Tag Archives: Death by driving

Causing death by dangerous driving

Causing death by driving (both careless and dangerous) often divides opinion. For those who say ‘it could happen to any one of us’, it is seen as a somewhat ‘unfortunate’ offence. For others, the punishments for killing someone whilst driving a vehicle are insufficient.

The offence

Road Traffic Act 1988 s 1 creates the offence. Basically, a person has to be ‘driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously on a road or other public place’ and must cause ‘the death of another person’ to be guilty of an offence.

Section 2A defines ‘dangerous driving’:

(1) For the purposes of sections 1, 1A and 2 above a person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if (and, subject to subsection (2) below, only if)—

(a) the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and

(b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.

(2) A person is also to be regarded as driving dangerously for the purposes of sections 1, 1A and 2 above if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous.

Sentencing

The sentencing of death by driving cases is fraught with difficulty. There is an obvious need to reflect the loss of life (although courts almost always state that ‘of course no prison sentence can properly reflect the fact that someone has been killed, however, it is of course necessary to reflect the facts of the case – death by dangerous driving cases are characterised by poor judgement or deliberate decisions to drive dangerously – but are absent of an intention to kill someone.

The maximum sentence is 14 years and the offence is indictable only, meaning that cases can only be heard in the Crown Court.

The courts can make an order depriving the offender of his or her vehicle, if appropriate, and the offence is listed in CJA 2003 Sch 15B, which means in the most serious cases, an extended sentence may be imposed.

The guidelines attempt to divide the standard of driving into the following categories.

Level 1: The most serious offences encompassing driving that involved a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others.

Starting point: 8 years Range: 7-14 years

Level 2: Driving that created a substantial risk of danger

Starting point: 5 years Range: 4-7 years

Level 3: Driving that created a significant risk of danger (Where the driving is markedly less culpable than for this level, reference should be made to the starting point and range for the most serious level of causing death by careless driving)

Starting point: 3 years Range: 2-5 years

Substantial sentences

Sending a person to custody is a serious decision. As you can see from the guidelines, the sentences for causing death by dangerous driving are all custodial (very few receive non-custodial penalties and the guidelines appear not to contemplate such sentences) and for substantial periods.

As an example of a level 3 offence (the lowest category), the guideline suggests the situation where a driver drives knowingly deprived of adequate sleep or rest. How many people fall in to that category when driving to work? If you have young children and/or a challenging job involving working away/long hours, I suspect you are constantly sleep deprived.

Types of driving

The types of driving which can amount to death by dangerous driving are diverse. They include: Falling asleep at the wheel, driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs, foreign drivers on UK roads, accident caused by poor eyesight, overtaking at ill-timed moments, fleeing the scene of a crime, speeding (although speeding is not in itself sufficient to establish dangerous driving, see here) and even a single misjudgement or momentary inattention.

The guideline states:

Level 1 offences are likely to be characterised by:

•             A prolonged, persistent and deliberate course of very bad driving           

AND/OR

•             Consumption of substantial amounts of alcohol or drugs leading to gross impairment

AND/OR

•             A group of determinants of seriousness which in isolation or smaller number would place the offence in level 2

Level 2 is likely to be characterised by:

•             Greatly excessive speed, racing or competitive driving against another driver

OR

•             Gross avoidable distraction such as reading or composing text messages over  a period of time

OR

•             Driving whilst ability to  drive is impaired as a result of consumption of alcohol or drugs, failing to take prescribed medication or as a result of a known medical condition

OR

•             A group of determinants of seriousness which in isolation or smaller number would place the offence in level 3

Level 3 is likely to be characterised by:

•             Driving above the speed limit/at a speed that is inappropriate for the prevailing conditions

OR

•             Driving when knowingly deprived of adequate sleep or rest or knowing that the vehicle  has a dangerous defect or is poorly maintained or is dangerously loaded

OR

•             A brief but obvious danger arising from a seriously dangerous manoeuvre

OR

•             Driving whilst avoidably distracted

OR

•             Failing  to have proper  regard   to vulnerable road users

Views of the victim’s family

In any case featuring loss of life, emotions run high. It is therefore completely understandable why families of the victim feel angry, upset and let down by what seem to be low sentences considering that the defendant is responsible for the death of their loved one.

It is important however that the views of the victim’s family as to the appropriate sentence are not taken into consideration. To do so would result in inconsistency, injustice and promote an attitude of vengeful punishment.

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Death by driving: Careless or Dangerous?

We were asked to look at death by driving and when careless driving becomes dangerous, in particular, with reference to the sad case some 10 days ago of Courtney Meppen-Walter, who pleaded to causing death by careless driving.

The offences

Firstly, let’s look at the different offences.

1)      Causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving  (RTA 1988 s 2B) (this is the ‘simple’ offence)

2)      Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs etc. (RTA 1988 s 3A)

3)      Causing death by dangerous driving (RTA 1988 s 1)

It is also worth noting that there is now an offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving (LASPO 2012 s 143), thereby filling the lacuna between dangerous driving and causing death by dangerous driving.

Offences 1) and 2) are obviously the same offence, save for the presence of drink/drugs in the driver’s system at the time of the offence. So, in the context of the Meppen-Walter case, let’s treat them as one and the same.

The maximum sentences are as follows:

1)      Death by careless (simple) 5 years and obligatory 12 month disqualification

2)      Death by careless (drink/drugs) 14 years and obligatory 2 year disqualification

3)      Death by dangerous  14 years and obligatory 2 year disqualification

So what makes careless into dangerous?

Well this is no doubt a question of specific facts.

Helpfully, the Act provides us with some assistance:

RTA 1988 s 3ZA Meaning of careless / inconsiderate driving

(2)A person is to be regarded as driving without due care and attention if (and only if) the way he drives falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver.

