‘Life Sentences for Killer Drivers’ Unlikely to Make a Difference

Man behind barsRecent government plans to introduce tougher sentences for irresponsible drivers are likely to be ineffective at best – at worst, they risk punishing the wrong people.

Last week, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to introduce tougher sentences for irresponsible drivers whose actions behind the wheel result in serious injury or death.

The proposals, which include the introduction of custodial life sentences for those who cause death by dangerous driving, as well as the introduction of a new offence of ‘causing serious injury through careless driving’, apparently reflect a public desire to see tougher sanctions for drivers who ruin lives.

However, there are two big problems with these proposals. Firstly, their scope to effect real change in terms of sentencing is limited. Secondly, they reflect a desire to punish people for the effect of their actions, rather than for the actions themselves – meaning that many people will face life-changing consequences based on something over which they have very little personal control.

A closer look at the existing legislation reveals the extent of both of these problems.

Death by Dangerous Driving

Causing Death by Dangerous Driving is an offence that is committed if a driver causes the death of another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously. Driving is ‘dangerous’ if it falls far below the standard of a competent and careful driver.

This offence currently carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison – a considerable time spent behind bars for someone who did not intend to kill, and who may well have done so through a serious but temporary lapse in standards.

In the worst cases, where drivers have been ‘grossly negligent’ rather than simply ‘dangerous’, a charge of manslaughter is usually brought instead – which already carries with it a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In reality, the introduction of the proposed life sentences for Death by Dangerous Driving would simply mean that we would see a corresponding reduction in prosecutions for manslaughter, but with absolutely no effect on the overall number or length of sentences imposed.

Serious injury through careless driving

The proposed new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving (which would carry with it a prison sentence) is, perhaps, not such a bad idea on the face of it. However, let us take two scenarios:

  • A driver with no previous points on their licence is distracted by a child in the rear of the car, and glances backwards. As they do so, a frail elderly man steps into the road twelve feet from a pedestrian crossing, and they hit him. The man breaks his hip. This driver would likely be guilty of this offence, and so would face imprisonment.
  • A driver with 9 points on their licence, is taking a selfie as they drive their new car home from the garage. They fail to spot someone on a zebra crossing and run them over without even noticing them. That pedestrian is a fit young man, and is uninjured. This driver would face nothing more than a fine, and some points or a ban.

Most of us would agree that these sanctions do not feel fair. The driver in the second scenario is clearly more irresponsible, yet because of the different outcomes for the victims (something that the drivers cannot control), the driver in the first scenario is far more heavily punished.

By seeking to punish people for the effect of their actions, rather than what they actually did wrong, the government risks wasting public funds by locking up the wrong people.

A headline-grabbing exercise?

It is unlikely that the proposals will be realised any time soon, as the legislation needed to make the changes will not be drafted until a separate review into cycling safety has been carried out (for which no date has yet been set).

In any case, the courts, and the guidelines they apply, must take into account an individual driver’s culpability. This means that even if the proposals are brought in, they are likely to make little difference in practice.

In other words, it seems that these proposals by the government were designed not to ‘take a tougher stance on killer drivers’ at all, but simply to grab the headlines for a day.

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Regan Peggs
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