Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Insurance and the Speed Awareness Course

This is a cross-posted from, a blog by AdamSnow (PhD Student, Criminology) that is dedicated to understanding and sharing ideas about road traffic regulation and the interplay between traffic law and society.

An interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph leads with the headline "I took a speed awareness course and my car insurance doubled".  Of course this represents just one instance of one policy doubling in amount so perhaps one shouldn't get worked up about the 'doubling'.  Indeed the piece overall is quite balanced in how it reports insurance decisions.  What will be interesting to many motorists however is the fact that one’s insurance can increase if one attends a speed awareness course.

The idea of awareness courses in motoring stem from the Road Traffic Law Review conducted by Peter North in 1988.  This report recommended the use of one day driver retraining courses for those drivers who it was felt were responsible for accidents.  It was not taken forward by the Government at the time but 
Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did take the idea forward at the local level.  At present a number of such schemes exist, some covering more serious instances of driver offending (Drink Driving) whilst the majority aimed at the more minor end (Seat-belt, Traffic Lights, Speeding, Mobile Phone Use, Careless Driving).  The use of such courses has gained impetus by being a centre piece of current government policy.

Attendance on a speed awareness course is not compulsory, instead it is offered as an option alongside the FPN and prosecution alternatives.  There has certainly been an uptake of the course by drivers, indeed more people sit the speed awareness course now than receive a fixed penalty notice for speeding.  One should certainly be wary of any claims that speeding offences have reduced overall. Over the last 5 years the number of speeding offences actioned by the police has risen by approximately 200,000.  Thus the idea that the speed awareness course reduces the likelihood of offending is somewhat undermined, in that more offending than ever is occurring.  The course merely displaces offenders at the lower end away from FPNs and prosecutions. 

Herein lies the problem for insurers. The actual risk on the road from speed is not decreasing (based on the official action statistics) - it is increasing.  Insurance is all about risk and it seems only sensible (no matter how much we may dislike it) that premiums increase as risk increases.  The ultimate question though is whether such courses lower the risk of speeding for those who attend them.

It is fair to say that those who attend speed awareness courses on the whole are lower risk than those who accept an FPN (I accept that I am making huge generalizations here).  The course is typically offered to those who speed only a small percentage above the thresholds for speeding enforcement (10% plus 2 mph).  For example those speeding 13 mph above a 30 mph limit will not generally be eligible for the course and instead offered an FPN.  Those caught driving between 35-42mph will be offered the course as an option, providing they haven't sat the course in the previous year.  Thus the more risky drivers are not offered the option of a course, although as the course is optional even low risk drivers may still accept the FPN instead of spending time on the course.

This is an interesting approach to say the least.  Surely attempts at lowering risk through education have more potential benefit when they are aimed at the more risky drivers?  Be that as it may at present the course is seen as suitable for low risk and the fixed penalty for higher risk drivers.  There is some 
evidence to suggest that such awareness courses do improve driver behaviour, although this is typically short term and a relatively modest effect.  Of course vehicle insurance is a short term deal (typically one year) which may support the idea that attendance on such a course should reduce not increase one's premium.  Certainly more concrete evidence is needed before that claim can be made with confidence, the studies to date aren't definitive.

 ACPO (The Association of Chief Police Officers) were, in 2012,
 critical of insurance companies who raised premiums based on attendance at a speed awareness course.  They argued similar to the above points that attendance on the course lowered risk by making driver behaviour better.

ACPO's position is somewhat problematic.   If it believes the awareness course is the better option for combating problematic speed then it should have the courage of its convictions and recommend the removal of the FPN as an option for speeding between certain thresholds.  My own research has found that the availability of the awareness course certainly contributes to officers issuing more penalties than perhaps they would have done. 

By making the course available the police are given a "positive" option (the course) which they can "sell" to the motorist as a cheaper alternative to the FPN.  This makes it easier for officers to enforce legislation that they may otherwise  have some difficulty in justifying to themselves.  The course is not stressed as a punishment but a positive alternative to punishment in which the driver obtains a reduction in the FPN cost and an educational opportunity at the same time.

In any event awareness courses are here to stay and the best advice one can give when it comes to insurance is to shop around.  The best way to avoid the problem all together is to drive safely and below the limit, although I certainly accept that this is not always possible particularly in unfamiliar locations.

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