Ministers are pressing for the introduction of life sentences for people convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.

There are also plans to introduce life sentences for careless drivers who kill whilst under the influence of drink or drugs and to introduce three year jail terms for careless drivers causing serious injury.

Dangerous driving occurs where a the standard of a person’s driving falls far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous. Examples of dangerous driving may included racing or driving at very high, uncontrollable speeds, but in all cases will depend on the circumstances.

A careless driving offence is committed where the standard of driving falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver; note the difference with the more serious offence of dangerous driving where the standard of driving must be ‘far below’.

Under the new plans, a life sentence may be imposed where death is caused by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs. Currently the maximum penalty in law is 14 years.

The Justice Minister, Sam Gyimah, is clearly keen that this be a deterrent “While impossible to compensate for the death of a loved one, we are determined to make sure the punishment fits the crime.”

What will be interesting will be the sentencing guidelines. Judges sentence according to guidelines which set out sentencing ranges, based on the type of offence and then taking into account the level of seriousness as well as aggravating and mitigating factors. More than one death, or driving off to seek to avoid detection are aggravating factors whereas if the offender is seriously injured, or the person killed is a close friend or relative of the offender, these would serve to mitigate the sentence.

The sentencing ranges will clearly increase if these changes are introduced. An offender will serve longer insider for the same offence than if it is committed today. A life sentence however, will not mean life inside. The Judge would set a minimum tariff which would be the minimum period a person sentenced to life under the new guidelines, if they are introduced; so today, an offender who may receive an eight year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving would be released in four years, serving the remaining four years outside of prison, on license.

Under the proposals, it would be likely that where a life sentence is passed, the tariff may be a fixed period which would be set according to the circumstances of the case. If, for example, a life sentence was passed with a five year tariff, then the offender would need to serve the full five years before being able to apply for parole, with no guarantee of release unless a Board is satisfied that the risk of re-offending is sufficiently low that the offender can be released into the community. They would remain on license potentially for life and could be recalled to prison if offending behaviour continues.

All of this raises a number of issues. First, nobody would disagree that someone who drives dangerously, with no aforethought to the consequences they may cause, deserves much sympathy. Where an absolutely unnecessary death occurs, this is a tragedy where many other lives are also ruined.

I am not sure though, that it will act as a deterrent. In 2015, 122 people were sentenced for death by dangerous driving. That is 122 people who were not deterred by the maximum 14 year sentence. Would a maximum life sentence have made a difference when they got in their cars, probably not. Why?

Well, well at the time that a drunk person gets in their car and drives, they are not thinking about consequences.  The fabulous Dame Helen Mirren puts it best:


“So I’ll sum it up like this: If you drive drunk, you, simply put, are a short-sighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting, human form of pollution, a Darwin Award-deserving, selfish coward….If your brain was donated to science, science would return it. So stop it … Don’t be a pillock.”

Likewise, a person who drives dangerously and kills does not intend to kill, that would be murder, rather they have just done something frankly selfish and stupid. Their actions are so reckless and the death so foreseeable, that what they have done will form the offence.

Will the increased sentencing powers make a difference to the number of offences; probably not. If brought in, these measures will not deter stupidity, though those convicted will have far longer to reflect on what they have done from behind bars.


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