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.
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.
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
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
• Consumption of substantial amounts of alcohol or drugs leading to gross impairment
• 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
• Gross avoidable distraction such as reading or composing text messages over a period of time
• 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
• 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
• 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
• A brief but obvious danger arising from a seriously dangerous manoeuvre
• Driving whilst avoidably distracted
• 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.