(3)In determining for the purposes of subsection (2) above what would be expected of a careful and competent driver in a particular case, regard shall be had not only to the circumstances of which he could be expected to be aware but also to any circumstances shown to have been within the knowledge of the accused.

(4)A person is to be regarded as driving without reasonable consideration for other persons only if those persons are inconvenienced by his driving.]

RTA 1988 s 2A Meaning of Dangerous driving:

(1)For the purposes of sections 1 and 2 above a person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if (and, subject to subsection (2) below, only if)—

(a)the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and

(b)it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.

(2)A person is also to be regarded as driving dangerously for the purposes of sections 1 and 2 above if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous.

So essentially, we are talking about the level by which the driver in question falls below the standard expected of him or her.

The sentencing guidelines (which can be found here) provide a list of factors which are designed to assist the court in determining the correct level of culpability and therefore the appropriate sentence for the offence with which it is dealing. These include:

a)      Previous convictions for motoring offences,

b)      Disregarding warnings,

c)      Failing to stop,

d)     Falsely claiming the victim was to blame for the collision,

e)      Injuries caused in addition to the death

Categorisation

Death by driving cases can be categorised by reference to the behaviour of the driver. For example, where the resulting collision and death are a product of taking one’s eyes off the road to change the radio station, this can be categorised a momentary inattention. This helps to ascertain the level of culpability attributable to the driver.

Where the driver has been consistently speeding 20 mph above the prescribed limit, ignoring warnings that the road ahead contains sharp turns or a ‘T’ junction, this is clearly deliberate, persistent poor driving which is far more culpable than the ‘momentary inattention’ example above.

So what about Meppen-Walter?

Well we have very few details about the case. We know that he was ‘racing’, playing or otherwise acting irresponsibly with another vehicle. We know that he was speeding at the time of the incident, 55mph, and was still accelerating.

BBC News reported that: The court was told Mr Singh, 32, and Mrs Kaur, 37, had been sitting in the front of a Nissan Micra when it was struck by Meppen-Walter’s Mercedes C220 saloon, owned by his grandfather, at 22:15 BST on 1 September.

They had been emerging from a side street when the crash happened, at the junction of Great Ducie Street and Sherborne Street.

Mr Meppen-Walter remained at the scene and tried to help the victims. Meppen-Walter had one previous conviction for speeding – again doing 56mph in a 30mph zone.

BBC News also reported that: “The probation report says he’s a young man who wished he could have those 10 seconds back, but of course he can’t.”

This suggests to us that it was a case of more than a momentary inattention, and The Telegraph reported that: The traffic investigation concluded the “overriding factor” in the incident was the speed of the Mercedes.

So, taking account of the speed and the fact that Meppen-Walter was ‘jockeying’ with another vehicle, it appears that case was one that fell not far short of dangerous driving.

Looking at the guidelines, it would have likely attracted a starting point of 15 months with a range of 36 weeks – 3 years. The Judge appears to have increased the starting point to reflect some aggravating factors, and then reduced it to take account of his plea and (probably) his young age.

The sentence was one of 16 months.

Death by careless driving: 19 year old kills friend and receives 6 months custody

Naomi Jones, aged 19, pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. In July 2011, she was driving with her friend Elysia Ashworth, aged 17, near Blackpool airport. Ms Jones was driving “unacceptably fast” and failed to negotiate a blind bend.  She lost control of the car on the narrow, uneven road collided with a tree.

The accident investigator estimated the speed of impact with the tree as being between 30 and 35 mph. The speed at which the car was travelling as it approached the tree could not be estimated, but it was said to have been faster than 35mph. Ms Jones had only passed her test 4 months prior to the accident.

It appears that Ms Jones was charged with the more serious offence of causing death by dangerous driving but was acquitted by the jury.

Sentencing remarks

As usual, the sentencing remarks are not available, and so we only have what the press reported that the Judge said when sentencing.

Judge Christopher Cornwall said that verdict should not be called into question but in his judgment it was not far short of dangerous driving.

He said, ”There seems to have been every conceivable reason that you should have reduced your speed on that road.

”There is no doubt in my mind that the considerable jolt you experienced ought to have acted as a warning that your speed was unacceptably fast.

”There was no evidence of braking only a desperate attempt to steer around the corner which failed.”

He accepted she was not racing but pointed out ”there may however have been an element of showing off to your friends in the car and those following”.

The sentence

She was sentenced to 6 months’ custody (to be spent in a Young Offender Institution as a result of her age). Given that Ms Jones offered to plead to the lesser offence prior to the trial, it is likely that she would have been given a third discount, as is usual. This means the sentence after a trial was in the order of 9 months.

She was also disqualified for 12 months (a mandatory disqualification in absence of special reasons) and ordered to take an extended re-test.

Presumably the Judge would have been referred to the guidelines (Causing Death by Driving Guideline 2008) which suggest for a case of driving falling ‘not short of dangerous driving’, the starting point is 15 months’ custody, with a range of 36 weeks to 3 years.

It can be assumed that the following were put forth in mitigation: Ms Jones’ age, the fact that the person who died was her very close friend and her relative inexperience as a driver. Conversely, the fact that she was speeding and showing off, she was unfamiliar with the road and so more caution was required, and that she had endangered Ms Ashworth’s life and the life of another passenger (who suffered injuries), were aggravating factors.

It appears that the Judge took the view that the mitigation outweighed the aggravation, and reduced the sentence, with the plea, to 6 months.

Sentences for this offence range from non-custodial sentences to 5 years. With the aggravating and mitigating factors, is 6 months commensurate with the seriousness of the offence? Some would say that 6 months doesn’t properly reflect the loss of a life.