Criminal investigation and charges

Scroll down for information and advice on criminal charges after a fatal crash.

This includes information about the police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service, and criminal charges that may follow a death on the road.

The police investigation

A death on the road is investigated by the police. The police have a duty to try to find out what happened by gathering evidence. A police investigation can take several months.

Giving a statement

The police may take statements from a number of different people. If you were involved in the crash, you saw the crash, or you saw vehicles before or after the crash, you may be asked to give a statement. If you were not involved in the crash, but knew the movements of a loved one on the day they died, you may be asked to give a statement too. If you give a statement, the police will write down and may record what you say.

If you have made a statement, a lawyer, or more than one lawyer, may want to interview you too. This is an essential part of the investigation and helps lawyers understand the evidence you are providing. Your contact details remain confidential - they cannot be given to someone accused of a crime.

It may be possible for a relative or friend to attend an interview with you to offer support. If you want to be accompanied ask if this is possible. If you have particular communication needs you may also be entitled to assistance from an interpreter or intermediary (someone who helps communicate to you questions the police ask, and communicate back your answers).

The police may also offer you the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement (see below).

If you give a statement, you may or may not be required, at a later date, to give evidence in court.

Physical evidence

Crash investigation officers, who are usually specially-trained police officers, or employees of other specialist agencies, investigate a crash in order to identify the cause and obtain evidence. These experts may photograph, measure and video the scene of a crash and examine vehicles involved. They may examine belongings of people in the crash, such as mobile phones.

Medical evidence

Medical evidence may be provided by personnel who tended to a loved one at the crash or in hospital, and by the pathologist who did the post-mortem examination. Medical evidence can include alcohol and drug tests on drivers involved.

If the crash involved someone driving for work

If the crash involved someone driving for work, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may get involved in the investigation. HSE inspectors aim to identify any failure by an employer to ensure effective health and safety procedures were in place and followed. The investigation will usually be conducted jointly with the police. The police will be able to tell you if the HSE are involved. The HSE can take enforcement action against an employer.

The police report

If the police investigation finds any evidence that suggests a crime may have been committed, this evidence is compiled into a report that is sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, the agency responsible for bringing prosecutions (see below). You are not automatically entitled to see this report, but you may be able to get a copy. You may only be able to get a copy after any criminal proceedings have finished.

If you wish to get a copy, you or a solicitor you are using can ask the police. You may or may not have to pay for it. If there is a charge, and you are pursuing a claim for compensation, your solicitor may be able to reclaim the charge as part of your claim.

Before reading a police report, you may want to ask your solicitor or the police what it contains. Police reports often contain photographs taken at the time of the crash and sometimes detailed interviews with eye witnesses. It will be possible for the police or your solicitor to remove anything you don’t wish to see or read.

Standards have been set for fatal road crash investigations in a police document called the Authorised Professional Practice (APP): Investigation of fatal and serious injury road crashes.

The Crown Prosecution Service

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police in England and Wales. It works from regional offices. If the police investigation indicates that the conduct of someone, or several people, or in some cases, a company, amounted to a crime, the CPS may advise the police to bring charges. The purpose of a criminal prosecution is to find out if someone has broken the law and appropriately sentence them.

CPS lawyers, called Crown Prosecutors, apply two key tests when deciding whether a person should be prosecuted:

  1. Is there enough evidence against the defendant?

The CPS must consider whether there is enough evidence to charge someone, whether the evidence can be used in court, and whether the evidence is reliable and credible. There must be sufficient evidence for a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’. This means that it is more likely than not that the person will be convicted. (This is different to the way a court decides whether to convict a person. A court should convict someone only if they are sure they are guilty.)

  1. Is it in the public interest for the CPS to bring the case to court?

If someone has died as a result of a crime, a prosecution is usually in the public interest.

Following a review of the evidence, the CPS selects the most appropriate charge to reflect the seriousness and extent of any offending. The CPS acts on behalf of the public interest, not on behalf of victims or victims’ families. However, when deciding if a prosecution is in the public interest, the CPS takes into account any views that you or others have expressed in Victim Personal Statements (see below).

Whether or not a criminal prosecution will happen in your case depends on the circumstances of the crash. If the CPS plans to charge someone with an offence that would be dealt with by a Magistrates’ Court, they must do so within six months from the time when the offence was committed. More serious charges can be brought later

Meeting the Crown Prosecution Service

The CPS must meet with you if certain serious charges are being heard. The CPS will explain charges being brought, how the case is likely to progress, discuss your needs and answer your questions. The CPS is required to do this by the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (2015) (Chapter 2, Part A, section 2.5 and 2.16).

