Justice for victims of criminal driving
On January 12th the Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland presented the Criminal Driving (Justice for Victims) Bill in the House of Commons using the ten minute rule. Backed by 31 fellow MP’s this Bill will aim to increase sentences for those convicted of criminal driving offences that lead to serious injury or death. Here Greg Mulholland explains why he has been working on this bill.
16 year old Jamie Still from Otley in my constituency was killed on 31st December 2010 by a criminal driver who was sentenced to just four years in prison, and served just two. It cannot be right that such a light punishment is meted out for killing someone. This is a gross injustice which, having had many families from around the country contact me, sadly appears to be part of a national trend.
Victims of criminal driving and their families need to see tougher punishments meted out if we are to send a strong message that serious offences which can severely impact people’s lives are definitely not minor offences. What we therefore need are tougher charges and penalties to deter risky driving and also need better investigations and better support for victims. Ultimately, families should have faith that their justice system will do just that- deliver justice- but time and again they have been let down.
Throughout this campaign, I have been honoured to work with these families, including that of my constituents Jamie Still and David and Dorothy Metcalf, all of whom were killed by criminal drivers. I am also very grateful for the support and tireless efforts of the road safety charity Brake.
In terms of changes we need to see, firstly, the distinction between 'careless' and 'dangerous' driving is a false and unhelpful one which we must remove. It has institutionalised dishonesty in our justice system - if you deliberately and consciously drive dangerously, that cannot be said to be “careless”, which almost suggests one did not mean to drive dangerously. This distinction comes down to the slight and subjective difference between someone's driving falling below, or well below, what is expected of a careful and competent driver.
However, the difference in penalties between these charges is huge (five years for causing death by careless driving, compared to 14 for causing death by dangerous driving). In Brake’s experience, prosecutors appear to be opting for lesser careless driving charges because it is easier to secure a conviction, even when a dangerous driving charge may appear to be more appropriate.
We also need to see tougher sentences. For example, disqualified drivers who kill and injure will now face enhanced maximum sentences of 10 and four years respectively. However, uninsured and unlicensed drivers face a two year maximum penalty. Disqualified, unlicensed, uninsured drivers all have no right to be on the roads in the first place, so they should all automatically face the maximum penalties as a dangerous driver who kills or seriously injures.
Drivers who kill and were under the influence of drink or drugs can face up to 14 years in jail. However, if the driver flees the scene to sober up, this can be impossible to prove, leaving only a 'hit and run' offence and a maximum custodial sentence of six months. This incentivises drink and drug drivers to flee the scene and obstruct justice. Hit and run drivers should face the same maximum penalties as other drivers who kill and seriously injure with an assumption that if they fled the scene they caused the crash by ‘dangerous’ driving.
We must also make driving licence suspension an automatic condition of bail in cases of dangerous and careless drivers who have seriously injured or killed. It is extremely upsetting for any family to see the killer of their loved one still able to drive, as was the case with Jamie Still’s killer. It is obviously also a threat to the public. We must ensure that victims in cases where charges of criminal driving are brought are treated as victims of crime until the contrary is proven- at the moment, the charges of careless drinking and drink driving are not classified as criminal offences under the National Crime Recording Standard.
There must be proper investigation of collisions and evidence must be released to victims’ families, which does not happen at the moment but is vital if families are to have confidence that their case has been properly investigated. Lastly, the Department for Transport must also stop describing incidents of criminal driving as “accidents”- this is upsetting for families and undermines the severity of the offence.
What we need is a justice system that victims and their families can have faith in, at the moment that is not the case. We need a tougher sentencing regime.
In 2013, only one third (33%) of people convicted of causing death by dangerous driving were given more than five years. Penalties must deter potential offenders, punish them appropriately when they offend, whether causing death or injury, and families must have confidence that investigations will be thorough and will deliver proper justice. That must be our end goal and I look forward to working with ministers in the months ahead to get there.