Dangerous Driving Offences (Sentences)

 

Dangerous Driving Offences (Sentences)

4.30 pm 22 Jun 2011

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): I start by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, although to be perfectly honest I am not entirely sure yet whether it is, given that this is the first time I have had such an opportunity. I am grateful to be able to debate this issue.

Dangerous driving is a very serious offence, and the maximum sentence available to courts is nowhere near long enough, considering the impact on victims. I welcome the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) to the debate. She is a member of the Bar and a very experienced barrister, who I think spent the majority of her practice defending criminals. However, considering her seniority at the Bar, it was probably a long time ago that she defended someone for dangerous driving.

This debate follows my introduction of a ten-minute rule Bill in the House on 14 May. The Second Reading is on 9 September, and I am happy that many right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House have come to me to say that they support my proposals.

There is a massive disparity in the law. The offence of dangerous driving is worth a maximum of two years’ imprisonment on conviction. The courts have the responsibility of discounting that sentence for an early guilty plea, and I agree that they should have that discretion. I am told that the average sentence is about 11 to 13 months. Sometimes, the injury caused to the victim is truly horrendous.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I put in a petition on this subject regarding a young constituent of mine, Danny Evans, who was tragically killed. In the end, the driver pleaded guilty to a charge of careless driving, which I understand the police go for in many cases because it is easier to get a conviction. Danny lost his life and the driver got only 100 hours’ community service. The Government responded by telling me that they had no plans to change the law.

Karl Turner: I am very grateful for that intervention, and I am sure that the Minister has taken note of my hon. Friend’s comments. I hope that today’s debate will help the Government to rethink the policy that relates to this offence.

As I was saying, there is a large disparity in the law. Most of the time the victims suffer horrendous injuries, and the experience of being a victim is truly tragic in every conceivable way. The offence of death by dangerous driving carries, I think, a maximum 14-year sentence.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing this debate but on the other work that he is doing in this place to push this issue. Does he recognise the association between the unwillingness of people who commit this type of offence to secure insurance for their vehicles and the impact on the victims?

Karl Turner: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. It is true that people who tend to commit this type of offence are often not insured, and that says something about the standard of their driving. I am

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keen to explain that my proposal is not to lock up everyone for poor driving—careless driving is very different from dangerous driving. In my experience, dangerous drivers have very little regard for themselves and other road users, and often do not bother to take out insurance.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I want to refer him to the case of a constituent of mine who came into my constituency office last Friday to show me some absolutely horrendous photographs of a car that had gone straight out at a junction and into somebody’s wall, before demolishing my constituent’s car and sending bricks flying into their living room. Fortunately, it happened at an hour when the people in the house had retired to bed, so nobody was harmed. The driver was found to be driving under the influence of excess alcohol. The community order that was given to him was for 18 months for driving under the influence of excess alcohol, and he was disqualified from driving. However, for dangerous driving he received a community order for 18 months with costs of £80, and again he was disqualified from driving. My constituent’s mother wrote to me. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees with her, when she asks:

“What kind of message are we giving to deliberately drunken drivers if we let them get away with such piffling sentences?”

Karl Turner: I agree entirely with those remarks, which are absolutely right.

For me, this issue is about redressing the balance for victims of these horrendous offences. The standard of driving required for dangerous driving is that the driver needs to drive far below the standard of an ordinary competent driver. I am not talking about pulling out of a driveway, failing to look right and having an accident. I am talking about getting into a car and driving like an absolute lunatic—very often, that is the case—including driving around roundabouts the wrong way or even over roundabouts. We have seen the CCTV footage of such driving on numerous occasions. The standard of driving is absolutely horrendous in every possible way.

I suggest that the maximum sentence for dangerous driving should be seven years, rather than what was suggested in the previous Government by a colleague of mine—I think that there was talk of increasing the maximum sentence from two years to five years. The offence of causing death by careless driving has a maximum sentence of five years. I am sure that the families of the victims of that offence would feel dreadful about that sentence. I am sure that the families of victims are absolutely outraged at what has been described to me as such a “paltry” sentence. But the culpability for that offence, in my view, is much less than for dangerous driving per se. I want to emphasise that point.

