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Home secretary announces recording of all traffic stops

Traffic stops are one of the most used police powers but up to now have been one of the least regulated. With the term "driving while black" now commonplace, we outline the key concerns surrounding s163 of the Road Traffic Act and provide recommendations for delivering meaningful reform in this area.

At the end of March, the Home Secretary announced that all traffic stops will start to be recorded. It appears that they will now be included in the Best Use of Stop and Search Scheme introduced in 2014 to create “greater transparency, accountability and community involvement in the use of stop-and-search powers” and additionally police forces will have to also record reasons for, and outcomes, of the stops.

Traffic stops are one of the most used statutory police powers in England and Wales but until now one of the least regulated. Under Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, the police do not need reasonable suspicion when stopping vehicles and there was no requirement for these stops to be recorded. There has been limited guidance on the use of the power and very little external oversight in contrast to other stop and search powers.

StopWatch has long advocated for extending recording to traffic stops as well as legislative change after speaking with affected communities and realising the negative impact this power has on their relationship with the police. The need for guidance and monitoring of this power has also been emphasised by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) repeatedly. In its 2015 review the HMIC recommended to the Home Office that Road Traffic Act powers be included in Code A of PACE.

StopWatch estimates that there were approximately 5.5 million road traffic stops in 2010/11, making it the most widely used statutory stop power. Recent research by HMIC show that black and minority ethnic drivers are more likely to be pulled over in spite of them being no more likely to be arrested or fined and that they were treated less professionally being less likely to be provided with a reason for the stop. With official statistics showing a significant decline in the number of stops and searches over the past few years in England and Wales, there is concern that this may be offset by an increase in traffic stops. If it is the case that progress is being undermined by a discriminatory and ineffective use of traffic stops then little will have been achieved.

It is assumed that the power to stop vehicles without suspicion is intended to ascertain whether the driver is qualified to drive yet the legislation fails to provide an explicit purpose, which raises concern about the breadth of the S163 power. Lacking a specific threshold and guidance on its use, the power has long been open to misinterpretation and widespread abuse. Consequently, we welcome Home Secretary’s announcement and appreciate the fact that after years of misuse of the power measures to bring accountability are now on the table.

As the details of the Home Secretary’s announcement are being ironed out StopWatch highlights a number of outstanding issues and recommendations to ensure that accurate monitoring and meaningful reform can be achieved:

  • Some forces will now record stops of a person in their vehicle but not of pedestrians, leading to patchy accountability and confusion. In 2010, the Home Secretary abolished mandatory recording of pedestrian stops or “stop and account” – originally put in place as a result of the Stephen Lawrence Report’s recommendations in 1999. In June 2015, only ten of the 43 forces continued to record stops on pedestrians. All stops should be recorded to ensure consistency and transparency across all police powers.
  • Many S163 stops are generated through the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems, whose use is unmonitored and there is a concern it may be used disproportionately based on inaccurate intelligence or selective deployment. StopWatch recommends a review of ANPR systems and that traffic stop records note whether they are based on ANPR hits. Based on the findings of the review, guidance should be produced as to how “markers” are placed on vehicles, what constitutes “intelligence” in this respect, the process for removing “markers” from vehicles and whether the stop was as a result of an ANPR flag.
  • PACE Code of Practice A be amended to include specific guidance on the use of S163.
  • Section 163 RTA be amended so that its use is restricted to road traffic purposes only.

StopWatch welcomes the Home Secretary’s commitment to this issue and willingness to listen to concerns and extend recording to traffic stops. If accompanied by transparency in the use of ANPR systems it constitutes a significant improvement in police accountability. Traffic stops represent just one of a number of stop powers subject to very little monitoring and scrutiny; reform on the use of strip search and the stark lack of child safeguarding during police encounters is urgently needed to ensure that the most vulnerable do not continue to be disproportionately targeted during stop and search. 

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