Sir Paul Stephenson and the national scandal


Sir Paul Stephenson has resigned because of his involvement in the phone hacking scandal. Here is another national scandal I believe he was implicated in as Metropolitan Police Commissioner.Just to make it clear, this is not about the failings of one man.

I’m talking about a general lack of enforcement of road traffic law in Britain (probably even worse elsewhere than in London), combined with the lenient sentencing of the courts and  not taking proper attention of law and rule breaking which endangers others on the road. Our friends in RoadPeace regularly come across the inability or refusal of the powers that be to take the endangering, hurting or killing of others seriously. And , of course, this is in turn related to the way in which those who should be addressing the issue of danger on the roads elsewhere – whether it be highway or vehicle engineers, health and “road safety” professionals have been unable or unwilling to do so properly.

Nevertheless, traffic policing is at present a necessary element of any attempt to have a civilised approach to safety on the road. So what was happening up to and including Sir Paul’s watch as Commissioner?

He didn’t come into post with a good record. Indeed, the car fanatic Association of British Drivers had him down as  “one of the good guys”. Both the ABD and the anti-speed camera “Safe Speed” (sic) commended him for being soft on speeding offenders when he was in charge of traffic policing in Lancashire. And while speeding is only one part of danger on the road, the softly-softly policy on speed was not linked with obvious increases in traffic law enforcement elsewhere.

So what was the situation he found himself in when he took over in London? You don’t have to be sceptical about a police culture and practice which has traffic policing as a low priority to be dismayed. In fact an excellent report by Jenny Jones MLA was written while she was Ken Livingstone’s “Road Safety Ambassador”. “London’s Lawless Roads”is worth reading (it’s only four pages long) for the picture of extreme lawlessness it gives. To give a few facts form the report written just before Sir Paul took over:

* Between 1980 and 2001 the number of Traffic Police in London declined from 1063 to 646: As a proportion of all Police their proportion declined from a  measly 4.5% to 2%.

* In 1984  prosecutions for Careless Driving were at 13,829 (can you believe there were only this number of instances of careless driving in a day in London , let alone a year?) In 2004 this had gone down to 4,715.

I haven’t referred to the main forms of law and rule breaking which endanger others – the report refers to “illegal” driving as being the most extreme forms of lawlessness. We could talk about the cuts in the numbers o speed cameras and the general difficulties in getting an adequate level of policing. And it goes on: take this from the last Mayor’s Question Time:

Traffic police cuts
Question No: 2095 / 2011
Jenny Jones
Given the rise in the total number of child pedestrian casualties, will you reverse the cut of thirty police officers and thirteen staff from within the traffic section of the Transport Command Unit since 2009/10?
Written response from the Mayor
Though overall numbers in Traffic Operational Command Unit have reduced since 2008, the number of Police Constables has been increased by 8.5.

The problems are, it should be said again, not those of one man. But he was in charge during this period, so should have some responsibility for what has been going on.

By a tragic irony, one of the features of an inadequate legal response to road danger is the difficulty in getting adeqaute evidence of law breaking, even after fatalities, is one which has impacted on Sir Paul’s family:

According to the Evening Standard: “Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson is said to be “bitterly disappointed” after the case was dropped against the lorry driver whose vehicle hit and killed her (his daughter’s) cyclist boyfriend. Rebecca Stephenson’s partner, Harry Wilmers, 25, was knocked off his bike in Old Trafford in August 2009. The driver, Wesley Lawrence, 31, was due to face a crown court trial in Manchester today, accused of causing death by careless driving. But the Crown Prosecution Service abandoned proceedings, claiming expert evidence made it impossible to proceed.

Perhaps when he writes his memoirs Sir Paul could give an account of how soft the law and it’s enforcemnt are towards those who endanger others on the road. And how some of us are right to think that is a national scandal.