Charges and penalties for drivers who kill, maim and endanger

This page outlines some of the most commonly-brought criminal charges and penalties for traffic offences in the UK; and Brake’s concerns about the inadequacy of many of them.

Read about support for road crash victims.

Careless Driving (Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988)

This charge can be brought when driving 'fell below the standard of a careful and competent driver'. It is a trivial charge in its terminology, and in sentences handed out: usually a small fine in a Magistrates Court. Yet this charge is currently often brought in cases of serious injury and when driving is clearly bad, often because prosecutors feel there is a good chance of conviction, compared with bringing a more serious charge. Rather than being prosecuted for "careless" driving, those who drive badly should be prosecuted for dangerous driving, with a range of possible penalties depending on the level of danger posed. If a driver's bad driving resulted in injury or death, they should be charged with an offence that explicitly references that injury or death (see below).

Causing Death by Careless or Inconsiderate Driving (Section 2B of the Road Traffic Act 1988, amended by the Road Safety Act 2006, s. 20)

This charge can be brought when a driver causes a death because their driving 'fell below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver'. It was introduced after concerns were raised about the lack of mention of death in the Careless Driving charge. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and an unlimited fine, but in reality, and as predicted by Brake prior to this charge's introduction, which we opposed, much lower penalties are being imposed, and even the maximum is only just over a third that for 'Causing Death by Dangerous Driving'. Brake does not support this charge: it enables drivers who have caused enormous suffering to be let off with a paltry penalty. The word 'careless' is wholly inappropriate in the context of road deaths caused by bad driving, and insulting to bereaved families, as reported to Brake by families we work with through our support work. Brake believes that cases currently dealt with by Death by Careless Driving should be dealt with by this charge dealt with using the charge Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, with a variety of sentencing powers for judges according to seriousness of the offence.

CASE STUDY: On 31.03.10, The Star newspaper in Sheffield reported two cases of drivers let off for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving for killing by driving far too fast on bends. In the first case, Christopher Deaken-Frith admitted driving 'much too fast' down a Sheffield hill in frosty weather, ending the lives of his two passengers Liam Oliver and Sarah Kate O'Melia. Police estimated a driver would have been able to negotiate the bend 'with ease' if driving at less than 48mph. The speed limit was 30mph. Relatives stormed out of court when Deaken-Frith walked free with a suspended sentence for Causing Death by Careless Driving. In the second case, Nicholas Boothman crashed on a bend that he took at an estimated 50mph-70mph despite wet conditions and a sign warning drivers to take the bend at no more than 40mph. He killed passenger Robert Shaw, and seriously injured passenger Daniel Hallas, who had to have part of his leg amputated. He too walked free with a suspended sentence for Causing Death by Careless Driving.

Dangerous Driving (Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, amended 1991)

This charge can be brought when driving fell far below the standard expected of a careful and competent driving, where no death occurred. It is not often brought (the charge of Careless Driving being more common). Dangerous driving carries a maximum sentence of two years. This is currently sometimes brought when someone is seriously injured by dangerous driving, although this should cease with the introduction of Causing Serious Injury by Dangerous Driving, as below. However, Brake believes cases currently prosecuted under Careless Driving should be dealt with under this charge instead, for reasons explained above, and the maximum penalty for Dangerous Driving should be higher, in line with the fact that dangerous driving can, and often does, result in death. It should be at least five years, with a variety of sentences handed out up to the maximum, according to the seriousness of the offence.

Causing Death by Dangerous Driving (Section 1 Road Traffic Act 1988, amended 1991) and Causing Death by Careless Driving under the influence of drink or drugs (section 3A Road Traffic Act)

The charge of Causing Death by Dangerous Driving is a much more serious charge than Causing Death by Careless Driving, with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, but its definition differs in only one word: it can be brought when driving 'fell far below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver'. A similar charge of Causing Death by Careless Driving when under the Influence of Drink or Drugs carries the same maximum penalty. These charges should be brought when there are provable aggravating factors, such as excessive speeding above the limit, overtaking on a blind bend, or driving over the legal limit for alcohol. In most cases, however, the sentence meted out by the courts is much lower than the maximum, unless there are many aggravating factors and multiple deaths. In addition, the tiny difference in definition between this charge and the Charge of Death by Careless Driving means in many cases the more serious charges are not brought, and the lesser charge is brought instead, with its greater chance of conviction, but far lower penalties.

