Which driving offences are concerned with fatalities?
The offences most often referred to are ‘death by dangerous driving’ and ‘death by careless or inconsiderate driving’.
However, there are other driving offences causing death, which include:-
- Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs;
- Causing death by driving when unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured and
- Wanton and furious driving
The latter is an old offence which can be used when traffic laws don’t apply, i.e. when not on a road or public place, or when the vehicle is not motorised.
Is the driver’s behaviour important in these offences?
Yes. It does not matter what the driver’s opinion is. A person could commit a dangerous driving offence even though they believe they are driving in a safe way.
How is the seriousness of an offence determined?
Sentencing guidelines for four offences (causing death by dangerous driving, causing death by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, causing death by careless driving and causing death by driving: unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured drivers) indicate that five factors should be used to determine offence seriousness.
These five factors are as follows:-
- Awareness of risk
- Effect of alcohol or drugs
- Inappropriate speed of vehicle
- Seriously culpable behaviour of offender
What are aggravating and mitigating factors for driving offences causing death?
Factors taken into consideration include:-
- whether more than one person was killed (which would aggravate the seriousness of the offence);
- the effect on an offender (such as very serious injuries suffered by the driver, which would be a mitigating factor, as would victims who were closely related to the driver);
- actions of others (where the actions of a victim or third party contributed to the commission of an offence, this could be a mitigating factor); and
- offender’s age and lack of driving experience – but these are not automatically mitigating factors in and of themselves. The legislation here is aimed at those drivers who have “inexperience in dealing with prevailing conditions or an unexpected or unusual situation that presents itself”. Recklessness and irresponsibility – which may be due to youth – would not be mitigating factors.
In addition, personal mitigation can include a good driving record and a person’s conduct after the offence (i.e. giving assistance at the scene and expressing remorse). Evidence of such personal mitigation could result in a reduction of sentence.
What is meant by ‘dangerous driving’?
In terms of the legislation, a person drives dangerously when:-
- the way they drive falls far below the minimum acceptable standard expected of a competent and careful driver; and
- it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
What types of behaviour could result in a charge of dangerous driving?
Examples of dangerous driving, from court cases, are as follows:-
- racing, going too fast, or driving aggressively;
- ignoring traffic lights, road signs or warnings from passengers;
- overtaking dangerously;
- driving under the influence of drink or drugs, including prescription drugs;
- driving when unfit, including having an injury, being unable to see clearly, not taking prescribed drugs, or being sleepy;
- knowing the vehicle has a dangerous fault or an unsafe load;
- the driver being avoidably and dangerously distracted, for example by:
- using a hand-held phone or other equipment
- reading, or looking at a map
- talking to and looking at a passenger
- lighting a cigarette, changing a CD or tape, tuning the radio.
What is meant by ‘careless or inconsiderate driving’?
This offence takes place when:-
- the way they drive falls below the minimum acceptable standard expected of a competent and careful driver.
Some examples of careless driving are:
- overtaking on the inside;
- driving too close to another vehicle;
- driving through a red light by mistake;
- turning into the path of another vehicle;
- the driver being avoidably distracted by tuning the radio, lighting a cigarette etc.
Examples of inconsiderate driving include:
- flashing lights to force other drivers to give way;
- misusing lanes to gain advantage over other drivers;
- unnecessarily staying in an overtaking lane;
- unnecessarily slow driving or braking;
- dazzling other drivers with un-dipped headlights
Who makes a charging decision for driving offences causing death?
When there has been a fatality on the road and it looks as if an offence may have been committed, the police have a duty to investigate.
If there is sufficient supporting evidence, the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will usually bring charges.
It should be noted that, even if the deaths were members of the driver’s family, charges are likely to be brought.
What sentencing powers do the courts have for driving offences causing death?
The penalties vary, depending on which offence may have been committed.
The following list gives an indication of the courts’ sentencing powers:-
- Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs (Section 3A Road Traffic Act (RTA) 1988)
- Penalty: 1 to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both; and disqualified for a minimum of two years;
- Causing death by dangerous driving (Section 1 RTA 1988)
Penalty: 1 to 14 years in prison, and disqualified for a minimum of two years;
- Causing death by careless, or inconsiderate, driving (Section 20 Road Safety Act 2006)
Penalty: Up to 5 years in prison, and disqualified for a minimum of one year;
- Causing death by driving: unlicensed, disqualified, uninsured drivers (Section 21, Road Safety Act 2006)
Penalty: Up to 2 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both; and disqualified for a minimum of one year;
- Causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs (Section 3A, Road Traffic Act 1988)
Penalty: Up to 14 years in prison, minimum disqualification of 2 years and a compulsory extended re-test
- Murder or manslaughter
Penalty: Up to life-imprisonment, and disqualified for a minimum of two years.