Every motorist will have seen crashed vehicles at the side of the road waiting to be removed. If we’re lucky we pass them or overtake them with ease. If we’re not so lucky we might get stuck behind them in a traffic jam for hours, waiting for the vehicle to be removed and the debris to be cleared.
It falls to the police to ensure the removal of these vehicles from the road where they are causing an obstruction or danger. Not a core police task, you might think, but in helping to prevent further accidents, it is one which can be an important part of the police mission to protect life.
So far so straightforward, but in recent days two sets of allegations, both of which are false have emerged concerning the police role in relation to traffic collisions.
The first of these concerns is an allegation made by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) that we sell the details of people involved in traffic collisions to ambulance chasing compensation lawyers. This is simply untrue, we do not.
The second allegation suggests the service is involved in a ‘cynical racket’ together with the insurance industry and vehicle recovery operators. This again is utterly false.
So what is the truth?
I believe this is a simple confusion of the issue of referral fees paid to claims management companies, which Jack Straw MP has termed the insurance industry’s ‘dirty secret’ and the practical task of clearing roads after a collision. It’s unsurprising that police forces are not always able to carry out this task themselves and therefore require the help of recovery companies.
When it’s possible for a driver to arrange their own recovery within a set period of time, the police will allow the driver to make those arrangements. But in most cases, drivers are unable to arrange their own recovery.
When this is the case police can rely on a long established recovery and storage scheme for vehicles that are broken down, abandoned or involved in collisions on the roads. This scheme operates under law and is operated to ensure the safety of other road users and that the free-flow of traffic is maintained to minimise disruption. Vehicles are recovered to prevent them being subject to arson, theft or damage and to prevent them being used by others in criminal activities.
Details provided by the police to vehicle recovery agents under these schemes are provided purely to manage the vehicles recovered so that they may be either released efficiently back to the owners or the insurance companies involved. The recovery operators work under the Data Protection Act, just like the Police do. They are not permitted to pass on the details of individuals involved in traffic collisions for any other purpose.
Clearing the roads does come with a cost though. Costs that we believe – and the Government agrees – shouldn’t fall to the public purse. Particularly at a time when police forces are fighting to save money and preserve their service to the public.
The fees charged are prescribed by law and are set to reflect both the size of the vehicle to be recovered and the difficulty of its removal.
In most cases, although there are exceptions, this charge is £150 for a car. The police retain a proportion of the agreed statutory charge in order to cover the administration and maintenance of the schemes and to offset some of the expenses incurred in holding vehicles involved in the commission of crime or with evidential value.
This has become known as a management ‘fee’ but is, more accurately, retention of money which already belongs to the force concerned. There is no such thing as a ‘Referral Fee’ in this context, as the money is the property of the force and is paid into a fund, from which recovery services are paid for.
The member of the public pays no more than the statutory charge and is not disadvantaged in any way by the arrangements relating to how the money is dealt with, once paid.
If any individual or organisation has evidence of police officers offering the details of those involved in collisions for sale, they should report it to the relevant police force and those concerned will be rigorously investigated for both disciplinary and criminal offences. The service understands the importance of personal information and treats it with utmost integrity. Any behaviour to the contrary will not be tolerated.
We understand that there is a broad debate taking place about the culture within which legal claims and insurance firms operate, and that may be uncomfortable for some. But it is disappointing that some are so eager to misrepresent the police role and opportunistic when it comes to unfairly attacking the service.
Police officers want to focus on catching criminals, keeping people safe on the roads and serving the public. Thankfully, the number of road traffic collisions has reduced sharply in recent years. Removing damaged or abandoned vehicles from the road is simply a task that needs to be done to help ensure that reduction continues.
Phil Gormley is Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary and ACPO Head of Roads Policing.