Drive this careless law off the statute books

A law that criminalises death by careless driving is New Labour’s ‘Dangerous Dogs moment’: desperate, crude, illiberal.

Up to five years in prison for talking on a mobile phone, eating a sandwich or reading a map? It sounds like madness, but that is what a new British law provides for.

The law in question creates a new offence of ‘death by careless driving’. If a driver causes someone’s death while their driving ‘falls below the standard expected of a reasonable, prudent and competent driver’ - especially by the forms of ‘avoidable distraction’ described above - then a prison sentence of three years will be deemed ‘likely’ under sentencing guidelines for England and Wales announced in July. Only if the death were caused by ‘momentary distraction’ with no ‘aggravating factors’ would a non-custodial sentence be considered.

The new law was introduced following a number of high-profile cases in which a driver caused the death of an innocent person yet walked away with a fine and penalty points on his driving licence. In 2007, for example, a 19-year-old pregnant woman, Rachel Ward, was killed by a Dutch lorry driver on a motorway in the English Midlands. The driver, Josephus Embregts, apparently simply did not see Ward’s small Ford Ka as he changed lanes. Embregts was fined £1,000, paid by his firm, and given six penalty points. Yet since he had only a Dutch licence, not a British one, even these penalty points did not affect him.

It would take a heart of stone not to be sympathetic towards those who die in such circumstances and their families. It is entirely right and proper to demand that anyone who gets behind the wheel of a vehicle, particularly something as large and powerful as a lorry, be 100 per cent focused on the task in hand.

But introducing such a draconian law seems unlikely to save any lives, and it may well ruin many more. Anyone with any experience of driving will know that distraction is inevitable. It is tough to remain completely focused on any task for hours at a time. While the process of controlling a car becomes almost automatic with practice, there are plenty of other demands on a driver’s attention: navigation, the radio, billboards, the epidemic of road signs, and so on. And that’s before we look at the kinds of ‘avoidable distractions’ mentioned above.

As in the case of Josephus Embregts, sometimes we simply do not register the things that our eyes are seeing. The government even recognises this in an advertising campaign warning drivers that they may miss motorcyclists at junctions - a campaign that’s been running in one form or another for over three decades.

Very rarely, one of these distractions or oversights will lead to a fatal accident. Deaths on the UK’s roads are incredibly unusual, however, given the number of vehicles whizzing about and the number of miles driven. The latest available statistics, published last year, show that in 2006 there were 3,172 deaths on Britain’s roads. This is not a trivial figure, but because the distance travelled by motor vehicles was 500 billion kilometres, there were just six people killed or seriously injured on the roads for every 100million kilometres travelled. On average, a driver could expect to be involved in such an accident once every 1,000 years.

It would be great to be able to find a way to reduce this very small risk still further, but this new law will not help much, if at all. As the accident statistics suggest, the vast majority of drivers already drive responsibly. Of course, there are still idiots: people like Donna Maddock, caught by police in North Wales in 2006 driving at 32 miles per hour while applying make-up with both hands off the steering wheel. Maddock was fined £200 for her stupidity. Fortunately, her recklessness caused no accident.

But you don’t have to be an idiot to be distracted. My one and only accident was while driving an unfamiliar vehicle - a hired van. While looking around, somewhat lost, for a road sign, and more preoccupied by the controls than I would be in a normal car, I failed to notice the road was bending gradually to the right. I clipped another van parked on the side of the road. A most distressed owner remonstrated at the state of his shiny new van, minus its wing mirror. Thank god for insurance…

My moment of distraction might have led to someone’s death. Despite a complete absence of malicious intent, I might have been jailed as a result. While that death would have been utterly tragic, would the punishment have fitted the crime?

The new rules reveal the truth of an old adage: hard cases make bad laws. In the effort to prevent unusual deaths like that of Rachel Ward, the government wants to stomp on people who have committed minor misdemeanours that have consequences out of all proportion to the crime.

One experienced criminal solicitor told spiked that the new law is ‘probably the most cowardly piece of legislation introduced by this government in the sphere of criminal justice’ - and there’s plenty of competition. He described how he had represented a young woman who had killed another road user in what was, by any reasonable view, an accident. Apart from telling her solicitor that she wanted to plead guilty, she barely spoke throughout the case as she was so distraught - she spent most of the time crying. If this new law had been in operation, she might well have faced imprisonment to add to her grief.

The only sensible purpose this new law might serve is that a few idiots whose bad driving doesn’t quite fall into the category of ‘dangerous’, which currently leads to long prison sentences where death results, could now receive a penalty which better reflects their recklessness and the harm that has been caused. But the result of creating the offence of death by careless driving will be that other people who are, ordinarily, good and responsible drivers will be sent to prison for a momentary lapse of judgement. Reckless drivers will carry on being reckless, by definition. Few, if any, lives will be saved.

Such pointless crackdowns are typical of a government that has lost all sense of balance and proportion. It seems that being seen to be doing something about a supposedly out-of-control society is sufficient to justify any legal sanction. This kind of law is the death rattle of a government. It was a sign of the decline of the Conservative government in the 1990s when it introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act, a dreadful law that banned some specific breeds of dog, purely in response to some high-profile newspaper stories. The offence of death by careless driving is just as stupid and will lead to much more serious injustices than the Dangerous Dogs Act ever could.

One of the underpinnings of the new law is the way in which society seems incapable of accepting the idea of an ‘accident’ anymore. Every bad thing that happens must have a reason and there must be someone to blame. Hence, the UK’s drivers handbook, the Highway Code, has recently removed the word ‘accident’ altogether. This reflects, as Frank Furedi pointed out on spiked, a regression to a primitive understanding of cause and effect. In this view, tragic events can never simply be the product of unfortunate coincidences (see The crusade against the A-word, by Frank Furedi).

The law also reflects an obsession with ‘victim’s justice’. The aim of criminal law has traditionally been to act as a deterrent to those who would engage in anti-social behaviour. But increasingly, there is a therapeutic aspect to sentencing: victims and their families must be given ‘closure’ by ensuring that the perpetrator is seen to be punished properly. This must be done not to a standard deemed reasonable by society, but one deemed proportionate by grieving people who are more concerned with the consequences of an action - losing a loved one, for example - than the nature of the criminal action.

Families like those of Rachel Ward will no doubt feel better knowing that their relative’s killer is behind bars. But whether justice has really been served, and society is a better place for it, seems doubtful.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons questioned the hysteria about drink-driving. Frank Furedi argued that you can’t ban accidents and challenged the idea that the word ‘accident’ should be banned. Professor Sir Colin Berry told Brendan O’Neill that the precautionary principle caused more harm than good. Or read more at spiked issue: Crime and the law.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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