Members of all parties in the House will have constituents who have raised this issue with them; I suspect that the issue has been raised with them on more than one occasion. I have a constituent, Katie Harper. She was the victim of dangerous driving. Unfortunately, for whatever reason—I make no criticism of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service—the offender was not brought to justice. He was charged with dangerous

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driving but the case was dropped. When I spoke to Katie’s father, he said that that was an absolute travesty and that that driver should have gone to prison for a long, long time. So I put the question to him, “How long do people think he would have got if he had been convicted?” He said, “Nine years?” I said, “No.” He said, “Ten years?” I said, “No.” He said, “Twelve years?” I said, “Absolutely not.” His daughter had been studying English at the university of Hull, but she is no longer studying English and she has been told that she may never walk properly again. Her father was absolutely horrified to learn that, in my opinion, the sentence for the driver—if he had gone to prison at all—would have been something like nine months, if he had no previous convictions.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on identifying this anomaly. I used to specialise in road traffic law, and this is not the only anomaly that exists within current road traffic legislation. I wonder whether he is aware that if, for example, a new driver gets more than six penalty points, they have to retake their test, but if they are disqualified from driving they do not have to retake their test. Also, if someone commits the offence of failing to stop after an accident in which they have killed someone, the maximum sentence available at the moment is six months’ imprisonment. Is he aware of those anomalies, in addition to the one he has so creditably identified?

Karl Turner: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I mitigated a case before a magistrate when I was representing a defendant, who was effectively a probationary driver, for a driving offence. I suggested to the bench that, instead of throwing the book at him, he should be banned for a short period, so that he did not have to start from scratch, taking his test and so on.

I am assisted to some extent by some recent publicity. The Sun ran a story last Saturday about the victim of a driving offence, who was tragically paralysed. I have had the opportunity to speak with her father, Dr Robert Carver. The offence was different—careless driving—but the victim’s injuries were dreadful. I am sure that the family feel outraged, but her father has asked me to make it clear that he makes no criticism of the district judge, Judge Stobart, who passed sentence in that case, saying that the judge was working within the constraints of the law.

I mention that case for two reasons. It is tragic for the victim—absolutely dreadful—but, for whatever reason, the offender was charged with careless driving, not dangerous driving. The sentence of 150 days in such circumstances was appropriate. However, an offence of dangerous driving, which is much worse in my view, must require a much harsher sentence.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his efforts to reform the law. He clearly has considerable support from all parties, and we wish him absolute success.

The two-year sentence means that judges cannot reflect the serious consequences that often flow from someone who has committed the offence of dangerous driving, notably if causing injury. For what it is worth, I remember prosecuting a similar case in Derbyshire.

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Someone had suffered permanent damage to the legs, but the judge’s hands were tied in the sentence he passed. We really need reform in this area, do we not?

Karl Turner: Absolutely. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady, and welcome her remarks, which are right.

Before the election, I was defending a case of dangerous driving before the Crown Court—I was a pupil barrister in my local chambers, the Wilberforce chambers, which I mention because I hope for extra support from my head of chambers. I was enthusiastic, preparing the mitigation the night before, because I was excited to be appearing before a Crown Court judge—I had spent some years before that working for a firm of solicitors. I remember standing up with all that enthusiasm, beginning the mitigation and then seeing the expression on the judge’s face. I had seen the CCTV, because it was played in court, but the judge was looking at me and saying, “Stop there, please, because the maximum sentence is two years. He pleaded, with good advice, in the magistrates court, so I must reduce the sentence to 16 months as a starting point. I then have to reduce it further because it is not the worst case of dangerous driving that I have judged.”

