectiveness of Roads Policing: Technical research for Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary, 2015
[19] TRL, Effectiveness of Roads Policing: Technical research for Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary, 2015
[20] DfT, Reported Road Casualties GB: Main Results 2015, 2016
[21] ONS, Crime in England and Wales: year ending December 2015, 2016
[22] DfT, RAIDS
[23] NPCC, Road Death Investigation Manual
[24] BBC, Police condemn sleep-deprived drivers
[25] PACTS, Fit to Drive?, 201

Last updated August 2016

Tags: enforcement police