Last week a back bench debate occured in the House of Commons on the issue of Dangerous Driving, brought to the house by Chris Skidmore, Conservative member for Kingswood, the constituency in which Ross and Clare Simons were killed a year to the day before the debate.
I say debate but ultimately there wasn’t an awful lot of debating occuring, there was an awful lot of consensus. Besides Chris Skidmore, 22 MPs spoke and also the Under Secretary of State for Justice, Jeremy Wright. I would recommend reading the whole thing. A lot of it is MPs recounting specific examples from their constituencies and these fed into the ideas the members presented.
There follows a selection of quotes for interesting points raised. The three main parties were represented, the governing party, perhaps surprisingly, most of all. Most surprising to me though was I did feel that the MPs did have a reasonable understanding of the topic for people for whom it only takes up a very small fraction of their time and they spoke about it passionately.
Chris Skidmore: I understand from alarming statistics that too many drivers have been prosecuted for careless driving when dangerous driving was at play. As a result, their sentences were far more lenient than they would have been if they had been prosecuted under dangerous driving.
Rehman Chishti: The maximum sentence for [Driving while disqualified] is six months, whether it is someone’s first, 15th or 11th offence. Do we not need to ensure a stiffer sentence for repeat offenders
Chris Skidmore: I agree entirely with Andrew Brigden. It seems bizarre. In 2004, the previous Government legislated, absolutely correctly, to increase the penalty for dangerous driving. A car is a lethal weapon, but the consequences, if someone causes death while driving, are not on a level playing field with deaths caused in other circumstances, and that is what we are fighting for in this debate.
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I do not understand why, in many cases, the charge is not one of manslaughter rather than causing death by dangerous driving, given that the imposition of a life sentence is an option for any court that convicts an offender of manslaughter.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): The advantage of a manslaughter charge is that it is not necessary to prove a specific intent… Are we not in danger of limiting the options of the courts by opting for charges such as causing death, which, although convenient and appropriate, may not fully reflect the gravity of the acts committed?
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): It is not just a question of sentencing; there is also the issue of what happens when someone who has caused serious injury, or death, to another person, continues to drive until his case is heard. If a car is indeed a lethal weapon, as others have suggested, why do courts not exercise their discretion to set bail conditions that make it impossible for people to drive when a test has established that their blood contained alcohol or drugs?
Mr Spencer: Many people who are convicted of a driving offence and sent to prison often receive a driving ban that runs concurrently with their prison sentence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ban should not begin until they are released, rather than taking effect when they are in prison and cannot drive anyway?
Ian Austin: All too often, incidents in which people are seriously injured are downgraded from dangerous driving to careless driving because that makes it easier to secure a conviction. However, a conviction for careless driving usually results in the driver just having to attend a course.
Bob Stewart: I very much support the idea that whatever the custodial sentence handed down to those drivers, if they have robbed someone of their life, through dangerous driving or stupidity, they should never in their life be given a driving licence.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): A person in Liverpool is driving with 47 points on their licence, a woman in Bolton with 27 points on her licence, and 8,000 other people with more than 12 points.
What does that say about the seriousness with which we treat driving laws? The law says that people should be banned when they have 12 points, unless they would face exceptional hardship. Exceptional hardship is not about losing one’s job, but it could be about losing one’s home or other people losing their job.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con):I believe that we need consistency in seeing that justice is done and that maximum flexibility should be left to the judge to interpret how severe the sentence should be for individuals who have caused death.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright):My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West urges us to abolish the offence of causing death by careless driving. I understand his argument, but he will appreciate that there are, of course, risks. The offence was created because in many cases the choices available to a prosecutor were either to bring a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, or a simple charge of careless driving where a death had resulted. If prosecutors felt unable to prove dangerous driving under the definitions we have discussed, they were left with what many would consider the inadequate remedy of a simple charge of careless driving. That was the reason why the offence was brought in, and we have to think through very carefully the consequences of removing it from the statute book.
