Charges and penalties

 

Key facts

 
  • The maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving is only five years, compared to 14 for causing death by dangerous driving;
  • In 2015, 188 drivers were charged with ‘causing death by dangerous driving’, while 201 were charged with ‘causing death by careless driving' [1];
  • About three in five people convicted of killing someone while driving are jailed,[2] with an average prison sentence of under four years [3];
  • In 2014, 1.02 million fixed penalty notices (FPNs) were issued for driving offences in England and Wales; three-quarters of the FPNs were for speed-limit offences, the highest proportion on record [4];
  • FPNs for careless driving (excluding handheld mobile phone use) increased by 11% between 2013 and 2014 [5]; 
  • In 2013, 240 fatal road crashes, and 1,100 crashes resulting in a serious injury, involved a drink-drive offence [6];
  • Nine in 10 people want criminal drivers who kill charged with manslaughter[7];
  • Brake is advocating a review of charges for causing death and serious injury on the road, to ensure drivers are charged with offences that adequately reflect the risk taken and harm caused.

Introduction

 
Drivers who kill, harm and endanger are often let off with grossly inadequate penalties, in some cases for inappropriately-termed charges.

In cases of death and serious injury on our roads, this often causes terrible insult and upset to bereaved and injured victims, leaving many feeling betrayed by our justice system.

What's more, low penalties for driving offences at all levels sends a message that these are minor infringements, rather than serious crimes that result in needless suffering and loss of life.

Brake is now calling on the government to immediately review guidelines for both charging and sentencing criminal drivers as part of its ‘Roads to Justice' campaign.

Current penalties and charges

A combination of inadequacies in the criminal justice system means many drivers who kill or seriously injure receive very low sentences and often no jail term at all. Government figures show only three in five people convicted of killing someone through risky driving are jailed, with an average sentence length of under four years.

The Ministry of Justice decides the offences drivers can be charged with and their maximum penalties. The Crown Prosecution Service then decides which charge to prosecute a driver for in court, often opting for a less serious charge because they are more likely to get a conviction. Judges then determine the length of sentence if the driver is convicted, working within maximum penalties and using guidelines from the Sentencing Council.

Brake believes major improvements are needed to charges, penalties and sentencing to ensure justice is done and there's a strong deterrent against illegal driving.

Read about:

'Careless' driving

When a driver causes a death, they might be prosecuted with 'causing death by dangerous driving' or 'causing death by careless driving'. When a driver causes a serious injury, they might be prosecuted with 'causing serious injury by dangerous driving' (a charge introduced in 2012) or simply 'careless driving'. 

The difference between 'careless' and 'dangerous' driving in the eyes of the law is slight and subjective: it's the difference between someone's driving falling below or well below what is expected of a careful and competent driver. But the difference in penalties between these charges is huge. The maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving is only five years, compared to 14 for causing death by dangerous driving. The maximum sentence for causing serious injury by dangerous driving is five years (if heard in a Crown Court), compared to a maximum penalty of a fine only for careless driving. Very often, prosecutors go for the lesser careless driving charges because they are easier to prove. 

In a study to mark the launch of Brake’s new ‘Roads to Justice’ campaign:

  • Nine in 10 (91%) of people questioned agreed that if someone causes a fatal crash when they get behind the wheel after drinking or taking drugs, they should be charged with manslaughter;
  • Two-thirds (66%) of people surveyed believed that drivers who kill while breaking laws should be jailed for a minimum of 10 years;
  • 84% thought that drivers who kill while breaking the law should be charged with dangerous not careless driving;
  • One in five (19.8%) think that drivers who kill should serve a life sentence.[8]

Brake believes charges and penalties for causing death or serious injury should be overhauled. We need to get rid of the split between 'dangerous' and 'careless' so prosecutors aren't tempted to go for an easier won charge that carries inappropriately low penalties and deems driving that has killed or caused serious harm as merely 'careless', terminology that undermines the gravitas of the offence.

Ideally we should have one charge that can be brought against anyone whose driving causes death or serious injury. Judges could still use their discretion to sentence according to the level of risk taken, across the range of penalties up to the maximum of 14 years. At the very least, prosecuting guidelines should be improved so it is clear that if you were taking an illegal risk when you killed or seriously injured someone, such as speeding or using a phone, your driving is automatically deemed 'dangerous' in the eyes of the law.

Drink drivers

In 2013, 240 fatal road crashes, and 1,100 crashes resulting in a serious injury, involved a drink-drive offence [9]. Currently, drink-drivers face an automatic ban and up to six months in jail, but the penalties are the same no matter how many times they re-offend. Some drivers are also placed on a 'high risk offender' scheme if they are repeat drink-drivers or had a high level of alcohol in their blood. Under this scheme drivers have to undergo tests to show they are not alcohol dependent before getting their licence back.

But the current system to tackle repeat drink-driving isn't working: one in eight drink-drivers do it again, and as many as three in 10 'high risk offenders' reoffend. We need the government to get tough with repeat drink-drivers by giving judges the power to hand out higher sentences (potentially up to two years) to repeat drink-drivers. And we need alcohol interlocks [10] fitted in the vehicles of high-risk offenders who are given back their licence, to help prevent reoffending.

Hit-and-run drivers 

If you hit and kill someone when behind the wheel and you're found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you could face up to 14 years in jail. However, if you flee the scene and wait to sober up, you'll most likely be charged with 'hit and run' and face a maximum sentence of six months. We need to end the incentive for drink- and drug-drivers to flee the scene to sober up and ensure hit-and-run drivers who kill or seriously injure face the same penalties as other drivers who inflict such destruction. There must be an assumption that if they fled the scene, they caused the crash through dangerous driving.

