Some good news was published by both the BBC and News Letter yesterday. There were 59 deaths on the roads in Northern Ireland last year, a rise from 55 the year before, but still vastly lower than in the past. Prior to 2010 the lowest number of deaths was in 2008 at 107. As the News Letter notes it is sometimes seen as distasteful to celebrate a reduction in deaths when people are still being killed but the reality is that the significant reduction in deaths must be noted, recognised and, yes; celebrated. To put it in context road deaths have been falling since the 1970s and are now about one seventh of what they were then despite a doubling of traffic volumes.
A number of reasons have been advanced for the reduction in road deaths over the past number of years but as I have mentioned before more important than enforcement etc. (important as that is) has been the improvements in road design: removing dangerous bends, junctions etc and major upgrading of dangerous roads such as the A4. The other huge improvement has been in car design: both passive safety with air bags, increasingly complex crumple zones etc. which help the occupants, those in other cars and even pedestrians; and also active safety. Modern cars have vastly better road holding and braking performance than those of even a few years ago often along with stability management programmes which can intervene to help rescue a motorist from an accident.
Accidents will continue to happen and human error is inevitable and not necessarily criminal. There is always the worry that sometimes in the case of accidents, motoring offences etc. some people are treated more harshly than others. A hypothetical young man in a “souped up” Corsa might receive a more serious punishment than a middle aged, middle class professional woman in a Range Rover. The young man’s accident might well be seen as careless, dangerous or reckless driving whereas the woman’s might be seen as merely momentary inattentiveness.
In this context a truly bizarre example is mentioned in the Impartial Reporter this week. Marco Pagni, Chief Administrative Officer of Alliance Boots (originally from Northern Ireland) was detected by the police doing 111mph at Lisbellaw on the A4 in a Porsche 911 GT3. Mr. Pagni is no doubt a competent driver and a GT3 is a very fast car which can be driven safely at high speed in the correct circumstances: The correct circumstances very clearly not being on the A4 at Lisbellaw. Mr. Pagni who already has 6 points on his licence for speeding and for using a mobile whilst driving was given 5 more points and a £500 fine (he apparently earns £1 million per year). According to the Belfast Telegraph:
The judiciary in Fermanagh has warned in the past that anyone exceeding 100mph would automatically lose their licence for a period.
From the Impartial:
Defence barrister, Mr. Brian Fee, described Pagni as a “very successful businessman” who was born and brought up in Northern Ireland. He now lives at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, England.
Handing in a letter from Boots, Mr. Fee told District Judge Mervyn Bates that the company has a very significant number of branches and Pagni’s job requires him to undertake a very substantial amount of travel each year.
He submitted that the gravity of the case could be marked by a significant financial penalty rather than a driving disqualification, pointing out the Pagni already has six penalty points endorsed on his licence: three for a previous speeding offence and three for using a mobile phone while driving.
Had Mr. Pagni been a 22 year old driving a Corsa at 100mph on the A4 who had previous penalty points would he have avoided a ban? Had the hypothetical 22 year old been liable to lose his job in Tescos if he lost his licence would the judge have been willing to let him keep his licence? Consistency in applying the law need not be absolute – discretion is important- but there are limits and this case seems problematic in that regard.
When we are rightly celebrating reductions in road deaths, allowing an individual to keep driving despite doing almost double the national speed limit on a single carriageway road, risks sending out highly conflicting messages.