Traffic police cuts could mean deadly, drunk and drugged drivers get away with it, says charity

9 July 2013

Brake, the road safety charity

Traffic police numbers across Great Britain have been cut by 12% in five years, with some forces suffering 30-40% reductions, according to data released today by road safety charity Brake and While traffic police in Scotland increased by 4%, numbers were down by 31% in Wales, and 13% in England. Brake and are warning the cuts leave some parts of the country dangerously short on vital frontline roads policing, which could put the public at risk from dangerous, law-breaking drivers.

The largest cuts have been in: South Wales and Dyfed Powys, where cuts are around 40%; and West Mercia and Hampshire, where reductions are more than a third. Read the full results broken down by police force area.*

Brake and are concerned the resulting lack of roads policing officers will lead to forces struggling to enforce vital safety laws, such as on drink driving, speeding and mobile phone use, and could potentially undermine an important new drug driving law expected to come into force next year (see below).

International evidence shows enforcement is a key part of keeping roads safe[1], preventing devastating crashes and casualties by providing a deterrent against risky driving and ensuring dangerous offenders are taken off the public road.

Brake and are calling on the government to act to stem these severe cuts to life-saving traffic policing. It is urging the government to make roads policing a national policing priority, and ensure traffic policing is sufficiently resourced to tackle drunk, drugged and other dangerous driving.

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive at Brake, said: "It is desperately worrying such large cuts continue to be made to traffic policing, just as progress is being made to improve the law on deadly drug driving. Roads police officers do a vital job enforcing important safety laws and protecting the public – their work is proven to save lives and prevent injuries and suffering. Cutting traffic police is a false economy, because the crashes and casualties they help to prevent inflict such devastation and are a huge drain on public services. These cuts also undermine important progress being made by government to tackle drug driving – because as much as we need a new drug driving law and screening devices, we also need the officers out there to enforce it. We urge the government to make roads policing a national policing priority, to make sure we have a strong deterrent against the risk-taking on roads that can easily cost lives."

A spokesperson from added: "It's imperative that the police have the resources to protect all road users from the drivers whose criminal behaviour puts us at unnecessary risk. We urge the Government to heed the warning of our report and stem the cuts before we witness a hike in needless incidents; incidents that, without road policing, are waiting to happen."

About the new drug drive law
The government is bringing in a new offence against driving with illegal drugs in your body, including limits for drugs in the bloodstream, similar to the drink drive limit, and provision for police to use roadside drug screening devices. Currently, prosecutors have to prove a driver is 'impaired' by drugs, which is difficult and means prosecutions are relatively few.

Driving with drugs in the system can be deadly. For example, smoking marijuana before driving can more than double crash risk[2], and methamphetamine can encourage speeding and poor lane discipline[3]. Mixing drugs and alcohol is even more dangerous than simply taking drugs, or drinking, before driving[4].

Why roads policing is vital
Traffic police play a vital role in keeping us safe on roads. A proper deterrent is vital for sending out the message that road crimes are incredibly dangerous and will be taken seriously by the criminal justice system. Drug drivers state that a lack of enforcement is a reason they continue to offend, knowing they are unlikely to be caught[5].

According to Brake's research, a third of drivers (31%) think there is a less than one in ten chance of being caught if you drink and drive[6]. Senior police officers have expressed their frustration at the lack of priority given to roads policing by successive UK governments, stating the 'second tier' status of roads policing leads to forces being unable to properly enforce driving laws [7].

Case studies
In June 2010 Lillian Groves, 14, was killed outside her home in Croydon by John Page, who had been smoking cannabis. He was convicted of causing her death by careless driving and sentenced to eight months in jail, reduced to four months for an early plea. He was released after just eight weeks. Lillian's family went on to campaign successfully for improved laws and enforcement on drug driving. Natasha Groves, Lillian's mum, said: "Lillian was a wonderful young child who did not deserve to die. She lit up rooms and gave warmth to everyone she met. A child being so suddenly killed, in such a needless and destructive way, is something that tears a hole in the heart of your family. We have successfully campaigned for Lillian's Law to make it an offence to drive on drugs, but this won't have the impact that is desperately needed unless there are enough police officers enforcing this new law. Specialist traffic police are vital to detecting and stopping dangerous drug drivers that cause carnage on our roads, so we plead for action to stop this decline in their numbers."