Unlicensed drivers

Unlicensed or uninsured drivers have no right to be on roads in the first place. Yet unlicensed and uninsured drivers who kill will only receive the maximum penalty (10 years) if it can be proven in court that they were driving ‘dangerously’. If this cannot be proven, they face a maximum sentence of only two years for ‘causing death by driving when unlicensed or uninsured [11].

Unlicensed driving is often closely linked to uninsured driving. This means that those who kill or injure without a licence often drive an uninsured vehicle and those who are injured or who have lost loved ones receive limited pay out. This is unfair and an additional strain placed on victims, and Brake urges the government to crack down on unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

Brake believes an unlicensed or uninsured driver is driving dangerously simply by getting behind the wheel. If an unlicensed or uninsured driver kills or seriously injures someone, they should face the same maximum penalties as those charged with dangerous driving. 

Sentencing guidelines

Judges decide an offender's jail term based on guidelines from the Sentencing Council. Current guidelines frequently result in low sentences being handed down; they desperately need to be changed.

Driving bans

Brake believes drivers who kill and seriously injure should be taken off the road once they are charged, as a condition of bail. Prosecutions often take months to come to court [12]. In many cases the driver charged is able to continue driving during this time, potentially putting others in danger, and often in the same community where the crash took place, causing further distress to 

Fines as a deterrent

In 2014, there were 1.02 million fixed penalty notices issued for driving offences in England and Wales. This was an 11% fall on the number issued in 2013, continuing a year-on-year downward trend. Nearly three-quarters of fines were issued for speeding offences [13].

Brake believes the £100 fixed penalty fine for driving offences sends a dangerous message that offences like speeding and phone use at the wheel, which can and do lead to death and injury, are not real crimes, and important safety laws need not be taken seriously. Research shows that higher fines pose a stronger deterrent against law-breaking [14], so raising the fixed penalty to £500-£1,000 should encourage wider compliance with vital laws that are in place to protect people. 

Penalty points

The penalty-points system is designed to protect the public from dangerous repeat offenders, but the system is being undermined. Thousands of drivers with 12 points or more have been allowed to retain their licence [15]. Many drivers who have reached 12 points have been using a loophole to keep their licence by claiming it would cause 'exceptional hardship' if they were banned. This loophole needs closing urgently: driving is a privilege, not a right; and if that privilege is not exercised responsibly, it should be revocable. Drivers who reach 12 points should be automatically disqualified to protect themselves and others.

Sentencing disqualified drivers

Drivers who are disqualified have proven they are willing to take life-threatening risks. Disqualified drivers who ignore their ban are likely to pose a serious danger.

In April 2015, the maximum sentence for disqualified drivers who kill was increased from two years to 10 years, and a new offence of ‘causing serious injury by driving while disqualified’ was introduced, with a maximum sentence of four years. This represents important progress, but Brake believes people who repeatedly drive while disqualified should face serious consequences, yet they currently only face a further ban and up to six months in jail no matter how many times they are caught.

We need the government to get tough with these serial offenders, by giving judges the power to hand out higher sentences, potentially up to two years, if someone is caught driving while banned repeatedly. Drivers who kill while disqualified should be prosecuted to the same degree as dangerous drivers who who kill.

Driver re-training courses

Driver re-training courses, often offered as a once-only alternative to a fixed penalty notice for speeding and some other road offences, may help improve attitudes to safe driving for some. However, drivers are incentivised to attend by escaping penalty points, meaning repeat offenders may avoid sanction under the points system. Drivers caught for different offences, such as speeding, mobile phone use and careless driving, can go on multiple courses and avoid receiving points on their licence as long as they don't attended the same course twice. Brake argues it would be better to provide an incentive of a reduced fine to attend courses, so drivers who take risks repeatedly are still sanctioned under the points system. This would be possible if the fixed penalty notice was increased to £500-£1,000 as Brake advocates.


End notes:

[1] Criminal justice system statistics quarterly: December 2015, Ministry of Justice, 2016
[2] Criminal justice system statistics quarterly: December 2015, Ministry of Justice, 2016
[3] Motoring data tool: 2015, Department for Transport, 2015
[4]Police powers and procedures in England and Wales, year ending 31 March 2015: Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 2015
[5] Police powers and procedures in England and Wales, year ending 31 March 2015: Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 2015
[6] Prof Richard Allsop, Saving lives by lowering the drink-drive limit, 2015
[7] Brake Poll: 2015-16, Brake
[8] Brake Poll: 2015-16, Brake
[9] Prof Richard Allsop, Saving lives by lowering the drink-drive limit, 2015
[10] Alcohol interlocks are vehicle immobilisers that are activated if a driver is unable to pass a breath test, required to start the engine. They can be linked to a camera to prevent drivers asking someone else to take the test for them.
[11] Driving offences involving death, the Sentencing Council of England and Wales
[12] Average time from offence to completion of trial for an indictable driving offence, 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
[13] Police powers and procedures in England and Wales, year ending 31 March 2015: Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 2015
[14] Calviño, N. "Public Enforcement in the EU: Deterrent Effect and Proportionality of Fines" European Competition Law Annual 2006: Enforcement of Prohibition of Cartels, 2006
[15]Charity calls for reform to get law-breaking drivers off our roads - 10,000 drivers with 12 points are still driving, Brake, 2011.