This article – bar a few changes – was originally published elsewhere in February 2012, in response to calls for the maximum jail term for causing death by dangerous/careless driving to be raised from 14 years to life, in line with other homicidal offences.
Today, Chris Grayling announced tougher sentencing for drivers who kill or seriously injure.
This follows campaigning from The Times, the CTC and others demanding that – amongst other things – the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving should be lifted from 14 years to life, to come in line with other homicide offences.
There’s some sense in removing such anomalies (though some would argue there would be more sense in simply applying the offence of manslaughter rather than driving-specific legislation), but I don’t believe it will achieve anything.
Other charges are available
Firstly there’s the fact that in cases which are particularly severe and/or carry intent to harm, other charges may be used. One example that springs to mind is that of Carl Baxter, who intentionally reversed his Range Rover into a cyclist towing his daughter in a trailer. He was found guilty of two counts of GBH as well as dangerous driving. Nevertheless, he still only received two years’ imprisonment.
Whilst this is precisely the sort of lenient sentencing that the proposal seeks to address, it would seem that in these cases the law already has ways of applying a more severe charge — the question here probably less concerns the maximum possible sentence and more the actual sentence given (and potentially also the charges brought: deliberately driving a Range Rover at speed into a young child arguably looks like attempted murder).
But that’s by the by.
Missing the point
The thing is, maximum sentencing is not really the problem. Changing the maximum sentence for any homicidal driving-related offence makes a difference where the driver has caused a death by dangerous or careless driving and the circumstances are severe enough to attract the maximum sentence.
More importantly, changing the maximum sentence for causing death from 14 years to life would only have averted the death if the driver weighs up the sentencing prior to causing the death and concludes that although 14 years would be acceptable, life is enough to be a deterrent – and even that assumes forethought on the part of the driver.
In reality that last point is a total non-issue. Driving-related deaths are almost exclusively caused by ineptitude of some sort (see below), not by premeditation. Acts like those of Carl Baxter are fortunately rare; and even then, they are generally premeditated only in the heat of the moment: I somehow doubt anyone has sat down and drawn out a risk matrix to decide whether or not they should run someone over.
Finding the point
The real problem is not one of malice or intent. The real problems are those which markedly raise the risk of a non-malicious individual causing a collision:
- Distraction; whether by phone, satnav, radio, screaming child, hair, make-up, sandwich, cigarette or whatever.
- Incapactitation; whether by drink, drugs, lack of sleep, medicinal side-effects, illness, old age or anything else.
- Failure to adapt to conditions: driving too fast on wet roads or in fog, failing to anticipate black ice, continuing blindly when sun glare fills the windscreen, etc.
- Poor anticipation and hazard perception: assuming a road is clear beyond a blind corner, overtaking with insufficient visibility of oncoming traffic, failure to give a cyclist enough room to swerve if necessary for potholes etc.
- Other incompetence: inadequate spatial awareness, lack of control of the vehicle, and so on.
All of these are real risks that result in real incidents, real injuries and real deaths. All of them can, and do, involve people who mostly, in the context of the incident, have no malicious intent whatsoever.
This is why there is currently a lower jail term limit for road deaths: they are mostly not malicious or premeditated, and where they are, other charges with longer custodial sentences can be applied.
The point, then, is to see that our society has become far too tolerant of dangerous road use – a blurring that is written in statute itself, given that actions which present clear and potentially fatal danger to other road users are labelled as simply “careless”.
The problem is not that someone isn’t in enough hot water after someone has died. The problem is that that person’s competence has reached such a low level that someone has died.
To put it another way, we need to understand that these deaths and injuries do not occur because people set out to cause them. They occur because we let people set out without sufficient intent not to cause them.
The solution is, in no small part, to become intolerant of these distractions and incapacitations and inadequacies. As a society, we are getting there. Most people are already pretty revolted by drink driving. Many have a similar opinion about mobile phone use (though I see drivers on the phone on a pretty much daily basis). Others…? Not so much.
The only potential legislative solution is to teach everyone that these inattentions and incompetencies are not tolerable; to emphasise how dangerous they are before someone dies.
One key tool would be to have a mandatory ban for all offences directly related to road safety, with a minimum period for each type of offence, even if it’s very short (though with sufficient sentencing guidelines there seems little need for an upper limit).
A ban would have far more impact than a paltry £60 fine, or points that have no effect beyond insurance premiums until at least 9 have been accrued. It is palpable for all, and it carries a clear message.
Moreover, a ban actually removes dangerous drivers from the road, at least temporarily; thus actually serving to protect other road (and pavement) users.
Another legal tool would be for a driving licence to be forfeit on the imposition of a ban, and a new one to be issued on passing a retest.
A further tool would be for the punishment for driving whilst disqualified to be extremely severe: to drive whilst disqualified is a premeditated and intentional act, and here a deterrent can work. And there’s no need to be lenient: it’s really not hard to avoid getting into a car and turning the ignition on.
Another obvious tool would be to abolish the “exceptional hardship” plea: if anyone’s licence is that important, they should look after it, and there’s no reason why they should be held to lower standards than the rest of us.
If the threat of not driving is constantly hanging over all of us, we would all be less blasé about those marginal drops in standards that we all make, and all get away with… until the one time we don’t.
Being more strict with driving offences is all well and good, but let’s do that in a way that actually makes a difference to road safety rather than just making headlines.