In October 1998, 18 year old nursery nurse Emma Greathead, from Worcestershire, and her friend, accepted a lift from a young man they knew when their car broke down. He overtook another car at more than 90mph on a 60mph road and they crashed into an oncoming vehicle. All three of them died, along with the driver of the oncoming vehicle. The driver of the vehicle he was overtaking was charged with causing four deaths but was acquitted of all charges. Emma's mother Sarah said: "I find it horrifying that traffic police are being cut in such great numbers, when they do such an important job in stopping people being needlessly hurt or killed. I can't even begin to explain the mental confusion, the physical pain and emptiness of our life caused by Emma's death. Any parent would understand the devastation of losing a child and the difficulty of dealing with the aftermath. Time makes no difference; your hopes and dreams are gone, you never escape it. Emma was a bright, beautiful 18 year old. We all miss her so much."

Anyone who has been bereaved or seriously injured in a crash can call the Brake helpline for support on 0845 603 8570.

Notes to editors:
Brake submitted freedom of information requests to police forces across Great Britain in 2012, receiving 46 complete responses out of 51 forces [8]. Some of the remaining forces were able to provide incomplete responses. The data revealed:

  • Between 2008 and 2012 traffic police officers across Great Britain decreased by 12%
  • Traffic police officer numbers decreased by 13% in England and 31% in Wales, but increased by 4% in Scotland
  • Five forces across England and Wales have cut their traffic forces by more than a third in five years: Bedfordshire, West Mercia, Hampshire, South Wales, and Dyfed-Powys.

The 46 complete responses received were from: Cleveland, Durham, Northumbria, Cumbria, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside, Derbyshire, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia, West Midlands, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, City of London, Metropolitan, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, Thames Valley, Devon & Cornwall, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dyfed-Powys, Gwent, North Wales, South Wales, Central, Dumfries & Galloway, Fife, Grampian, Lothian & Borders, Strathclyde, Tayside.

* The cuts to traffic police in Bedfordshire were amended from -44% to -18% following a correction to the original FOI response provided to Brake by Bedfordshire Police following the release of this report.  

Click here to see the full results by police force.

Brake is an independent road safety charity. Brake exists to stop the five deaths and 63 serious injuries that happen on UK roads every day and to care for families bereaved and seriously injured in road crashes. Brake runs awareness-raising campaigns, community education programmes, events such as Road Safety Week (18-24 November 2013), and a Fleet Safety Forum, providing advice to companies. Brake's support division cares for road crash victims through a helpline and other services.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties
As the UK's favourite car buying service, takes its responsibility to road safety very seriously. Committed to protecting the lives of the UK's most vulnerable road users, this summer has seen it launch an education-focused campaign urging the Government to reinstate compulsory road safety lessons in schools. With funding in road safety education falling as the number of incidents rise, is petitioning with parents up and down the country for the return of these life-saving lessons at an early age in a child's development. On reaching 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered for debate in the House of Commons.

This campaign falls hot on the heels of a busy six months packed with road safety initiatives designed to protect our youngest road users. They include: 'See Me Stay Safe', a high vis vest giveaway for children aged 4-7; and a GO 20 competition for primary schools, challenging students to design a banner encouraging drivers to slow down to save lives.

End notes
[1] Traffic Law Enforcement across the EU: Tackling the Three Main Killers on Europe's Roads, European Transport Safety Council, 2011
[2] Driving whilst under the influence of cannabis, University of Queensland, 2012
[3] Driving on ice: impaired driving skills in current methamphetamine users, The University of Sydney, 2013
[4] Alcohol, psychoactive drugs and fatal road traffic accidents in Norway, University of Oslo, 2011
[5] Deterring drug drivers : a study into the initial impact of oral random roadside testing, Queensland University of Tenchnology, 2011.
[6] Drink drive breath testing rate low and drivers know it, Brake, 2011
[7] ACPO Head of Roads Policing Richard Brunstrom's evidence, Traffic Law and its Enforcement, Sixteenth Report of Session 2003-4, Ev 39, Q340 (House of Commons 105-II, 2005)
[8] The number of police forces in Scotland has since shrunk to just one force covering the whole of Scotland.