Driving Offences Which Cause Serious Injury or Death
On 1 February 2017 the consultation by the Ministry of Justice on driving offences and the penalties for those offences which cause death and serious injury was closed.
On 20 October 2017 it was announced that the 9,000 responses showed ‘considerable support’ for the proposals. Accordingly, the Government would proceed with its plans to increase the maximum penalties for two of the three driving offences which cause death and to create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Causing Serious Injury by Careless Driving
Regrettably offences of careless driving causing serious injury are far from a rarity. It is regularly the case that it is precisely because of a collision, which all too often causes a serious injury, that careless driving cases are brought to the attention of the Police or Courts at all.
It is apparent from the October announcement that there was broad support for the Government’s view that the current law left a gap where a driver could only be fined even though their culpably bad driving had caused devastating injuries. The consultation document tentatively suggested a maximum penalty of 2 – 3 years’ imprisonment and acknowledged the need to take account of existing maxima for other related offences.
The consultation did not draw a comparison with the maximum penalty for other offences (other than causing death by careless driving) but the inevitable comparison is with that of dangerous driving which carries a 2 year maximum sentence. Without having sight of any proposed sentencing guidelines it is impossible to estimate the proportion of offenders who will be committed to the Crown Court or who will receive custodial sentences. What is clear, however, is that there will be a substantial increase in the need for quality advice and representation for individuals who have done little more than demonstrate “… the kind of inattention or misjudgement to which the ordinarily careful motorist is occasionally subject without it necessarily involving any moral turpitude, although it causes inconvenience and annoyance to other users of the road” (Lord Diplock in R v Lawrence  AC 510 at 525).
Increasing existing maximum penalties
Causing death by careless driving
The maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving is 5 years’ imprisonment – there are no plans to increase this penalty.
Causing death by dangerous driving/careless driving under the influence
The maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years’ imprisonment. The consultation sought views on increasing the maximum to life imprisonment which would, in the words of the Government, mean the offence would have the same maximum penalty as manslaughter.
The maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink or drugs is 14 years’ imprisonment. The consultation sought views on whether sentencing should reflect the same culpability (and therefore the same maximum penalty) as causing death by dangerous driving.
The Government has now announced that, following the consultation, it will introduce life sentences of imprisonment for these offences. It is worth remembering that the offence of causing death by dangerous driving was introduced at least in part as a result of the difficulties in obtaining convictions for manslaughter where the death arose out of the consequences of dangerous driving.
It is curious is that the offence of dangerous driving where no injury or death is caused will continue have a maximum penalty of 2 years’ imprisonment (it was not even raised as a topic in the consultation). This is despite repeated judicial criticism to the available penalty being too low “no matter how outrageous the driving, no matter how many people were endangered and no matter how bad the defendant’s record for bad driving” (R v Hughes  UKSC 56).
It is this author’s view that the new offence and the increased penalties we will see reflect the fact that the Government has, for some considerable time, been far more focussed on harm than on culpability. It is incumbent upon defence lawyers in these cases to redress the balance by appealing to the sentencing judge to view harm in the context and through the prism of culpability.