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We know that active travel increased last year as did extreme speeding, with the Department for Transport (DfT) monitoring the former and police reporting the latter. And the DfT announced last week that cyclist deaths had jumped very substantially – by 40% (from 100 to 140 fatalities) in 2020. Now more than ever, our roads need to both be safe and feel safe, especially for people new to cycling. So how did the courts do with taking unsafe drivers off our roads?
Not good. To be fair, disqualifications fell by 15% whilst prosecutions and convictions for motoring offences decreased by 27% (slightly less than the decline for total prosecutions which dropped by 30%). But driving bans remain used almost exclusively for those offences where they are legally required. Where magistrates had the discretion to impose a ban, they very rarely use it.
Of the 462,744 drivers convicted at court for motoring offences in 2020, only 60,200 (13%) were banned. Over five times as many had their driving licenses endorsed with penalty points (317,736). But of the bans given, 86% were for offences where they were mandatory.
It gets worse. New data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reveals wide variation between courts in the share of drivers being banned. Here Action Vision Zero argues that driving bans are too few, too short and too inconsistent across the country. This is particularly important for speeding and careless driving, two key offences for reducing danger on our roads.
Despite the reports of increases in extreme speeding during lockdown, only 2% of speeding convictions at court in 2020 resulted in a ban, the same as in previous years.
Remember that the vast majority of the 150,000 drivers convicted of speeding at court will have been caught at such high speeds that a Fixed Penalty Notice or NDORS course was not allowed. This includes those going 50mph or more in a 30mph limit, an increase that can mean death or lasting disability to a pedestrian. Yet even at this speed, magistrates do not have to disqualify and can give six penalty points instead.
If they do disqualify, Magistrates Sentencing guidelines for speeding suggest it be for 7-56 days . Guidelines do state that “where an offender is driving grossly in excess of the speed limit the court should consider a disqualification in excess of 56 days”). This is less than two months. In 2020, over 95% of those banned for speeding were banned for under six months – this is the shortest time span reported by the MoJ. Only five drivers were banned for longer than one year – in all of England and Wales.
And there was a wide range across the country with the share of drivers being banned, as seen here:
Wiltshire reported the highest share (12%) but this is influenced by the very low number of drivers prosecuted for speeding there. Warwickshire was second with 11%, followed by Northamptonshire (9%). At the other end of the spectrum were seven police areas where magistrates banned less than 1% of drivers convicted of speeding.
The ban rate was higher with careless driving (5%). But as with speeding, those convicted at court will involve the more harmful cases of careless driving. These include those resulting in serious injury or which started out as a dangerous driving arrest, with much overlap between the charging standards for careless and dangerous driving.
With careless driving, Magistrates Sentencing Guidelines refer to three levels of seriousness. It is only the most serious, Category 1, with both high harm and culpability, where magistrates are advised to consider a disqualification. Unlike with speeding, no guidance is given on the length of the ban.
But the bans are short. Almost 60% are for six months or less. Just 10% are over one year.
And again, there is wide variation across the country.
In Warwickshire, magistrates banned 14% of those convicted of careless driving, followed by Leicestershire (13%), This was much greater than Dorset where only 1% of careless drivers were banned or Derbyshire and Gloucestershire (2% banned). In Cleveland, Dorset and Gloucestershire, only one careless driver was banned in each of these areas in 2020.
At present it is essentially only those convicted of dangerous or drink/drug driving who are disqualified, and it is mainly the latter. Few sober drivers are banned, including those whose speeding could be deadly and whose driving borders on dangerous.
We need Magistrates Sentencing Guidelines to be updated and support the government’s promotion of active travel. This means greater use of driving bans. Magistrates should be expected to impose a disqualification for the most serious categories of careless driving and extreme speeding. Any exemption should be conditional on the use of a speed limiter or journey data recorder. It should not take a dangerous driving conviction (which carries a 50:50 chance of a custodial sentence) before a sober driver is banned.
And more should be considered. Given the backlog in criminal courts aggravated by COVID, we need to be thinking about tougher out of court sanctions, including vehicle confiscations. The latter should not just be used with uninsured vehicles but also with drivers whose speed or carelessness threatens others.
AVZ wants to help local campaigners hold their Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) to account with reducing danger on our roads. As PCCs lead on local criminal justice partnerships, this should ensure that magistrates are better using their powers to get unsafe drivers off the roads.
We value transparency and give credit to the Ministry of Justice for improving their data. It is now possible to know how often driving bans are given by courts at the local level. This data used to be restricted to national level, i.e. England and Wales. They have provided the ban data for courts by police services going back to 2010. AVZ is committed to increasing/improving the awareness of the detection and sanctioning of road traffic crime. We have analysed court statistics, including how causing death and serious injury is sentenced, and produced summaries of the prosecutions and convictions for motoring offences in each police service area. These will be sent to the respective Police and Crime Commissioners. If you would like to see the data on your police area, including on driving bans, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
 These disqualifications are for individual offences and not totting up. This article is not about “hardship exemptions” which the Magistrates Association and Sentencing Council have addressed recently. Whether or not their revised guidance will have any difference is too early to see.