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Are you a careful driver?

June 01 2010

Following the introduction of new road traffic offences, assessment of how careful/careless a driver has been can have an important bearing on the outcome for the defendant.

The Road Safety Act 2006 came into force on 18th August 2008. It contains a raft of measures designed to improve safety on Britain’s road and help achieve casualty reduction targets.  Among those measures were new offences of causing death by careless driving or death by inconsiderate driving. These new offences were introduced to address public concern about deaths on the roads in cases where the defendant’s driving could not be considered dangerous and minimal sentences were previously allowed.

Under the Road Safety Act 2006, the maximum penalty for careless driving where death is not involved is a fine. Where death is an issue, however, the maximum penalty increases to 5 years imprisonment. The difference between the two may only be chance, i.e. the age of the injured party (young or elderly) or the treatment received. In either case the standard of driving may be exactly the same.

To assist the court the Sentencing Guideline Council produced guidelines that apply to the new offences. They state that the central feature should be an evaluation of the quality of the driving involved and the degree of danger that it created. The guidelines draw a distinction between those factors of an offence that are intrinsic to the quality of driving and those which are not. Furthermore the guidelines define three levels of seriousness: the most serious where the driving was not far short of dangerous and the least serious being those where the level of culpability was low, for example, a driver who misjudges the speed of another vehicle or who turns without seeing an oncoming vehicle because of restricted visibility. Where the level of carelessness is low and there are no aggregating factors, the fact that it was a fatal accident may not be sufficient to justify a prison sentence.

There is a range of issues that can be taken into consideration in evaluating whether a driver was paying enough attention to their driving. The speed of the vehicle and whether or not the driver had consumed alcohol and or drugs are issues that immediately come to mind. Were there any sources of distraction within the vehicle or external to it?

Was the injured party wearing their seatbelt and did any non-compliance contribute to the severity of the injuries?  An examination of the vehicles involved, if available, enables other factors such as their condition/road worthiness to be included. Likewise an examination of the incident scene enables lines of sight to be investigated. The condition of the road surface may also be an influencing factor in certain cases. This may require an assessment of temporary conditions such as ice or mud on the road, or more permanent features such as the surface dressing or camber. The accident history of the incident site may also be relevant.

Careful analysis of witness statements can provide useful clues on weather conditions and visibility. Although vehicle speed estimations can be variable in witness statements, there may be other consistent information on the circumstances of the incident. For example, if the incident involved a pedestrian or a cyclist, are there any comments on how conspicuous they were or how they were behaving?

Even in cases where your client has been found guilty of careless driving or is willing to plead guilty of that offence, a report bringing together the mitigating factors and thereby enabling the court to evaluate the degree of carelessness may be essential when it comes to sentencing. It could mean the difference between a custodial and non-custodial sentence.

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