The CPS should also meet with you if a decision has been made to reduce or drop a criminal charge. This is also specified in the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (2015) (Chapter 2, Part A, section 2.11).

If you aren't offered a meeting, and you would like to talk to the CPS, you can ask if a meeting is possible.

The CPS is guided by the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime and its own CPS Legal Guidance. To view the guidance, visit www.cps.gov.uk and click on 'victims and witnesses’. The website includes contact details for your local CPS office.

Victim Personal Statements (VPS)

If criminal charges are being considered, then you should be offered the opportunity to make a Victim Personal Statement (VPS). This gives you an opportunity to explain in writing, before sentence is imposed, how the crime has affected your life, physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially or in any other way. You can write your own VPS or someone else can write down what you say.

A VPS becomes part of the case papers and may be read out in court. However, this requires the permission of the court. You can say whether you would like to read out your VPS or you can ask for it to be read out by someone else on your behalf.

You do not have to make a victim statement if you do not want to. It will not damage the case in any way or affect whether the defendant is found guilty or not guilty.

Your entitlement to make a VPS and what this entails is outlined in the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (2015) (Chapter 2, Part A, section 1).

If you wish to make a VPS, please talk to your police contact or a charity that supports victims of crime.

Charging someone and the possibility of bail

Someone who is charged with an offence is often called 'the accused'. If the CPS decides to prosecute, the accused person may be arrested and taken to a police station to be charged. Alternatively, they may be issued with a court summons which describes the offence and when the case will be heard in court.

An accused person may be remanded in custody (imprisoned) or given bail (allowed to remain free before their case is heard). The accused will be granted bail unless the court has reason to believe they:

  • would not attend a court appearance;
  • would commit an offence while on bail;
  • would interfere with witnesses;
  • would obstruct the course of justice.

People on bail are required to:

  • turn up, when required, to court hearings;
  • comply with the law;
  • not interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice;
  • make themselves available to the court as and when necessary.

Conditions may be attached to bail, such as limiting where the accused person can live, or preventing them coming near you or your home or near someone else. A person on bail can also be electronically tagged. A court may require an accused person to refrain from driving as a condition of bail, but only if it considers that it is necessary to prevent the accused person from committing further offences. Otherwise, an accused person who is on bail and who possesses a valid driving licence will be allowed to continue driving while awaiting trial. If they are convicted of a crime, they may or may not be disqualified from driving as part of their sentence.

The accused person may apply for bail at different stages of the case, even if it has been refused earlier. The accused may appeal against a decision not to grant bail. If bail is still refused on appeal, the accused can ask for the decision to be reviewed, but only if there is good reason. If bail is granted, the prosecution can only appeal against the decision in rare circumstances.

If the accused is granted bail and their behaviour causes you concern, for example you see them driving in a way that you consider dangerous, or if they threaten you, report it immediately to your police contact.

Changes to charges

Sometimes, if the accused is charged with a serious offence, the lawyers representing the accused ask the CPS for the charge to be changed to a less serious offence, on the basis of the evidence of the case. This request can happen before a case goes to trial.

The CPS may decide to continue charging the accused with the serious offence or may decide to charge the accused with a less serious offence. Their decision is based on the evidence and what

is in the public interest. It may include factors such as the availability of witnesses.

Victim Right to Review

If a decision is made by the police or the CPS not to bring charges against someone, you may have the right to request a review of the decision, known as a Victim Right to Review. If you wish to request this, talk to your police contact to find out if it is possible, and the time frame in which you must do it.

Challenging a decision through judicial review

A few bereaved families have challenged the CPS in the High Court for not bringing a serious charge. These challenges have used a process called judicial review. The High Court has the power to rule that the CPS should reconsider bringing a serious charge. This process is very costly unless you can qualify for legal aid.

Criminal offences

The following pages list some of the criminal offences that people may be convicted of following death on the road. Many people find it helpful to know that:

  • Maximum penalties are different for different offences, sometimes significantly. Courts often impose penalties lower than the maximum.
  • Some offences mention the death or deaths, but others do not. Sometimes it is only possible for someone to be charged with an offence that doesn’t mention the death or deaths.
  • Sometimes a person, or more than one person, is charged with committing more than one offence.

Causing death by dangerous driving

Section 1 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended by the Road Traffic Act 1991, section 1)

The law states that: ‘A person who causes the death of another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously on a road or other public place is guilty of an offence.’

