New careless driving offence and life sentences for some fatal driving offences

Posted 16/10/2017 : By: Tim Ridyard

The Ministry of Justice has announced its intention to make two changes to the law relating to serious and fatal road traffic offences (16 October 2017):

• a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving

• increasing the maximum term of imprisonment from 14 years to life for offences of

a) causing death by dangerous driving and

b) death by careless driving when unfit through drink/drugs

The changes proposed by the Government have been confirmed following a consultation in early 2017.

Serious injury’ careless driving

The introduction of this offence was expected. An offence of causing serious injury through dangerous driving came into force some years ago.

The new offence fills a gap in the law between death by careless driving (an imprisonable offence) and careless driving (non-imprisonable). Currently there are instances of careless driving that are non-fatal but where there is very significant injury – but a court can only impose a fine, couple with the imposition of 3 to 9 penalty points unless the driver is disqualified for the offence.

What amounts to "serious injury" is defined for existing driving offences as GBH i.e. "... physical harm which amounts to grievous bodily harm for the purposes of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861". The test will no doubt be the same for careless driving cases.

The maximum penalties for the new offence of serious injury by careless driving are still to be determined and will be published when the offence is formally brought into law. A maximum term of custody of two years may well be the likely outcome.

The impact on what might be termed ‘ordinarily careful’ drivers may be quite significant. There are a significant number of offences of careless driving - covering the briefest momentary lapse to conduct falling just short of dangerous driving. It is possible for serious injury to arise from a low level of driver fault, albeit it is still careless and hence unlawful.

Once the change is on the statute book then prison and community sentences will be applied in suitable offences where there are higher degrees of carelessness involving serious injury whereas before only fines could be imposed - unless the driver was convicted of dangerous driving. This has led to frustration and this is the gap the new offence and sentencing power seeks to close. The court will be assessing the degree of sub-standard driving – one essential part of the offence - but also the impact in terms of injury.

One fear raised during the consultation is that this offence will be used more readily than dangerous driving when the latter offence should be charged, because careless driving is much easier to prove. This remains to be seen.

Increasing the maximum term of imprisonment from 14 years to life

The number of those cases of appalling dangerous and drink/drug careless fatal driving that may attract very long prison terms under the law change will be relatively low but the change in sentencing powers is a response to significant concern that some very bad offending does not always result in adequate and appropriate terms of imprisonment.

There is to be no change in the legal definition of careless or dangerous driving and the government will be giving further consideration to reviewing minimum disqualification periods.

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