CASE STUDY: A drink driver who killed his schoolboy passenger in an 80mph crash after saying 'I'm wasted' was jailed for only four years, a third of the maximum. Ashley Ogden, 19, gave a lift to 15-year-old Daniel McHugh and a friend. He swerved round a police recovery lorry and shouted 'Come on - chase on!' He later lost control and smashed into a tree and bus stop, killing Daniel. The other passenger suffered a double fracture to his leg, a collapsed lung and broken ribs. Ogden, of Leigh, Greater Manchester, did not have a full licence and was one-and-a-half times over the drink-drive limit when tested two hours after the crash. He pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, driving with excess alcohol and failing to comply with his provisional licence terms. (Daily Mirror, 15 November 2005)

Causing Serious Injury by Dangerous Driving

The government announcement of a new charge of Causing Serious Injury by Dangerous Driving was welcomed by Brake. But Brake remains concerned that families who suffer life-changing serious injury at the hands of a dangerous driver will not receive justice, given the inadequate five year maximum penalty, and given that it will still be necessary to demonstrate driving was 'dangerous' according to the legal definition. In reality, offenders convicted of this are highly unlikely to receive close to the full five years, but even if they do, this does not reflect the life-long suffering of the most serious and debilitating injuries that innocent victims of crashes may suffer, such as permanent brain damage, loss of limbs or paralysis. These injuries destroy lives and devastate families, with many victims needing round-the-clock care. Brake believes this new charge should carry a maximum penalty of 14 years, in line with that for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving. Brake is also concerned drivers who cause serious injury may continue to be let off with the lesser charge of careless driving (as is the case at present) because it is easier to make this charge stick.

Redefining dangerous driving

As outlined above, Brake takes great issue with the existence and definition of careless driving charges, especially in relation to cases where a death or serious injury has occurred or could easily have occurred. 'Careless' is an inappropriate and offensive term to use for bad driving, particularly where it has resulted in horrendous suffering. Driving that is bad (especially if it has already resulted in injury or death or could easily have done so) is dangerous.

Brake believes cases prosecuted under careless driving charges should instead be prosecuted under the charges of Dangerous Driving, Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, and Causing Serious Injury by Dangerous Driving, with a full range of penalties handed out up to the maximum (which should be at least five, 14 and 14 years in prison respectively, all with an unlimited fine), according to the seriousness of the offence (also see section below on sentencing).

At the same time, Brake advocates a redefinition of 'dangerous driving' so these charges may be brought when anyone is found to be driving in a way not in accordance with road safety laws or the Highway Code. This definition is far less subjective and would make it clear to drivers that if they do not driving in accordance with legal requirements, they are posing a danger, and therefore may face these serious charges.

Hit and run drivers

There needs to be a new charge of 'failing to stop following a fatal or serious injury crash'. This would not have any requirement to prove the driver who failed to stop caused the crash, as there can be an assumption that if they fled, they caused it. This is necessary because, at present, British law acts as an incentive for the worst law-breaking drivers to flee a crash if they kill someone. If a drink or drug driver kills someone and remains at the scene, they are likely to be tested for alcohol or drugs, prosecuted for 'causing death by careless driving when under the influence of alcohol or drugs', and face up to 14 years' imprisonment. But if they run away and sober up, and there was no other evidence of careless or dangerous driving, they can only be prosecuted for the minor offence of 'failing to stop or report an accident' which carries a paltry maximum sentence of six months. If someone steals a car, kills someone and remains at the scene, they will be identified by the police as driving a stolen car. They can be prosecuted for 'aggravated vehicle taking' and face a maximum 14 years' imprisonment. Much better to flee, ditch the car, and hope never to be identified. Drivers who hit and run are despicable: to escape the law, they leave behind suffering and dying victims in need of urgent medical attention. The law must be changed to remove this incentive to flee.

Causing Death by Driving Unlicensed, Disqualified or Uninsured

This charge can be brought when a driver causes a death by driving a vehicle on a road while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The maximum penalty is a paltry sentence of two years and unlimited fine. This is in stark contrast to laws against illegal firearms. Carrying an illegal firearm, and not even using it, carries a minimum mandatory five year prison sentence, compared with a maximum of two years for driving illegally and killing. Brake supports this charge but believes the maximum sentence should be in line with that for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, 14 years. The charge should also include serious injuries.

Driving licence suspension in the run up to trial

Brake believes drivers who kill and maim should be taken off the road once they are charged, as a condition of bail. Prosecutions often take many months to come to court [1], and in many cases the driver charged with causing the crash is able to continue driving, potentially putting other innocent road users in danger, and often in the same community where they caused carnage. This can be incredibly offensive and upsetting to bereaved families and people injured by the driver, but it also means that other people are being put at risk.

If you are a teacher being investigated for misconduct, you are immediately suspended from teaching in school to protect pupils. If you are a doctor suspected of malpractice, you are immediately suspended from practising medicine to ensure no patients are harmed. Yet if you are charged with killing someone because of your bad driving, you are allowed to keep driving until you are sentenced in court, despite the fact that nine in 10 drivers (89%) charged with indictable motoring offences, such as causing death by driving, are convicted [2].

Brake is backing a campaign by Rebecca Still, aged 13, who wants the government to change the law so driving licences are automatically suspended, as a condition of bail, in cases involving death by dangerous or careless driving, or drink driving cases where the driver had at least twice the legal alcohol limit in their blood.

Rebecca's brother Jamie Still, 16, was knocked down and killed on New Year's Eve 2010 by a young driver who was twice the legal alcohol limit and speeding at 50mph in a 30mph limit. The driver was allowed to continue driving around in the same community until nine months later when he was convicted. Rebecca set up a petition to get the law changed, which has already had thousands of signatures. She has received support from Brake and her MP Greg Mulholland, as well her mum and grandparents who have rallied round to help make her campaign a success. Visit www.jamiestillcampaign.co.uk.