The definition of dangerous driving is that:

(a) the way a person drove fell far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and

(b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.

It is also dangerous driving if it would have been obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving a vehicle in its current state (for example, with defective brakes or other defective safety-critical components) would be dangerous.

If a jury decides that an accused person is not guilty of this charge, they may instead convict them of ‘causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving’, ‘dangerous driving’ or ‘careless or inconsiderate driving’ (see below).

This offence is tried in the Crown Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of 14 years and/or an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted of this offence must be disqualified from driving for a minimum of two years, unless there are special reasons to impose a shorter disqualification or no disqualification. They must pass an extended driving test before they can regain a full driving licence.

Brake’s helpline on 0808 8000 401 is for anyone who has been bereaved in a road crash, whether you contributed to causing the crash or not.

Causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving

Section 2B of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended by the Road Safety Act 2006, section 20)

The law states that: ‘A person who causes the death of another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, is guilty of an offence.’

The law distinguishes between ‘dangerous’ driving and ‘careless or inconsiderate’ driving. The definition of careless and inconsiderate driving is that the standard of a person’s driving fell below (rather than far below) what would be expected of a careful and competent driver.

This offence can be tried in either the Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of five years and/or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and/or an unlimited fine in a Magistrates’ Court. Anyone convicted of this offence must be disqualified from driving for a minimum of one year, unless there are special reasons to impose a shorter disqualification or no disqualification. They may be ordered to pass an extended driving test before they can regain a full driving licence.

Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs

Section 3A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended by the Road Traffic Act 1991, section 3)

The law states that: ‘If a person causes the death of another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place, and he is, at the time when

driving, unfit to drive through drink or drugs, or he has consumed so much alcohol or specified drugs that the proportion in his breath, blood or urine exceeds the prescribed limit, or he fails to provide a specimen, he is guilty of an offence.’

The offence is committed if the death is caused by careless driving and the driver has more than the legal limit of alcohol or specified drugs, or fails to provide a specimen. This means the police do not necessarily have to show a person’s driving ability was impaired, only that they had more than the permitted amount of alcohol or certain drugs.

This offence is tried in the Crown Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of 14 years and/or an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted of this offence must be disqualified from driving for a minimum of two years (or three years if there is a related previous conviction), unless there are special reasons to impose a shorter disqualification or no disqualification. They must pass an extended driving test to regain a full driving licence. If the driver is not disqualified, their licence may be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Causing death by driving: unlicensed or uninsured drivers

Section 3ZB of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as inserted by the Road Safety Act 2006, section 21, and amended by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015)

The law states that: ‘A person is guilty of an offence if he causes the death of another person by driving a motor vehicle on a road and, at the time when he is driving, the circumstances are such that he is committing an offence under –

(a) section 87(1) of this Act (driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence), or

(c) section 143 of this Act (using a motor vehicle while uninsured or unsecured against third party risks).’

This offence would only be charged where there is evidence that the standard of driving was in some way at fault and contributed more than minimally to the death. If an uninsured/unlicensed driver was involved in a crash caused entirely by somebody else, they would not be prosecuted for causing the death by driving.

This offence can be tried in either the Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of two years and/or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and/or an unlimited fine in a Magistrates’ Court. Anyone convicted of this offence must be disqualified from driving and their licence must be endorsed with between three and 11 penalty points.

Causing death by driving: disqualified drivers

Section 3ZC of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as inserted by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (2015c.2))

The law states that: ‘A person is guilty of an offence under this section if he or she –

(a) causes the death of another person by driving a motor vehicle on a road, and

(b) at that time, is committing an offence under section 103(1)(b) of the Act (driving while disqualified).’

This offence would only be charged where there is evidence that the standard of driving was in some way at fault and that it is linked to the death.

This offence can be tried in either the Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of 10 years and/or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and/or an unlimited fine in a Magistrates’ Court. Anyone convicted of this offence must be disqualified from driving.

Murder and manslaughter

Common Law

Murder is committed when there was intention to kill a victim or cause grievous bodily harm. This would mean that the driver had purposefully used their vehicle as a weapon. Charges of murder are rarely brought against drivers following a fatal road crash.

There are two types of manslaughter charge that could be brought against a driver who has caused death. ‘Unlawful act manslaughter’ is committed when the accused caused loss of life through an illegal action, such as using their vehicle as a weapon, but it cannot be proven that they intended to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

‘Gross negligence manslaughter’ is committed when it is proven that the accused’s driving: caused the death; fell far below the standard of a careful and competent driver; involved an obvious and serious risk of death; was a gross breach of a ‘duty of care’ owed by the driver to the person who died; and was so far below the minimum acceptable standard of driving as to amount to a crime.