On ensuring that the law is effective, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, we have introduced a variety of new offences over the years to fill perceived gaps.
To highlight a few good ideas then
Increase the maximum sentence for repeat offences of driving while disqualified.
Increase the maximum sentence for causing death driving while disqualified from the current two years.
Use a manslaughter charge in some of the worst cases.
Courts have the discretion to effectively ban a driver while they are on bail, this should be used more frequently.
Bans should begin when someone leaves prison, not run concurrently.
Increase the use of lifetime bans for those causing death.
Review the use of exceptional hardship as a reason for a convicted driver to be allowed to keep their licence.
These are all fine ideas but I want to focus more closely on the next four…
Drivers being prosecuted for careless driving when a dangerous driving charge is more appropriate.
The Under Secretary of State suggests it might result in a fall in convictions. It’s a fair point, the statistics show that in 2007, the last year before the introduction of the causing death by careless driving (CDCD) offence, there were 233 conviction for causing death by dangerous driving (CDDD), in 2011 there were 114 convictions for that offence. In 2011 there were also 234 convictions for CDCD. We see then that more people being convicted of a “causing death…” offence but it appears beyond doubt that many people who would in the past have been convicted of the higher offence are now getting away with the lesser one and in the process devaluing lives. The balance has been allowed to slip too far in favour of guaranteed convictions. The intent of parliament on the introduction of CDCD was to fill the gap between a simple careless driving charge and CDDD and to drag convictions up from the lower charge, not drag them down.
Drivers with 12 points or more on their licence being allowed to continue driving due to claims of exceptional hardship.
Cycling Front posted about this recently, highlighting the use of limited licences in New Zealand. Essentially a limited licence allows a person to continue driving only to mitigate the exceptional hardship that would be caused. For example if you are a carer for somebody you could drive to that person’s house, nearby shops, hospital, doctors, pharmacy, etc.
When it makes the order the court will specify:
the purpose for which the licence is issued
the particular vehicle or type of vehicle that you may drive
the days of the week and the times at which you may drive
any other matters necessary to limit the order to alleviating the hardship that you alleged and proved
In addition to this it would be possible to have black boxes placed in offender’s cars to monitor that they are complying with the limited licence and road traffic laws in general. I would add to this that when applying for a limited licence the applicant should also have to show why taxis, bicycles and public transport cannot be used. I can understand in New Zealand why it might be difficult but in most British towns using public transport would not be exceptional hardship, more like simple inconvenience.
Killed or Seriously Injured
I would not make any differentiation between the two. The difference between being killed or seriously injured can depend on how quickly you receive medical attention or whether the collision occured in 1954 or 2014. The recklessness of the driving does not change. Although one has to believe that virtually all drivers would not go back and turn an SI into a K so as to leave no witnesses.
Parliament keeps adding more and more offences with ever narrower definitions trying to plug a gap here and there, or trying to recognise the seriousness of a specific offence. Simultaneously we are told that the CPS has trouble second guessing which offence a jury is likely to convict on, so they opt for the easier conviction. As I pointed out just previously in many cases it’s not the driving that alters but the outcome and the outcome is sometimes dependent on other factors such as medical care. Due to this I would simply consign all these laws to the bin and bring in one overarching law along the lines of “failing to operate a vehicle safely” (which would also apply to passengers opening doors, see Sam Harding) or “driving not in accordance with the terms of the licence”. The issue then is almost a matter of strict liability. The judge would then be free to sentence anything from minor fine/points to whatever a suitable maximum is deemed to be, 20 years/life. The current system remains too subjective asking juries to determine the exact nature of the offence, was it just below/far below what a reasonable driver would do. The new offence would just be asking was the driver following the strict rules of the road, far easier to determine. Issues of severity can then be determined by the judge preferably judges experienced in RTC prosecutions. I was pleased to see this idea is somewhat in accordance with Brake‘s campaign.