When Chris Huhne was found guilty of attempting to get his wife to accept points for speeding, many people must have said: “there but the grace of God.” If many naturally law-abiding Brits are breaking the law, we have to ask if the “four-strikes-and-you-are-out” law is just?
This is not a Jeremy Clarkson rant. On the one hand, speed kills. Ben Westwood, recently caught doing 180 mph on the motorway, was rightly imprisoned. On the other hand, a few mph over the top is hardly heinous. If it were we could always impose the death penalty for it and reduce speeding (and car use) to nothing. What is needed is a balance.
Losing your licence for six months is not nothing. In most cities, there is a public transport alternative. In rural areas there may not be – we used to have one bus a week where we live in Wales but even that runs no more. Losing your licence may lose you not only your lifestyle but your job – especially if your finances don’t run to taxis.
Statistically too it is very easy to lose your licence. Suppose you are a reasonably careful driver who picks up a fixed-penalty every six years. Suppose tomorrow you are caught. What are the statistical odds against your getting to 12 points, disqualification level, just by sheer chance? The answer is: seven to one.
There are more than a million fixed-penalty convictions each year; and more than 6,000 people lose their licences. Is this fair?
There is concrete evidence that magistrates don’t think so. The official government guidance says that a motorist “MUST” be disqualified for getting 12 points in three years. However, this is simply not true. Under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, section 35, disqualification can be reduced or avoided for exceptional hardship or other mitigating circumstances at the court’s discretion. And the courts often have the good sense to apply the law as it is rather than the law as Whitehall claims it to be. Some 11,000 drivers with 12 points or more are legally on the roads today thanks to that discretion.
Get yourself a good lawyer; explain the exceptional hardship that will arise, and you may well get off with a heavy fine and a telling off. The impecunious and the inarticulate however will be punished even though their hardship may be as great.
What is the solution to this? Very simple. We need a sliding scale for speeding offences: say 1 point for every 5 mph over the threshold (after allowing a tolerance for common sense and for the inevitable uncertain accuracy of speed-measuring device) up to four points for those exceeding that limit by 20 mph and more and even higher penalties for even higher speeds.
Will it happen? I hope so but I am not confident. The road safety lobby, which in some ways mirrors the health and safety lobby, has little sense of proportion, and ministers will tremble at the thought of propaganda ads of children killed by speed. We have however a transport secretary in Patrick McLoughlin whose record suggests he is no pushover. Here is his chance to do something for middle England, which knows injustice especially when it may by chance become its victims.
Oh and since you ask, I have three points on my licence.