I decided to stand up and have another go but, with the clear expression on the judge’s face, I gave in pretty swiftly. The maximum sentence was indeed 16 months in such circumstances, and the offender received 11 months. When I went down to see him in the cell, I did the usual thing and told him how absolutely brilliant I was, but then I began thinking about the seriousness of the case. His driving had been truly horrendous. The offender had smashed into police cars to evade detection by the police. He was risking not only his own life but the lives of everyone on that road. This incident happened in broad daylight. He drove past a school at 70 miles per hour. The serious nature of that made me understand why the judge was looking at me as though I was the lunatic rather than the defendant.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am concerned about the driving that causes death but is not classified as dangerous. Does my hon. Friend agree that the law needs serious revision? There was a case in my constituency in March 2009 when nine-year-old Robert Gaunt died of multiple injuries after being hit by a car while crossing the road in Overton. The driver of that car was unlicensed, uninsured and failed to stop. He did not report the incident, and he even tried to cover up the crime by having his car repainted and re-sprayed. He was handed a sentence right at the top of what was legally possible—a grand total of 22 months. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that was wrong?

Karl Turner: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s points. All Members will be able to raise similar cases. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) was right in his comments. I know that he was an expert in road traffic cases before his election to this House, and perhaps he still is.

The offence of aggravated vehicle taking is another area that needs to be addressed. It currently carries a maximum sentence of two years. However, I should not digress, because it will cause some confusion not only to hon. Members in the Chamber but to my constituents.

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My argument for increasing the sentence is to provide judges with discretion. I have spoken to senior judges and to my own Crown court judge, his honour Judge Mettyear, who said that an increase would be welcomed by every judge in the land. I trust judges. Sometimes I am not very happy with them, especially if I have had a bad result for a client, or if I have been prosecuting and I disagree with their judgment. None the less, I trust them, and they should have the discretion to redress the balance in these cases. The victims are truly shocked. They and their family have had the trauma of this horrendous incident, and then they see that justice has not been done. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have made. I tabled early-day motion 1969 today, which I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to sign.

In closing, let me make it clear that I am not looking to lock up people for poor driving. Sometimes people drive badly. My wife tells me that occasionally my driving is not very good. I hope that people do not think that I want to send people to prison. There are 30 million drivers out there, some of whom drive poorly, but this is not about that. This is about dangerous driving, which is an horrendous offence. I hope that the Government have listened carefully to the arguments that I have submitted today.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): It is extremely pleasurable to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, particularly as it means that you are in the Chair and not behind me on the Back Benches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing the debate and on his tenacity in bringing this issue to the attention of Parliament. I congratulate him on whipping in, if I may put it that way, other hon. Members’ support with the notice he gave of his debate and on the generous way in which he gave them some time and some of my time. It is entirely his debate and it is all his time to give up to interventions. The hon. Gentleman made it clear in that message that he was going to end before 15 minutes of the debate was left, so I may be slightly over-prepared. However, I will attempt to get through the key messages I want to get across in responding to the debate.

As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the subject of dangerous driving is extremely serious, with potentially very grave consequences for innocent victims and their families. The Government are currently considering recent representations on the subject made by His Honour Judge Everett of Bolton Crown court following a particularly serious local case. They are also considering representations made by the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the points raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East not only in this debate, but in the speech he gave to his ten-minute rule Bill.

Road traffic cases present particular difficulties for the courts because it is not always the worst transgression by a driver that has the most tragic consequences. Sometimes the consequences of a collision may be entirely disproportionate to the culpability of the offender. A relatively minor misdemeanour by a driver may have very tragic consequences, whereas thoroughly reckless

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behaviour on the road may fortuitously result in little, if any, harm. The law therefore seeks to punish those who cause death or injury on the road in a way that is appropriate to the degree of blameworthiness of the driver.

Hon. Members will be aware that a range of offences relate to bad driving. Ultimately, it is for the prosecuting authorities to decide upon the appropriate charge in each individual case. The charges brought against an individual following a road traffic incident are dependent upon the Crown Prosecution Service’s assessment of the quality of the defendant’s driving both preceding and at the time of the impact. When considering the appropriate charge, it is the driving behaviour that is the deciding factor. There are charging standards agreed with the police for prosecuting road traffic offences.

