In the words of Scotland's chief constable Sir Stephen House, it is a subtle change, but it is also a welcome one:

traffic officers are issuing fewer tickets to motorists caught driving slightly over the speed limit and issuing more verbal warnings instead.

The move is a response to a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS), but it also comes after concern inside and outside Police Scotland that a target culture was developing and that officers were no longer able to exercise discretion in certain cases. Sir Stephen has now confirmed officers can apply discretion and that more verbal warnings are being handed out in place of tickets.

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In some ways, the move does not represent a massive shift in policy and Sir Stephen is right to say the change is subtle. Police officers have always been able to exercise their discretion and from the start Police Scotland has denied that targets exist for individual officers. Indeed, in this, the force now has the support of HMICS, which has cleared Police Scotland of having a target culture.

However, what HMICS has also said is that the lack of targets was not necessarily understood on the front line, and it is certainly true that some officers believed a target culture existed and that it was damaging their traditional ability to use discretion. Sir Stephen's subtle change of tack now makes the position clear: when driving slightly over the limit (34mph in a 30 for example) it is entirely possible that the driver will be stopped and given a warning rather than a fixed penalty.

In underlining the policy in this way, Sir Stephen is making it clear that he endorses the use of discretion in such cases, which is the right approach. From the start of his time in post the chief constable has made road safety a priority, but the impression that the rules on seat belts and speeding were being applied indiscriminately always risked undermining the public support on which good policing relies. A verbal warning also avoids criminalising generally law-abiding citizens who have a momentary lapse of judgment.

None of this means drivers should feel they can drive over 30mph with impunity and officers will still issue penalties to motorists who are driving recklessly (even 31mph outside a school, for example, is unacceptable). Unbelted drivers and passengers also account for many deaths every year in Scotland, and Police Scotland should remain vigilant on the issue.

The aim of policing in these areas should be to reduce irresponsible driving, and warnings should have a role in that. For the first time, records are to be kept on the number issued, which means that in future a judgment can be made on whether warnings are having an effect on accident rates or whether the balance between warnings and penalties should be adjusted. The idea of sending drivers to speed awareness classes is also worth considering.

Police Scotland will no doubt have to revisit the issue in future, but in making its subtle change on speed, it is underlining the important principle that good policing aims not just to enforce the law but change behaviour too. Penalties, warnings and education can all play their part.