Motorists who kill while avoidably distracted at the wheel will face prison under new road safety laws which came into force on 18 August 2008.

Section 20 of the Road Safety Act 2006 (RSA) creates a new offence of causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving, which covers distractions that can lead to accidents and carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. A distraction can be anything which takes a driver’s attention away from the road and which a court rules to have been an avoidable distraction. The definition includes smoking whilst driving, using a mobile phone (whether hands-free or not), listening to music, talking to fellow passengers, drinking, eating, using technological aids and personal grooming.

Section 21 of the RSA creates a new offence of causing death by driving whilst unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured and this carries a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment.

Prior to the introduction of these new laws, the maximum sentence for those convicted of causing death by careless, uninsured or unlicensed driving was a maximum £5,000 fine and penalty points on the driver’s licence.

Other changes to road safety law include the following:

  • anyone who fails to provide information about a driver who is caught speeding will be given six points on their licence rather than three. This is in response to numerous false claims by drivers, in an attempt to try to evade liability, that someone else was driving their vehicle at the time;
  • the maximum fine for parents who do not ensure their children wear seat belts has been raised from £200 to £500;
  • anyone convicted for a second time in four years of using a vehicle that is not sufficiently roadworthy will face a minimum disqualification period of six months;
  • failing to stop when indicated to do so by police is now punishable by a fine of up to £5,000, previously £1,000; and
  • it is also an offence not to stop on all roads in England and Wales if requested to do so by Highway Agency Traffic Officers. Officers can also stop vehicles for safety reasons on the motorway.

The Highway Code also includes new traffic calming initiatives, advice on wearing high-visibility clothing in the event of a breakdown, a new safety code for beginner drivers and guidance on merging with other traffic.