Motorists who cause death while using a mobile phone or falling asleep at the wheel face long jail terms, the Lord Chief Justice has recommended.
Judges want sentences to reflect how serious dangerous driving is
Introducing new sentencing guidelines, Lord Woolf said anyone convicted of killing by dangerous driving would "normally" face a prison sentence of at least 12-18 months - with a maximum of 10 years.
But those who caused death while distracted by talking or texting on a mobile phone, reading or feeling drowsy, could expect to be jailed for several years, possibly a minimum of six years if other "aggravating factors" were present.
The new guidelines come as part of a judgement by a panel of judges at the Court of Appeal relating to three appeals against charges for death by dangerous driving.
Drivers must know that, if a person is killed... a custodial sentence will normally be imposed no matter what the
The judges set out new recommendations for setting the length of sentence, taking into account the driver's record, any mitigating or aggravating circumstances and how many people had been killed or injured.
On the question of the "avoidable distraction" of using a mobile phone they referred to the case of a lorry driver who veered off the road and killed a man in a lay-by while sending a text message and who was jailed for
Lord Woolf said the court endorsed the statement made in the Court of Appeal by Lord Justice Mance as he upheld that five-year term.
Lord Justice Mance had said: "The use of a mobile phone to read and compose text messages while driving is a highly perilous activity."
Any use of a mobile by a driver was "self-evidently risky," he added.
Previously, falling asleep at the wheel has been seen as a mitigating factor but the Appeal Court judges said that if a driver had made a choice to continue on the road while feeling drowsy, he or she must accept responsibility for that decision.
"Drivers do not normally fall asleep without warning and the proper course of action for a motorist who feels
drowsy is to stop driving and rest," they said.
We welcome this ruling as acknowledgement of the huge dangers posed by drivers who choose to drive when tired, or while using a mobile phone
Mark Williams, chief executive of Brake
The court has said the basic offence of dangerous driving - without causing death, but causing serious injury - should be increased from two years to five years.
"Drivers must know that, if a person is killed as a result of their driving
dangerously, a custodial sentence will normally be imposed no matter what the mitigating circumstances," said Lord Woolf.
Other aggravating features included consumption of drugs or alcohol, greatly excessive speed, racing, competitive driving against another driver, and driving a poorly maintained or dangerously loaded vehicle.
Mitigating circumstances would include good driving, genuine shock and remorse and whether the defendant had been injured themselves.
The sentence guidelines have been revised after advice from the Sentencing Advisory Panel.
Mary Williams, chief executive of road safety charity Brake, said on Thursday: "We welcome this ruling as acknowledgement of the huge dangers posed by drivers who choose to drive when tired, or while using a mobile phone.
"It is ludicrous that, until now, drivers who have killed on the
road have been able to cite their own risk-taking as part of their defence.
"This sends a clear message to drivers that taking such risks on the road is totally unacceptable."
The maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving has not been raised above 10 years, because an offence of motor manslaughter existed which carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The judges said that courts should bear in mind "how important it is to drive home the message that dangerous driving has a potentially horrific impact".
One of the cases involves the man who killed the step-brother of Atomic Kitten star Liz McClarnon.
Neil Cook, from Liverpool, has had his sentence reduced from seven years to six years for killing 17-year-old Mark Cook (no relation) in September 2002.