Why is road crime not treated as real crime?

If I were to ask you when you thought sentencing guidelines for causing death by dangerous driving were last consulted on, would you think it was almost 15 years ago? When you think about the increase in vehicle ownership and traffic on our roads, coupled with advances in vehicle technology, I am sure this would be a shocking revelation.

And to many involved in dealing with the aftermath of death or serious injury by dangerous driving, it is a situation which is long overdue reform and change. As someone who lost a close family member in a car accident caused by a driver who was driving dangerously due to being intoxicated with alcohol and drugs, I know only too well the devastating impact such a loss has on a family.

Many road safety organisations believe sentencing, including driving bans, do not come near the maximum possible. For the families of those killed on the roads by dangerous or careless drivers, the sentences their killers receive are far too lenient, and in their eyes, and this is a view shared by the public, such sentences offer no deterrent or protection for the public.

But reform is needed in a wider sense and not just in relation to causing death or serious injury whilst driving.

In a joint survey of UK Drivers conducted by Brake and Direct Line in 2019, 75% do not think it is right that drivers who accrue 12 points can be let off a driving ban. 66% believe that driving disqualifications should be issued more frequently to help make roads safer. And 81% believe that drives who kill or seriously injure should be banned from driving as a condition of bail.

Much more effective sentencing is needed, both in terms of tougher sentences, including longer custodial sentences and lifelong bans to those convicted of death by dangerous driving. Plus wider and more effective use of driving bans, immediate, short and long term. Safety campaigners such as RoadPeace have long argued that in addition to tougher sentencing, much more use should be made of driving bans, giving wider benefits and protection for all road users.

“Driving is a privilege, not a right, and those who show a disregard for the law shouldn’t be allowed to endanger others”

Mary Williams, OBE, Chief Executive of Brake.

After many years (decades almost) of campaigning by road safety groups such as Brake and RoadPeace, combined with pressure from families of the victims of dangerous driving, the Government is finally bringing forward changes to driving penalties to meet its longstanding commitment to ensure the courts have the powers they need to deal with those drivers who kill by dangerous driving or by careless driving when under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The Government is also bringing forward a new offence of causing serious injury be careless driving, as no current offence adequately punishes the serious and potentially life changing injuries that can result from careless driving.

The Government actually committed to changing the law on dangerous driving following a review way back in 2014, so this has been a long time coming, and is still only looking to be introduced early next year, subject to the law being passed. So further delays could still impact these changes.

Under its new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government is aiming to amend existing laws to bring in tougher sentences for a range of offences including dangerous driving.

The Bill will make amendments to existing legislation in order to:

  • increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years imprisonment to life imprisonment
  • increase the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years imprisonment to life imprisonment
  • create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving with a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

Following the 2014 announcement the Government launched a Consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to death or serious injury in 2016. The consultation sought views on driving offences and penalties that cause death and serious injury. Over 9,000 responses were received and overall showed considerable support for the proposals which included:

  • increasing the maximum penalty for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life
  • creating a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving.

At the time of publishing the results of the Consultation in October 2017, the Government decided to proceed with the proposals to increase the maximum penalties for the two causing death offences and to create a new offence of causing serious injury as a result of careless driving “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

Clearly there has been much pressure on parliamentary time in the last four years but the Government is determined to see safer roads for all users and provide the courts with wider powers to deal with cases where culpability of the offender is high. They have pledged to make sure that the penalties available to the courts for such offences are proportionate and reflect the seriousness of the offences committed. The Government also wants to close the gap in the law relating to serious injury.

Assuming the Bill is passed next year, these reforms will be widely welcomed, but many road safety campaigners feel much more reform is needed. Making our roads safer is not just about dealing more harshly with those who cause death or serious injury by dangerous or careless driving. It is about making our roads safer by ensuring those who disregard the law are properly dealt with, and that the public have confidence in a justice system which deals effectively with such offenders.

How we deal with road crime needs to send a clear message as to how we punish such law breakers, to both reinforce public confidence but also to deter others from breaking the law whilst on our roads. Road crime is a real crime. Currently there seems very little by way of effective and wider use of what is currently available, and wider reforms, which were considered in 2014, have not been introduced.

In order to encourage and support safe and law abiding use of our roads, there needs to be a more effective means of penalising all those road users who simply don’t do so in a safe and legal manner, not just for those whose actions ultimately cause death or serious injury.

MASS has been lobbying the Government for over a quarter of a century to ensure and protect the rights of the accident victim and will continue to do so and, along with others who campaign for safer roads, will monitor the Government and the progress of the Bill as it enters parliament early next year.

Why is road crime not treated as real crime?Why is road crime not treated as real crime?Kate Sweeney, author of “Why is road crime not treated as real crime?” is a Partner and Head of Personal Injury for Stephensons Solicitors LLP and MASS Regional Co-ordinator for the Manchester Region.

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MASS promotes the highest standards of legal services through education and representation in the pursuit of justice for victims of road traffic accidents.