The offences of murder and manslaughter are tried in the Crown Court. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence. Manslaughter has a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Anyone convicted of manslaughter in a driving case must be disqualified from driving for a minimum period of two years and then required to pass a driving test to regain a full driving licence.

Wanton or furious driving causing bodily harm

Section 35, Offences against the Person Act 1861 (as amended by the Road Safety Act 2006, section 28)

Driving offences under the Road Traffic Act must involve a motorised vehicle, and be on a public road or in a public place. By contrast, the offences of ‘wanton and furious driving causing bodily harm’, as well as the offences of murder or manslaughter, do not have these restrictions. They can be committed even if the offender is using a non-motorised vehicle, such as a bicycle. They can also be committed wherever the driving takes place, including on private land.

This offence is tried in the Crown Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of two years and/or an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted of this offence can be disqualified from driving. If they are not disqualified, their licence must be endorsed with between three and nine penalty points.

Corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide

Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

The law states that ‘An organisation is guilty of an offence if the way in which its activities are managed or organised: (a) causes a person’s death, and (b) amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.’

A ‘duty of care’ is defined as a duty owed by an organisation to its employees or contractors, a duty owed as the occupier of premises, or other duties described in law that relate to the running of the organisation.

An organisation is guilty of a ‘gross breach’ of a relevant duty of care if its conduct fell far below what would be reasonably expected. For example, if a company failed to ensure a vehicle it was operating had serviced brakes, and the vehicle could not be controlled.

This offence is tried in a Crown Court. Any penalty is against the company, not individuals working for the company. The court may impose an unlimited fine. The court may also impose a remedial order (where an organisation must make changes to prevent future breaches of health and safety laws) and a publicity order (where an organisation must publicise the details of its offence).

Gross negligence manslaughter by company employees

Common Law

Individuals within companies can be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter (see page 44) if their actions were criminal and directly led to a fatal crash. For example, if a boss of a lorry company told a driver not to take their legally-required rest breaks and the driver fell asleep at the wheel, or if they told their mechanic not to replace worn brakes on a lorry and these brakes subsequently failed. Companies can also be prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter if an individual found guilty of the offence plays a significant role in the management of the organisation’s activities.

If an individual is found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. If a company is found guilty, it can receive an unlimited fine.

Aggravated vehicle taking

Section 12(A) of the Theft Act 1968

This offence is committed when a person takes a vehicle without the owner's consent (often called ‘joy riding’ in the media) or other lawful authority for his own or another's use, or, knowing that any vehicle has been taken without such authority, drives it or allows himself to be carried in it or on it and at any time after the vehicle was unlawfully taken, whether by them or by another, and before it was recovered:

  1. the vehicle was driven dangerously on a road or other public place; or
  2. owing to the driving of the vehicle, injury or death was caused to any person; or
  3. owing to the driving of the vehicle, damage was caused to any property; or
  4. owing to the driving of the vehicle, damage was caused to the vehicle.

The offence is tried in the Crown Court or Magistrates' Court. If a death was caused, the maximum sentence in a Crown Court is 14 years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The maximum sentence in a Magistrates' Court is six months' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The driver must be disqualified for a minimum of one year. If dangerous driving was proven, the convicted person must pass an extended driving test before a full driving licence can be obtained.

Failing to stop or report an accident

Section 170(4) of the Road Traffic Act 1988

A driver involved in a crash causing death, injury or damage is required to stop, remain at the scene and give their details. If they don’t, they are required to report the crash to a police officer ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ and within 24 hours. This offence (often called ‘hit and run’ in the media) is committed if a driver doesn't do this.

Offences under this section are tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty for failing to stop or report an accident is a prison sentence of six months and/or an unlimited fine. The driver can be disqualified from driving. If not, their licence must be endorsed with between five and 10 penalty points.

Killing someone by using a defective vehicle

If an unsafe vehicle (for example, a vehicle with defective brakes) has caused a death, then there are a range of offences that may have been committed by, depending on the case, the driver, the owner or operator of the vehicle if different (for example, the boss of a company running a fleet of vehicles), or anyone else considered responsible.

It may be possible, for example, to charge someone with the offence of causing death by dangerous driving (see above), aiding and abetting (see below), or corporate manslaughter (see above).

Someone may be found to be in breach of Construction and Use Regulations. These impose requirements relating to safety critical components such as brakes, tyres, steering, tachographs (which record driving time of commercial vehicles) and speed limiters (which restrict speed on commercial vehicles).