Fixed penalties and penalty points

Brake argues that penalties awarded for less serious and more widespread driving offences should be much stronger, to provide a better deterrent against risky behaviour at the wheel. The fixed penalty for driving offences, including speeding and mobile phone use, is currently £100 plus three penalty points. Brake believes this is woefully inadequate, given these crimes can and do lead to terrible crashes, injury and death. Minor crimes that do not pose a direct threat to human life, like littering and smoking in a public place, can be met with a fine of £1,000+. A £100 penalty for driving offences sends out a dangerous message that offences like speeding and phone use at the wheel are not real crimes, and important safety laws need not be taken seriously. Brake argues a fixed penalty of £500-£1,000 would have a significant effect on compliance with these laws, which are in place to protect and safeguard the public.

Brake is also desperately concerned the penalty points system is not working as a way to protect the public from dangerous repeat offenders who show disregard for the law. Brake recently revealed 40% of drivers who have reached 12 points are not disqualified, due to a loophole allowing drivers to keep their licence in 'exceptional circumstances'. This loophole should be closed urgently: those who reach 12 points have been given ample opportunity to comply with the law, and should be automatically disqualified to protect themselves and others.

Low sentences

Bereaved and seriously injured families supported by Brake often say they feel sentences handed to drivers who have caused their suffering are inadequate and this causes additional distress. As well as calling for reform to charges and penalties as above, Brake is concerned that sentencing for driving offences is unduly lenient. To reduce the horrifying frequency of road deaths and injuries, the criminal justice system should send drivers the message that traffic offences are not minor – particularly when they result in tragic loss of a life or debilitating injury. Yet it is extremely rare to see higher range sentences given out; often sentences are at the lower end. Brake believes this is because 'traffic offences' are seen as less serious than other crimes, even when they have resulted in a death or serious injury. The full range of sentences should be handed out, up to and including the maximum in the most serious cases.

The Ministry of Justice reports on motoring offences and sentence lengths. In 2006 there were 381 convictions in England and Wales for serious driving charges for causing death, but only 58 resulted in imprisonment of more than five years (and most of these offenders will be released much earlier) (Motoring Offences and Breath Test Statistics England and Wales 2006). This may sound bad enough, but these figures don't include the many cases of traffic offences resulting in death and injury that were dealt with through the charge of careless or dangerous driving - with significantly lower penalties including, in the case of careless driving, a maximum penalty of a fine. They also don't include the cases that result in no charge at all - this includes cases of pedestrians being hit by cars at significant speeds, often in hit and runs, when the offender was never found or there were no witnesses to prove a traffic offence. A 2002 report by the CPS Inspectorate (A report on the thematic review of the advice, conduct and prosecution of road traffic offences involving fatalities in England and Wales (HMCPSI, 2002)) noted that there was "some evidence of inconsistency of approach particularly in relation to the level of charge in those cases where there was a prosecution. This related mainly to cases where a lesser charge such as careless driving was preferred rather than causing death by dangerous driving". The report made a number of recommendations for improving the prosecution following a death on the road. They included:

  • appointing an experienced prosecutor to receive specialist training in driving offences in each Crown Prosecution Service area, who could also act as first point of contact with the police in these cases;
  • instructing counsel with appropriate experience and expertise to prosecute road death cases in the Crown Court;
  • ensuring that all prosecutors are aware of guidance given in relation to the timing of inquests and summary criminal proceedings;
  • improving the identification and flagging of files by the police and CPS, to improve case management;
  • requesting further information and providing advice to the police in a timely manner;
  • monitoring prosecutions for different offences, outcomes and review decisions;
  • providing revised guidance to CPS prosecutors and reviewing the Driving Offences Charging Standard.

A 2002 report by the transport research agency TRL (Pearce, L, Dangerous driving and the law, Road Safety Research Report no 26 (DTLR, 2002)) confirmed that the 1991 Road Traffic Act, which was designed to reduce the difficulties with the charges of 'careless driving' (where a death had resulted), 'dangerous driving', and 'death by dangerous driving', had not been entirely effective. In the cases it analysed in the report, TRL noted that prosecutors often preferred a charge of 'careless driving' to 'death by dangerous driving' in cases where it could be argued that the latter was more appropriate. It also noted that maximum penalties are rarely used in 'dangerous driving' cases, stating that "cases which appear to be very serious often receive less than half of the maximum sentence." Brake wants the Government to set national standards requiring judges and magistrates to receive appropriate training and advice on traffic offences, including discussion of case studies, to encourage them to implement appropriately tough charges and penalties.

[1] Average time from offence to completion of trial for an indictable motoring offense, such as causing death by dangerous or careless driving, is 120 days and only 47% of cases are completed at the first given trial date. Judicial and court statistics 2010, Ministry of Justice, 2011
[2] Criminal Justice Statistics Quarterly Update to September 2011, Ministry of Justice , 2012