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September 3, 2010 / clayliesstill

The hidden scourge

A rare thing occurred this afternoon. Traffic was queuing up and ahead I could see a police car. Oh no, “accident crash”, I thought.

But remarkably it wasn’t: the police had pulled over a 4×4 which had been towing a dilapidated caravan with no plates. They had already put stickers in the windows which proudly announced “Impounded by police: unlicensed or uninsured driver”.

This was quite a sight: real live traffic police working! Unlicensed drivers are a particular problem and one that can only be dealt with by police officers patrolling the streets. An instant fiscal penalty of an impounded car is a particularly effective short-term summary punishment before offenders can be brought before the magistrates. It is a road safety all parties agree on – unlicensed drivers are a menace. Unlicensed drivers may also be involved in other crimes and road traffic policing has one of the best records for arrests, whether for traffic offences or otherwise.

Yet over the 1990s traffic police numbers fell by 19% as more and more of roads policing was deemed to be accomplished by cameras – which worked well before pointless legislation forced them to be daubed with bright yellow and marked on maps. Although this startling fact was revealed thanks to a question asked by the then Shadow Transport Secretary – now mere Minister of State – Theresa Villiers, traffic police levels are never mentioned in Conservative or coalition policy.

One DfT study found unlicensed drivers to be between 3 and 9 times more likely to crash than licensed drivers. This is not quite the endorsement of the driving test as might be imagined: clearly unlicensed drivers are higher risk taking individuals to begin with. Once involved in a crash I would also imagine them to be more likely to abscond, leaving less evidence on the effect of unlicensed driving. Everyone else picks up the tab through the Motor Insurers’ Bureau and its Untraced Drivers’ Agreement.

The DfT study concludes that by far the most unlicensed driving is done by those who have never held any form of licence – responsible for up to 3.4 million hours behind the wheel a month. Another half a million is done by those holding provisional licences or those disqualified. Up to 0.64% of all driving is unlicensed – so it’s pretty likely that you’ll meet an unlicensed vehicle every time you set out on the streets. The authors of the study believe that 6,300 casualties in 2000 involved an unlicensed driver found guilty of a driving offence and 900 of those where the injury was serious or fatal.

I used to believe that courts looked quite severely on unlicensed drivers: they are a ‘bad’ minority at which the book can be thrown with impunity. No ‘but for the grace of God go I’ to worry about here – we juroros are all good, law-abiding motorists, not like these ghastly criminals driving unlicensed. But hey, Britain’s court system – already happily handing down stiff £500 fines for the deaths of cyclists – doesn’t even mind all that much if you don’t have a licence. All they’ll do is endorse it before you’ve even got it.

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