Breaches of Construction and Use Regulations are usually heard in a Magistrates’ Court, but some offences may be dealt with by fixed penalty notice. In a Magistrates’ Court there is a range of maximum fines which can be imposed for different Construction and Use offences, the most severe of which is unlimited. Anyone given a fixed penalty notice must pay £60 and their licence must be endorsed with three penalty points. It may also be possible to disqualify an offender from running a company.

Charges that do not mention death or injury

The following charges do not mention death or injury, but are sometimes brought against a driver who was involved in a fatal crash:

  • Dangerous driving Section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended by the Road Traffic Act 1991, section 1); and
  • Careless, and inconsiderate, driving Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988

 In some cases, there is evidence that a driver was driving dangerously or carelessly before or after the crash, but there is no evidence to prove dangerous or careless driving at the time of the crash. In these cases, it may only be possible to charge someone with either dangerous driving or careless driving, rather than the more serious offence of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ or ‘causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving’.

Dangerous driving can be tried in either the Crown Court or a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of two years and/or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, or a prison sentence of six months and/or an unlimited fine in a Magistrates’ Court. The driver must be disqualified from driving for a minimum of one year unless there are special reasons to impose a shorter disqualification or no disqualification. The driver must pass an extended driving test before they can regain a full driving licence.

Careless driving is tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is an unlimited fine. The driver can be disqualified from driving. If not, their licence must be endorsed with between three and nine penalty points.

Driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence

Section 87(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (as amended by the Road Traffic Act 1991, section 17)

A person commits this offence if they drive when they do not hold a driving licence, or if they do not comply with the conditions of their licence.

There may be circumstances where an unlicensed driver is involved in a fatal collision, but it cannot be proved that their actual driving caused the death (for example, where they are driving carefully at a safe speed and another driver collides with them and dies). In these circumstances, they may still be prosecuted for driving without a valid licence. It is also an offence to cause or permit another person to drive if they do not hold a valid driving licence.

This offence is tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a fine of £1,000. The driver can be disqualified from driving. If not, their licence must be endorsed with between three and six penalty points.

Driving while disqualified

Section 103(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988

If a person drives while disqualified from driving, they commit this offence. A person may also be charged with this offence instead of 'driving otherwise than in accordance with a licence' (see above), if they do not comply with the conditions of a provisional licence gained after a period of disqualification. As above, there may be circumstances where a disqualified driver is involved in a fatal collision, but it cannot be proved that their actual driving caused the death (for example, where they are driving carefully at a safe speed and another driver collides with them and dies). In these circumstances, they may still be prosecuted for driving while disqualified.

This offence is tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is a prison sentence of six months and/or an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted of this offence can be disqualified from driving. If they are not disqualified, their licence must be endorsed with six penalty points.

Driving without insurance

Section 143(1)(a) of the Road Traffic Act 1988

If a person drives a vehicle on a road or any other public place without motor insurance, they have committed this offence. As on the previous page, there may be circumstances where an uninsured driver is involved in a fatal collision, but it cannot be proved that their actual driving caused the death (for example, where they are driving carefully at a safe speed and another driver collides with them and dies). In these circumstances, they may still be prosecuted for driving without insurance.

This offence is tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum penalty is an unlimited fine. Anyone convicted of this offence can be disqualified from driving. If they are not disqualified, their licence must be endorsed with between six and eight penalty points.

Aiding and abetting

Someone who encourages another person to commit an offence may also be guilty of that offence. For example, if a passenger in a vehicle encourages the driver to drive dangerously, the passenger may be guilty of aiding and abetting dangerous driving. Generally, the same penalties apply, although length of licence disqualification may differ. This can also apply in the case of a company that uses drivers (such as a lorry or bus operator) and allowed those drivers to drive dangerously, or use vehicles in a dangerous condition. The company, or a manager within the company, may be charged.

Aiding and abetting offences may be tried in either a Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, depending on the seriousness of the offence. Generally the same penalties apply, although length of licence disqualification may differ.

Bringing a private prosecution

It is sometimes possible for a member of the public, rather than the Crown Prosecution Service, to prosecute another person for a criminal offence. This is called a private prosecution. This process is very costly and you cannot claim legal aid.

Sometimes, new offences are created, or there are changes to the definition of offences or the maximum penalty for an offence. More information on offences and charging policy can be found on the Crown Prosecution Service website.


Click to go to the next section of this guide: Court cases or to go to the contents page.

Tags: police crown prosecution service advice charge