Over the past few months, the Government has implemented tougher penalties for a number of motoring offences. In March, the penalty points sanction for driving whilst ‘using’ a mobile phone doubled from three points to six, and in April increased fines were implemented for the highest category of speeding offences. Our articles in respect of each of those matters can be located on our website.
This is on the backdrop of the introduction of Sections 35A and 35B of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, which states that for offences committed after 13 April 2015 where a Court imposes a disqualification in addition to a custodial sentence, or a detention and training order, it is obliged to extend any such period of disqualification by one half of the custodial term imposed. The main aim was to ensure that driving disqualifications were not being significantly diminished during the period that an offender is in custody.
It those circumstances, it is clear that the Government is aiming to take a more ‘hard line’ approach to the sentencing of motoring offences.
Standard of Driving
Despite recent changes, prominent figures have commented that the more severe motoring offences such as ‘dangerous driving’ and ‘careless driving’ (otherwise known as driving without due care and attention) are still not harsh enough.
The distinction between the two offences is predominantly how much the manner of driving departs from the standard expected of a competent and careful driver having regard to the circumstances. The difference in the definition of the offences is marginal, and is ultimately distinguished by one word, namely whether it is ‘below the standard’ (careless driving) or ‘far below’ (dangerous driving).
Typical examples of careless driving include momentary lapses of concentration or a misjudgement at low speed; loss of control due to speed, mishandling or insufficient attention to road conditions, or carelessly turning right across on-coming traffic; and/ or an overtaking manoeuvre at speed resulting in collision of vehicles. The Highway Code is used as a yardstick for considering a motorist’s standard of driving, though it should be observed that a breach does not necessarily lead to conviction.
In comparison, dangerous driving tends to infer a high level of disregard from the laws of the road such as racing, ignoring traffic lights and driving when under the influence or drink of drugs, or being pursued by the police. Ultimately, the dangerousness must be obvious to a competent and careful driver. Dangerousness means danger of injury to a person or serious damage to property. There is also an extra way that someone can drive dangerously. If they drive a vehicle in a dangerous state that could be dangerous driving even if nothing happens as a result of the danger.
It is important to remember that it is the standard of driving, and not the consequences of that driving. For example, a fairly minor mistake could have a disastrous result such as serious injury or even a death. That would not mean that the driving was dangerous. The police and or CPS make the first decision and decide the charge.
Causing Death by Driving
There are also separate offences for when death has been caused by dangerous or careless driving. For example, Section 3A Road Traffic Act 1988 creates the offences of ‘causing death by careless when under the influence of drink or drugs’ which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment and a driving disqualification for a minimum of two years. At the other end of the spectrum lies the offence of ‘causing death by driving unlicenced, disqualified or uninsured’, which carries a sentence of 2 years imprisonment and a minimum of 1 year driving disqualification.
The purpose of the sentencing regime for motoring offences is to ensure a sanction is imposed that is commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. Such sentences combine both a punitive and deterrent element. With that in mind, the current maximum sentence for driving dangerously (absent of a death) is 2 years imprisonment, with the court being required, on conviction, to impose a minimum driving disqualification for a period of 12 months.
In respect of persistent offenders, the Court must sanction a driving disqualification for at least 2 years if the offender has had two or more disqualifications of over 56 days in the 3 years preceding.
Despite the above, there is not always a clear-cut route for the Court to take and there can often be anomalies. Dangerous driving is particularly topical as Judge Jonathan Durham Hall QC recently passing sentence said:
“there is a need for a review of sentencing in dangerous driving cases where there are multiple previous convictions”.
In April this year, it was reported that Mr Bradley Coleman rammed two police cars in an attempt to evade capture whilst banned from driving, uninsured and in possession of cocaine. In total, Mr Coleman had been previously disqualified for a period of 13 years after obtaining an extensive criminal record for motoring offences, including dangerous driving and driving while disqualified.
Following a refusal to provide a sample of breath and answering “no comment” in his police interview, he was given a custodial sentence of a term of 16 months.
Despite Mr Coleman’s previous motoring offences, the maximum sentence currently available to the Court was two years imprisonment and a driving disqualification. However, because Mr Coleman submitted a prompt early guilty plea, the Court were obliged to give him full credit and reduce his sentence by up to a third.
Brake, the road safety charity commented that:
“this is another frustrating case of a driver receiving an overly lenient sentence that fails to reflect the magnitude of their actions. These sentences clearly don’t go far enough to deter dangerous drivers from repeat offending”.
With cases such as these in mind, a recent Government consultation indicates that dangerous drivers who cause death could face life sentences. Although Mr Coleman did not cause a fatality on this occasion, it appears that the general trend from legislative provisions and case law is that tougher sanctions will continue to be implemented for road traffic offences.