“Killer drivers ruin lives…. [the] message is clear – if you drive dangerously and kill on our roads, you could face a life sentence.”

So said Justice Minister Sam Gyimah as part of a consultation which would put penalties for the some of the most serious road traffic offences on the same level as manslaughter.

The new plans come as ministers seek to deter dangerous, criminal behaviour on the roads and make sure killer drivers face the toughest penalties. In addition, a new offence is being proposed for careless driving resulting in serious injury, which would also carry a custodial sentence. We analyse the ramifications of these proposals as sentencing for road traffic offences looks set to follow a much tougher path.

The proposals

The consultation seeks views on introducing:

  • life sentences (up from 14 years) for causing death by dangerous driving;
  • life sentences (up from 14 years) for careless drivers who kill whilst under the influence of drink or drugs; and
  • a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, with a maximum sentence of 3 years.

The proposals do not cover all driving offences, including the basic offences of dangerous or careless driving, but follow a concerted effort by the government to crack down on what is perceived by some to be an "epidemic" of unacceptable driving behaviour.

In 2015, the government increased the maximum custodial sentence for causing death whilst driving when disqualified from 2 to 10 years. A new offence of causing serious injury when driving whilst disqualified was also created, with a maximum penalty of 4 years imprisonment. Similarly, in 2017 driving whilst using a mobile phone will see punishment double from three penalty points to six.

Tougher message, tougher penalties

Under this latest consultation, it is proposed that those found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving or careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs could be jailed for life. Whilst road safety campaigners were quick to hail the plans as a "vindication" for victims, in practice are we likely to see increased average jail terms?

In 2015, 122 people were sentenced for causing death by dangerous driving, with a further 21 convicted of causing death by careless driving whilst under the influence. Whilst the current maximum penalty is 14 years (and this was in itself previously increased), not one offender has received this sentence in the past five years- the average custodial sentence is currently less than four years.

It must therefore be questioned whether judges will use these greater powers? Aside from repeat offenders, it is difficult to envisage judicial appetite for handing down life sentences in motoring cases. Ultimately, however, judges would have more freedom to impose a sentence they consider commensurate with the offence. Certainly the introduction of a life sentence sends a deterrent message to drivers, which is to be welcomed and these proposals are likely to receive widespread public support.

Of course, whilst increasing the maximum penalty does not guarantee convictions or increased sentence lengths, the stakes are now much higher which is likely to result in more individuals seeking to defend their freedom. Expert evidence and technical defences, requiring time and money, will become key in road traffic trials and this will have a significant impact both on defendants and their insurers.

Serious injury by careless driving

The new proposed offence of causing serious injury by careless driving could be significant in terms charging decisions. The basic offence of careless driving attracts up to 9 penalty points, a fine and/or disqualification and already sees a high volume of convictions, with 12,496 in 2015. Will this be translated into the new offence, if the perception is that it is easier to secure a conviction which now attracts a prison sentence?

With careless driving potentially being easier to establish than the more serious offence of dangerous driving, there is the potential for this new offence to see a greater number of prosecutions. The prosecution may therefore be less likely to pursue the offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving now that the perceived "gap" in the law has been filled.

It is vital that any new offence and penalty reflects the fact that culpability for this offence is often low, involving no more than a momentary lapse of concentration. Again, the proposed maximum penalty of 3 years will allow discretion to judges when sentencing.

Watch this space…..

Whilst there is presently no proposal to amend the sentencing guidelines for driving offences, it is highly likely that if these proposals are enacted this will have to be addressed in the future to ensure that the Courts understand their new sentencing powers and when greater penalties will be appropriate.

The consultation is open until 1 February 2017 and takes the form of an online survey, which can be accessed here. Once concluded, the Government will consider the feedback and publish its response in May 2017.