Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 15th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure as always to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I am sure you will agree that we have heard a powerful and emotional debate, in the best traditions of the House, with first-class arguments used by hon. Members who have raised the issues so far. My heart goes out to those in the Public Gallery, and to my good friend the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for the most tragic circumstances that they have found themselves in; because that is what the petitions before us today deal with.

It is really difficult to imagine how hard it must be to deal with the grief of losing a child or sibling in this way and still feel that justice has not been served; because it is the concept of justice that is at the heart of these petitions. It is perfectly acceptable for all of us to have differing opinions on what justice is. For some, it is the right punishment for those who have committed a harm to another; for others, it is the chance to get answers and to hear an explanation, or an apology. Of course, it can be a combination of both those things, but the fundamental principle is that the perpetrator of the crime is held to account. And the understandable frustration in the petitions arises from the feeling that neither of those concepts is fulfilled when a person flees the scene of an incident.

As we have heard, the Road Traffic Act 1988 deals with failing to stop or report an accident, and with dangerous and careless driving offences, which are the two fundamental types of offences engaged in instances of hit and run. As both petitions suggest, there is a gulf of disparity between the sentencing guidelines for failure to stop after an incident and those for death by dangerous or careless driving. As we have also heard, the former has a maximum six-month custodial sentence, while the latter has a maximum custodial sentence of between five and 14 years.

The Government have reiterated in their responses to the petitions that failure to stop offences are more often than not low-level traffic incidents, such as the clipping of a mirror or the scuffing of a bumper in a car park. However, on occasions where the failure to stop or report an accident relates to an incident that leads to the death or serious injury of another person, it can be an aggravating factor in the sentencing decision.

The question that we are considering today is whether that situation is good enough. It is a question that has gathered interest in recent years, as hon. Members have said, first with the consultation for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and then with the amendments to that Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), which would have created a new offence of failing to stop or report accidents where the driver knew that the accident had caused serious or fatal injury, or where they ought reasonably to have realised that it might have done so. I hope that the Government will consider the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment in the Bill Committee. He will certainly have my support for it, as he does for many other amendments he tables in the House.

It is the disparity between sentencing for failure to stop or report an accident and that for causing death or serious injury by carless or dangerous driving that has led hon. Members to suggest that there is a perverse incentive for people to flee the scene of an accident. This has been said before and it has been said again today. As hon. Members have explained, if a driver under the influence of drink or drugs kills someone and remains at the scene, the likelihood is that they will be tested, charged and prosecuted for that offence. However, if they flee the scene and have time to sober up, and there is no other evidence of careless or dangerous driving, they can be prosecuted only for the minor offence of failing to stop or report an accident. We really must deal with that situation in the future.

Just two months ago, on 11 September, 18-year-old Aidan Pilkington was struck by a car and killed on Crow Road in Glasgow. The driver of the car fled the scene. Aidan was about to move to Dundee to attend university and he was so well loved by his friends that they kept a daily vigil for over three weeks at the spot where he was killed. To date, an arrest has still not been made and the driver—whoever they are—remains out there, on the roads, in the knowledge that at 2 am on 11 September they struck a bright, well-loved young man and ended his life. Could it be that the driver was under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, or was driving a vehicle that they had no right to drive? That is something we really need to deal with, and I have the support of hon. Members who seek a change in the law.

The Scottish Government and Police Scotland are committed to reducing road deaths by half over the next 10 years. That is an ambitious target, but such commitments are required in order to make our roads safer for us all. Deaths and serious injuries caused on our roads can often be prevented, and it is our duty to ensure that we do all we can to improve driver behaviour and educate road users. The new road safety framework of Scotland sets out a vision for Scotland to have the best road safety performance in the world by 2030.

In conclusion, although the current measures go no way to achieving justice for the families who have tabled these petitions, what is happening in Scotland may go some way to ensuring that we prevent such tragedies. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on how the Government are looking at education to improve driver behaviour, and answering the calls for tougher sentencing and new laws to address the points raised in these petitions.

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Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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It is unwise for Ministers to comment on prosecutorial or judicial decisions. I was reading this week about a case just outside my constituency where somebody who had failed to stop was charged with death by dangerous driving. We need to look at the suite of options for the charging authorities. Simply strengthening the failure to stop and report offence may not be the most effective way of ensuring the justice that I know many families are seeking to achieve.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The concern that the petitioners and hon. Members have relates to the perverse incentive for people to flee the scene. Should there not be a new charge of failing to stop following a fatal or serious injury?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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That is something that the Department has been looking at, and that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, has been talking to families about. We are keen to see more evidence on the reasons behind failures to stop and report such serious incidents. As I have said, it is clear that the majority of incidents that are treated as a failure to stop and report are low-level motoring incidents; however, we need to gain more evidence on the most serious cases.

In some of the cases cited today, drivers said that they felt they hit a fox or a deer. Various other people panicked. A range of justifications have been used. Whether they are true justifications or not, it is important that we understand the situation more. The University of Leicester carried out some research in 2017 on behalf of the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, but we have to build the evidence base to ensure that whatever we do to reform the offences does not have unintended consequences, but strengthens the law and gets families the justice that they deserve.

Linking death or serious injury with a failure to stop as a cause, however well intentioned, could risk creating an unfairly severe offence. The law already imposes severe penalties for vehicle owners who cause death or serious injury, but a clear causal link needs to be provided between the driver’s behaviour and the outcome. The proposals in the e-petitions essentially equate the seriousness of a failure to stop with culpability for causing death or injury. I repeat that that would create serious anomalies with other offences, which could result in potential injustices.

I want to be clear, however, that the Government are not dismissing the concerns that have been raised. We are aware of the traumatic effects of such incidents, which we have heard so eloquently expressed by Members from all parties today. We agree that there might be something wrong with the law as it stands; it may not be working as well as it should in this area. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate from what I have already said that this is a very complex area, and any change in the law should fit within the current driving offence framework. Officials from my Department have been exploring options that could be pursued in this area. They include, but are not limited to: the available penalties; how the offence operates; how the offence is dealt with in the sentencing guidance; and the potential for a new offence as part of a longer term and wider approach to road safety. I am sure that officials will consider the points raised by Members from across the House in the debate today as part of their considerations of that offence. As the next step, the Department is considering conducting a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act. Although details are still being worked on, I expect this will include failures to stop and report as an offence.