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New Dangerous Driving Laws Explained

By Practice Group Leader, Road Traffic Defence

Motorists who cause death on the roads could face life imprisonment under new laws announced this week by the Ministry of Justice.

The move follows a public consultation in which the majority of the 9,000 respondents called for tougher punishments for those who drive dangerously or carelessly, resulting in serious injury or death.

While road safety campaigners have hailed it a ‘major victory’, critics have called it a ‘crowd-pleasing gesture.’

So what does it mean and why has it been introduced now?

What’s changed?

The main change relates to anyone convicted of causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. Currently, these are punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years, but this will now be increased to life.   

The MoJ has also created a new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving. This too will be punishable by imprisonment, although the maximum sentence is yet to be decided.

Sentencing guidelines for other driving and regulatory offences such as speeding, careless or dangerous driving and driving whilst using a mobile phone remain unchanged.

Why now?

More than 150 people were convicted of causing death by dangerous driving on UK roads last year and a further 32 for causing death by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs.

The Government has previously pledged to clamp down on dangerous, criminal behaviour on the roads and recently completed a public consultation in which the majority of the 9,000 respondents supported its plans.

Justice Minister, Dominic Raab, said: “Based on the seriousness of the worst cases, the anguish of the victims’ families and maximum penalties for other serious offences such as manslaughter, we intend to introduce life sentences of imprisonment for those who wreck lives by driving dangerously, drunk or high on drugs.”

When will the new sentencing powers come into force?

Following the results of the public consultation, published on 16th October, 2017, the Government will look to pass this into legislation as soon as possible. The new rules will be enforceable in England, Wales and Scotland, but excluding Northern Ireland which has separate road safety laws.  

In a separate review, the Department for Transport is also looking at whether a new offence of causing death by dangerous cycling is needed, but there are no further details as yet.  

Does life mean life?

It’s likely – quite rightly – that the maximum life sentences will only be handed down in the most serious cases. Even now it’s rare to hear of anyone receiving the maximum sentence of 14 years. As with any criminal case, sentences will still be decided by an independent judge after hearing all the evidence.

Up until now, offenders who caused serious injury by careless driving would be charged with either careless driving – the maximum penalty for which is a fine – or causing serious injury by dangerous driving which carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail. The creation of this new offence is welcome as it does fill that gap in the law, but it is important that the sentencing guidelines introduced to support this reflect the difference in culpability and seriousness.   

Paul Reddy is a principal lawyer in the criminal and misconduct team at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester.

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