Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Killer drivers could avoid jail

Road crash
Momentary lapses in concentration can be fatal

Motorists found guilty of causing death could avoid jail despite a tough new law being brought in.

The new charge of causing death by careless driving will apply in England, Wales and Scotland and will carry a maximum five-year sentence.

But the Sentencing Guidelines Council is recommending community penalties in cases where drivers kill someone through "momentary inattention".

Road safety groups had called for tougher sentences for drivers who kill.

They argued that drivers in some cases were not being sufficiently punished.

Current laws mean that someone convicted of death by dangerous driving can be sentenced to 14 years in prison.

But in the past, drivers who caused a death might have found themselves charged with careless driving - which did not take into account that someone had died and only carried a fine.

We really do want to see the custodial sentence as the starting point
Lorna Jackson, Brake

The new legislation is intended to lead to harsher sentences for motorists where a fatality was caused by a fleeting or short period of bad driving.

The current maximum penalty for careless driving is a 2,500 fine.

Ministers put forward the changes to the Road Safety Bill in 2005, after pressure for tougher laws for drivers who kill from road safety groups.

The new offence of death by careless driving won Royal Assent in November 2006 as an alternative to causing death by dangerous driving, but has yet to be brought in.

Anybody who kills due to carelessness or otherwise should spend a minimum of five years in jail
Keith Hutchinson, Sunderland

But the SGC said that even in cases of medium seriousness, judges should be able to impose a community order.

Cases that lead to a death after a driver's "momentary inattention" could even be dealt with by low level community order, it added.

And the normal maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving should be three years' imprisonment, the SGC said, despite the maximum allowed being five years.

Its consultation paper said: "Where the level of carelessness is low and there are no aggravating factors, even the fact that death was caused is not sufficient to justify a prison sentence."

Although offenders face a maximum jail term of five years, in cases where a motorist with an exemplary driving record kills someone after a slight misjudgement or mistake, the SGC is recommending a community sentence.

The offence may cover being distracted by satellite navigation equipment.

The huge growth in the use of such systems and mobile phones has been blamed for increasing the risk of causing deaths through careless driving.

Tuning in radio/playing CDs
Conversations with passengers
Retrieving items such as purses/wallets from back seat
External distractions such as billboards or pedestrians
Children sat on back seats
Mobile phone use and conversation, even hands free
Lighting cigarettes
Eating at the wheel or using items like teapots
Shaving or applying make-up
DVD players or televisions
Source: BSM

In addition, motorists who kill after forgetting to renew their car insurance could also avoid custody, even though the maximum sentence for the new offence of "causing death when driving while unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured" is two years in jail.

Lorna Jackson, from the road safety charity, Brake, said she still hoped custodial sentences would be a "starting point".

She said: "If someone in my family had been killed by a driver I wouldn't be satisfied for them to get a community sentence.

"Obviously if there are some really persuasive mitigating circumstances then that could be reduced down to a community sentence. But we really do want to see the custodial sentence as the starting point."

Cynthia Barlow's 26-year-old daughter Alex Jane McVitty was killed in a road accident in June 2000 when she was knocked from her bike and run over by the driver of a concrete mixer lorry turning left across her path.

'Thorough investigation'

Ms Barlow said the main issue with drivers who kill was accountability.

"The principal issue is to get across to drivers that they are responsible for what they do, they're responsible for their actions.

"We're not happy about the death cases staying in a magistrates' court.

Dangerous driving
Manslaughter or culpable homicide while driving a vehicle
Causing death by dangerous driving
Driving without due care and attention
Driving without reasonable consideration for other road users
Driving without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other road users
Causing death through careless when unfit through drink
Causing death by careless driving when unfit through drugs
Causing death by careless driving when failing to supply a specimen for analysis

"We do think that they should always go to a higher court, so there is a more thorough investigation, a better standard of prosecution so that at least families can know the facts, which at the moment they don't with a magistrates' court hearing."

The SGC and Sentencing Advisory Panel (SAP) are two independent bodies that work together to produce sentencing guidelines that encourage consistency in sentencing throughout the courts of England and Wales.

The SAP, which makes initial reports to the SGC, has recommended that the new crime should carry a community sentence in the least serious cases.

The recommendations on careless driving follow lengthy public consultation, involving the relatives of people who died in car crashes.

The SGC also proposed new sentencing structures for the offences of causing death by dangerous driving, and when a motorist kills under the influence of drink or drugs, or while driving illegally.

It said the most serious offenders of dangerous driving should receive between seven and 14 years' imprisonment.

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