The government’s consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury on the road has now concluded. The consultation arose from the government’s recognition of public concern that sentencing should reflect the seriousness of such offences and its commitment to ensuring that deaths or serious injuries on the road continue to fall.

It is acknowledged that the vast majority of drivers drive well most of the time, however sometimes even an error of judgment or loss of attention can have devastating consequences. Where resulting deaths or injuries are the result of criminal behaviour, the government wants to ensure that the right tools are available to deliver justice.

Those invited to make submissions were asked to provide their views on proposals which included creating a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving and increasing the maximum penalty for the existing offences of causing death by dangerous or careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment.

Over 9,000 responses were received, BLM being the only law firm to provide an individual response. The responses showed considerable support for the proposals.

An overwhelming majority of those responding, around 90%, and including BLM, believed a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving should be created. It was seen as an opportunity to close a clear gap in the law where a serious injury has been caused but where the standard of driving falls below (but not far below) the standard of the competent driver. It would also better reflect the harm caused to victims.

Our view is that such an offence would meet the public concern that an appropriate conviction can result where a serious injury has occurred, although we proposed the correct test for a decision to prosecute should be the standard of driving and not the outcome. BLM further recommended that the government should issue clear guidelines as to what constitutes a serious injury to avoid the subjective assessment that we often witness in cases of this nature.

Having considered the responses to the consultation, including the range of views expressed about the maximum penalty, the government intends to bring forward proposals to create the new offence when parliamentary time allows and give further consideration to the maximum penalty. As part of our response, we proposed the maximum penalty should reflect intent, so an offence committed as a consequence of momentary inadvertence such as careless driving be distinguished from an offence where criminal intent has to be proven. Detail in respect of aggravating factors in the guidelines should also be considered.

At the same time the government will consider raising the maximum penalty for both causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink or drugs to life imprisonment. Around 70% of those responding believed the increase in the maximum penalty should be made, reflecting public perception of the severity of offences of this nature.

We took the view that in the vast majority of causing death by dangerous cases the maximum penalty of 14 years was sufficient. Public concerns about cases where a driver has demonstrated a flagrant disregard for public safety and has previous multiple driving offences could be met by a further aggravated offence akin to a manslaughter conviction with a life sentence, although it must be recognised that these are rare cases. In the absence of a further offence being introduced, we agreed a more significant penalty should be available.

In terms of increasing the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving under the influence of drink or drugs to reflect the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving, BLM felt that no amendments were necessary as the current Sentencing Guidelines adequately provide for an appropriate range of sentencing powers to reflect the severity of culpability.

This consultation comes on the back of the recent increase in penalty for using a phone while driving from three to six penalty points and a £200 fixed penalty notice, up from the previous £100 penalty. This coincided with the launch of a new campaign warning drivers of the new penalties and the dangers of using a phone whilst driving. In addition, the UK has seen the government introduce increased penalties for speeding offences which came into force in April this year. The changes to the speeding fine system came from a Sentencing Council consultation which hoped to ensure a "clear increase in penalty as the seriousness of offending increases."

These changes all tie in with the government building on its pledge to focus on improving road safety and consider sentencing for the most serious driving offences.

Future impact

In the immediate future it may be prudent for drivers and businesses to review the terms of their insurance policies to see what legal representation they would be entitled to in the event of an investigation and in the worst case situation, a prosecution.

In terms of risk management, in particular for fleets, there are three keys areas to focus on: the driver, the vehicle and the journey. Driver vetting and selection to include stringent licence checks as well induction procedures will become increasingly important. Vehicle suitability, maintenance and inspections together with journey planning, managing driver fatigue and journey type will all need to be considered.

It is difficult to predict when the legislation will come into force as the government has only said this will be done when parliamentary time allows. However, the government’s message is clear: it is committed to ensuring offenders convicted of the most serious driving offences are properly penalised.