Britain’s roads are becoming less dangerous. According to the DfT, approximately 750 fewer people died in traffic accidents in the year to June 2017, compared with the same period in 2009, and all levels of injury fell by 5% from 2016.
However, figures still show that 1,710 people died on UK roads from July 2016 to June 2017. Each death brings heartbreak and grief to loved ones, particularly if they were caused by recklessness or a driver high on drink or drugs. Following consultation, the government is targeting the worst offenders with sentences equivalent to manslaughter. Maximum terms rise from 14 years to life for drivers who cause death by dangerous driving. Aggravating factors include speeding, racing or using a mobile phone. Life sentences will also be introduced for careless drivers who kill while under the influence of drink or drugs, and a new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving will be created, with sentencing yet to be decided.
Prison terms for driving offences
Transport lawyer Tim Ridyard, partner at Ashtons Legal, believes a maximum prison term of two years could be introduced alongside community sentences. “The offence fills a gap in the law between death by careless driving – a custodial offence – and careless driving, which is not custodial. There are cases of careless driving that are non-fatal but involve very significant injury.” Present options include fining the driver, imposing penalty points and disqualification.
At the same time, the DfT is reviewing whether a new offence of causing death by dangerous or careless driving should be introduced for cyclists. No decision has yet been made.
Paul Arthurton, MD of Norfolk-based Paul Arthurton Transport, believes the courts should exercise caution. He accepts that a driver under the influence of drugs or drink has set out in a premeditated situation, but he is less certain about some of the new penalties.
“Careless driving is awfully hard to prove,” he says. “If you think you see an animal on the road, should you swerve or hit the animal? The courts in danger of having the same sentence for a driver as for someone who takes a hammer to a burglary. The burglar was wrong because he shouldn’t have been there, but did the driver set out with the intent to harm someone?”
Enforcement is also a concern. “You can bring in as many new laws as you like but there are not enough police.”
He is satisfied that his drivers use mobile phones sensibly, aided by technological developments. “Many have automatic text messages to explain that the driver can’t use the phone and our new Scania cabs take dashboard messages from callers.”
Ridyard believes only exceptional offenders will face life sentences for causing death by dangerous driving. “Causing serious injury through dangerous driving is the area where ordinary drivers are more at risk. These are injuries equivalent to grievous bodily harm, such as a broken arm. And there are cases where someone is very close to dying. The essence of the offence is the standard of driving. The new powers tackle really bad driving. With road traffic offences you don’t have a mental element, for example the intent to act dishonestly. It’s about driving carelessly or dangerously, not what the driver thought.”
Ridyard says operators must educate drivers. “They should receive an explanation of offences and how they’re proved, perhaps through a wall chart in the drivers’ room. A sensible driver is unlikely to be involved in dangerous driving, such as using a mobile phone, but may be susceptible to careless driving, offences that still have serious consequences.”
If the operator is implicated, perhaps through imposing unrealistic deadlines or poor maintenance standards, then the O-licence could be at risk. Operators should review procedures. “Do you have drug and drink policies and random testing?” asks Ridyard.
Transport lawyer Tim Culpin, partner at Aaron & Partners, believes the new sentences for dangerous driving are justified. “Some offenders are callous and uncaring for the injuries they cause victims and the suffering to bereaved families. The results of the consultation show significant popular support for such a move.”
He believes operators must play an active role. “They should avoid putting undue pressure on drivers. This is often at the heart of a public inquiry where several drivers for the same operator have committed hours’ offences.”
Culpin supports possible new penalties for cyclists. “As a road user I don’t see why they should be any different from other users. They should bear responsibilities for their actions like everyone else.”
Industry bodies agree that operators share responsibility for driver conduct. “Operators should ensure drivers work within the rules used by the sector and the guidance laid out in the highway code,” says Duncan Buchanan, RHA policy director.
“Operators must take responsibility for driver conduct and ensure they are properly trained,” says James Firth, head of licensing policy and compliance information at the FTA. “The new sentences underline the importance the government places on responsible driving by all road users.”
New penalties for dangerous and careless driving
The Ministry of Justice is introducing new penalties for dangerous and careless driving. An implementation date has not been set.
Maximum jail terms will increase from 14 years to life for:
- Causing death by dangerous driving. Aggravating factors include speeding, racing or using a mobile phone.
- Causing death by careless driving when unfit through drink or drugs.
Sentencing will be in line with manslaughter and determined by the judge on the facts of the case. In murder cases adult offenders normally face sentences ranging from 15-30 years.
A new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving will be created with jail terms yet to be decided.
The DfT is reviewing whether an offence of causing death by dangerous or careless driving should be introduced for cyclists. No decision has been made.