Why increasing maximum sentences for killer drivers doesn’t fix the problem
Why increasing maximum sentences for killer drivers doesn’t fix the problem
If you’re wondering whether you’ve heard this before, it’s likely you have, because successive governments have been going round in circles on this issue for years, while continually failing to address some fundamental problems with road traffic laws and how they are applied or enforced.
It was back in 2014 that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced a full review of road traffic offences and penalties promising "Justice for victims of banned drivers". He talked about longer jail sentences for drivers who cause death or serious injury on the roads, but that was to be part of a wider review which we were told would take place “over the next few months”, with plans to change the law “shortly”, and assurances that changes were “expected to be implemented in early 2015”.
Six years on we’re still waiting for that review, so Monday felt like Groundhog Day, with a headline announcement about sentencing changes potentially affecting a tiny number of cases each year, but nothing to improve how the justice system deals with the vast majority of road traffic offences across Great Britain (road traffic legislation is devolved in Northern Ireland), which the long-awaited and oft-promised Grayling review was supposed to address.
Waiting for Godot
Through our road justice campaigning, Cycling UK has long argued for a justice system that discourages bad driving, educates drivers to a higher standard, takes bad drivers off the roads and delivers just and safe outcomes, so we’re certainly not opposed to tougher penalties for drivers who cause death or serious injury to others. But on its own, that’s a sticking plaster for a system that’s haemorrhaging.
As I outlined in this blog four years ago, waiting for the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) review was like Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s play where there is nothing to be done, and nothing ever happens.
After procrastinating for 30 months, the MoJ did eventually launch a consultation in December 2016, but having promised to review all motoring offences and penalties, including the distinction between 'careless' and 'dangerous' driving, the consultation was restricted largely to the question of whether maximum sentences for the most serious offences should be increased.
As I said at the time, the Government opted for a cut-price narrow remit review, rather than the wider review of all offences and penalties which all too many families of the 1,700 people killed on Britain’s roads each year deserved, were promised, and had been waiting for.
Cycling UK has long argued for a justice system that discourages bad driving, educates drivers to a higher standard, takes bad drivers off the roads and delivers just and safe outcomes, so we’re certainly not opposed to tougher penalties for drivers who cause death or serious injury to others. But on its own, that’s a sticking plaster for a system that’s haemorrhaging
Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK
Cycling UK’s proposals
Notwithstanding the apparent limitations of the MoJ’s consultation, MoJ Ministers encouraged wider contributions to the review, so Cycling UK responded to the consultation (summary and full response) calling for:
- A complete review of the distinction between careless and dangerous driving, with three alternative proposals put forward for consideration regarding how bad driving offences and the standard of driving could be better defined and determined;
- Legislative change to ensure greater use of disqualification as a sentencing option, including the introduction of minimum disqualification periods for certain offences and the removal of or significant amendments to the exceptional hardship loophole, used by thousands of drivers like Christopher Gard each year to avoid a disqualification under the totting up provisions, because it might cause them inconvenience or hardship;
- A review of both the scope of and penalties for the offence of car dooring, a construction and use offence with a maximum £1,000 fine, to include consideration of an new offence of opening a car door so as to cause death or serious injury, which would carry greater penalties;
- An increase in the maximum penalties available for the offence of failing to stop after an accident, specifically in those cases where another road user is left on the roadside in need of urgent medical attention.
Into the long grass
Over 9,000 people responded to the MoJ’s consultation, with an overwhelming majority in support of our proposals, yet the Government’s response in October 2017 focussed on life sentences for killer drivers, along with a commitment to create a new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving, the same headline that’s been dusted down and re-announced this week!
One positive was that Cycling UK’s recommendation for the greater use of driver disqualification seemed to be accepted, with the Government announcing that it “intends to give this proposal further consideration, to take account of disqualification for all offences and any emerging evidence on the effectiveness of disqualification and retesting requirements before proposing further changes to the law”.That commitment seems to have been kicked into the long grass, however, as there’s been stony silence on this proposal for the last three years.
Fiddling whilst Rome burns
Trying to fix one perceived problem with road traffic laws or their operation, rather than looking at how they operate in the round, was also a blind spot for the last government, which seemed to think that an urgent review of cycling offences was more important than its commitment to consider greater use of driving disqualifications or the need to review careless and dangerous driving legislation more broadly, which could have included consideration of cycling offences.
Despite our calls for the cycling offences review to be part of a wider review of road traffic offences and penalties, the Government missed the opportunity, but found the time and resources to undertake a specific cycling offences only review.
Over 13,000 people supported our response to government (summary and full response) in which we repeated that what was needed was a full review of all road traffic offences and penalties, because whether someone is prosecuted for careless or dangerous driving is often something of a lottery, as are the resulting sentences, leaving thousands of victims and their relatives feeling massively let down by the justice system’s failure to reflect the seriousness of bad driving.
Adding one or two new offences specific to cyclists would just be tinkering around the edges, especially when the way that mistakes, carelessness, recklessness and deliberately dangerous behaviour by all road users is dealt with hasn’t been fit for purpose for years.
The system we have for dealing with road traffic offences can’t be fixed simply by bolting on one or two new cycling offences to something which isn’t working now.
Too difficult box
We set out in more detail within our response to the Government’s cycling and walking safety review in 2018 (pages 72 -87) why a review of road traffic offences was needed, and specifically why the current careless and dangerous driving laws were not fit for purpose and could be improved, and why more drivers who cause danger should be disqualified from driving, and how the law could be changed to achieve this.
Once again, however, those recommendations seem to have been swept into the too difficult box. In contrast, life sentences for killer drivers are headline material that hasn't been used for a couple of years and could be achieved with a simple legislative change.
Fix the problem, not the symptom
So, I wasn’t celebrating on Monday when I heard the latest announcement about increasing maximum prison sentences for drivers who kill or adding a new causing serious injury by careless driving offence to the existing offence framework.
I don’t want the Government to tackle a symptom, I want them to fix the problem. That requires a full review of road traffic offences and penalties instead of tinkering around the edges.
When the Government puts forward this legislation, we’ll be lobbying MPs to make that case.