Recently there have been a number of significant developments in road traffic rules and legislation, including modification to the Highway Code, and tightening up on the use of mobile phones whilst driving. The government is also bringing forward several significant changes to meet its longstanding commitment to ensure the courts have greater powers to deal with drivers who seriously injure or kill others.
On 28 April 2022, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill received Royal Assent and became an Act of Parliament. The Act covers a number of different matters. In the context of road traffic offences, the Act will introduce the following provisions shortly (as set out at section 208, they will “come into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act was passed”):
- It will create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless, or inconsiderate, driving, with a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment (section 87).
- It will increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life imprisonment (section 86).
- It will increase the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment (section 86).
A new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving
The introduction of this offence has been the subject of discussion for many years, with road safety campaigners in particular, calling for change in respect of the penalties for those who cause serious injury to others when driving. There is little doubt it will considerably alter how serious road traffic collisions are dealt and investigated by the police. It represents another example of the increasing shift (in respect of road traffic offences) towards greater emphasis being placed on the consequences of a collision, as opposed to a drivers culpability. For example, in effect, a driver could make a relatively minor error/misjudgement with catastrophic consequences and could well face a period of imprisonment. That is a marked difference to the position prior to the changes the Act will introduce.
For employers of professional drivers, the introduction of this new offence is one that they must ensure their employees are not only aware of, but also that appropriate training and education on safe driving is regularly provided and up to date. This is particularly important given the extent of the time spent on the roads by those who drive for (or as a significant part of) their employment and therefore the potential increased likelihood of being involved in a collision.
The other potential impact of the introduction of this offence is that it may result in delays to an already congested criminal justice system. Careless driving cases are subject to strict timescales. That often means they are processed and concluded more quickly than other road offences, which is beneficial to both the driver and the victim. Cases prosecuted under this new offence may be subject to the delays in investigation and court process times that currently occur in the prosecution of other road traffic offences, placing a further burden on the criminal justice system, and alongside that parallel civil claims may ultimately take longer to resolve.
Increase in sentencing powers (causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs)
The government has been clear that it wants to ensure proportionate sentences can be imposed for the most serious of road traffic cases. Increasing the maximum penalty will, in effect, bring the courts sentencing powers in line with sentencing applicable to manslaughter. Under the current regime, a driver who kills another whilst under the influence of drink or drugs or pre-occupied by their mobile phone could, on a guilty plea be sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. That is set to change with these increased powers and will, in some ways alleviate the concerns raised by bereaved families for many years.