The police came in for some flak last week when it was revealed that only a tiny proportion of officers caught on camera speeding and jumping red lights are prosecuted. This criticism, in the view of Brake, the road safety charity, is justified. No one, not even the emergency services, should be taking unnecessary risks on the road.
Yes, our police drivers are highly trained. But this is no guarantee of safety, as illustrated by the 20,000 crashes involving police vehicles per year, killing 48 people in 2006.
As with risks taken by troops, Brake believes risks taken by the emergency services on our roads should require a proper assessment of the dangers, carried out by a senior officer. At the moment it appears that any old excuse is accepted after the event.
The majority of the police officers caught on camera breaking the law were not even responding to emergencies, echoing the view that law-breaking while driving doesn't count as a "real" crime.
But four times as many people are killed on roads as are murdered and while not all road deaths result in a prosecution, it is rare not to be able to attribute the cause of a crash to a driver's risk-taking, or failure to make sure their vehicle is roadworthy. With nine people dying in road crashes every day, they are the biggest criminal cause of death and injury in the UK.
Brake knows that officers dealing with crashes do take road safety extremely seriously and are among the people fighting hardest to prevent the carnage on our roads.
They've got a tough job. Research by Brake and Green Flag shows that 88 per cent of drivers admit speeding and 50 per cent admit drink-driving, while resources for roads policing are dwindling.
According to Metline (the Metropolitan Police Federation's magazine), 25 years ago the Metropolitan Police traffic division boasted 1,250 roads policing officers, virtually all on patrol. Today, the Met has only 672 roads policing officers, with only 353 officers on patrol, in five shifts.
These figures are symptomatic of the strategies implemented by a Government that says it is keen to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, but has repeatedly failed to take the biggest criminal cause of death and injury in our country seriously.
A roads policing strategy, published in 2005, states that road policing is "an important and visible element in the police's commitment to protect the public". It set out key areas for action by police forces: excessive and inappropriate speeding; drink and drug driving; failure to wear seat belts; and careless, dangerous or threatening driving. However, unlike anti-social behaviour, roads policing is not a "National Policing Priority" and there are no set targets for essential checks.
Pressure on chief constables to meet targets means what gets measured, gets prioritised. Anti-social behaviour, theft and street crime get measured; roads policing doesn't. A Europe-wide study showed that only 9 per cent of drivers in the UK had been breath-tested over a three-year period, compared with 64 per cent in Finland. Surveys show the Finns are less likely than us to think that they can get away with drinking and driving.
We are already starting to see the knock-on effect of undermining roads policing on the next generation of young UK drivers. Figures revealed by police forces last week show that young drivers are the group of drivers most likely to be prosecuted for a drink-drive crash. Research by Brake and Green Flag suggests this may be because young drivers are twice as likely as older drivers to think there is no chance of getting caught if they drink and drive. However – and Brake urges the Government to take note – 44 per cent of young drivers said they would take more care on the road... if there were more traffic police.
The author is head of campaigns at Brake, a road safety charityReuse content