Our current law provides a framework of offences to deal with bad driving at every level. Fatality holds a special place in that framework, which is why, where a death is caused by bad driving, particularly robust penalties are available. Where drivers cause death by dangerous driving or by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, judges are able to sentence them to a maximum of 14 years in prison. Other measures include an unlimited fine and a minimum two-year driving disqualification. Where death is caused and there is sufficient evidence of gross negligence, drivers can be charged with the offence of manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Following the 2005 review of road traffic offences, since 2008 two new offences have been available to prosecutors: causing death by careless driving and causing death where a driver is unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured. The maximum penalties for those are five years and two years respectively. Those offences attract a minimum disqualification period of one year, and can be punished by an unlimited fine. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, dangerous driving has a maximum penalty of two years custody. Careless driving, by comparison, has a maximum penalty of a fine.

As regards dangerous driving, within the maximum penalty set out in legislation, judges and magistrates have discretion to sentence based on the details of the individual case and the circumstances of the offender, taking into account sentencing guidelines. Moreover, the courts are obliged to endorse a driver’s licence and impose at least a 12-month driving disqualification, together with an extended re-test. Of course, if deemed necessary and proportionate to the seriousness of the offence, there is no limit to the length of driving ban that a court can impose. The court may also impose a fine.

The magistrates courts’ sentencing guidelines provide some guidance on dangerous driving. The most serious examples of the offence—such as prolonged bad driving involving deliberate disregard for the safety of others; incidents involving excessive speed or showing off, especially in built up areas, by a disqualified driver; and driving in such a fashion while being pursued by police—would be referred to the Crown court. Serious injuries are taken into account within the dangerous driving offence and, at the most severe end of that scale, we would expect judges to sentence close to or at the maximum penalty of two years custody.

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I now want to set out some of the wider context for the debate. Generally, Britain has a good road safety record, but we cannot afford to be complacent. Deaths and serious injuries on the roads are a tragedy for all those who are affected. It is of course to be welcomed that road fatalities and casualties have continued to fall, but every such case is one too many. I will give the background with figures.

Since 1994, road casualties have been falling against a backdrop of increasing traffic and population. In 2009, there were a total of 222,146 reported casualties of all severities, 4% lower than in 2008; there were 2,222 deaths, 12% lower than in 2008; 24,690 were seriously injured, down 5%; and 195,234 were slightly injured, down 4%. The number of fatalities fell for almost all types of road user, with a fall of 16% for car occupants, 13% for pedestrians, 10% for pedal cyclists and 4% for motorcyclists.

If we compare not just one year, but the average trend over 15 years between 1994-98 and 2009, the number killed was 38% lower, and the number of those killed or seriously injured was 44% lower. Welcomingly, the number of children killed or seriously injured was 61%. Car occupants, pedestrians and motorcyclists accounted for the vast majority of deaths at 48%, 23% and 21% respectively in 2009, when pedestrian fatalities were 50% below the 1994-98 average and car occupant fatalities were 40% below the average.

We want to ensure that Britain remains a world leader in road safety, and to continue the downward trend in road casualties. We are determined to crack down on the antisocial and dangerous driving that still leads to far too many fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. It is with that aim that last month colleagues in the Department for Transport published a new strategic framework for road safety. Its focus is on supporting road users who have weak driving skills or display a lapse of judgment to improve their driving through a greater range of educational courses to help to deliver safer skills and attitudes, while focusing enforcement resources on those who deliberately decide to undertake antisocial and dangerous driving behaviour, and that covers all careless and dangerous driving offences. This is the Government’s twin approach to improving road safety.

The new strategic framework for road safety sets out the Government’s plans. Among other measures, they are: to require offenders to pass a test before they regain their licence after a serious disqualification; to make greater use of powers to seize vehicles to keep the most dangerous drivers off the road; to improve enforcement against drink and drug driving as announced in the response to the North report in March; to increase the use of police-approved educational courses that can be offered in place of fixed penalty notices to encourage safer driving behaviour; to launch a new post-test qualification for new drivers, including an assessment process, and to continue to improve the driving and motorcycling training processes. The framework, in harmony with the coalition’s commitment to localism, also aims to give greater clarity to local authorities and road safety professionals, and to free up local authorities to assess and to act on their own priorities to improve road safety.

Returning to sentencing, I want to make it clear that the courts take dangerous driving seriously. The 2010 figures show that around 3,200 offenders were sentenced,

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of whom about 1,100 were given immediate custodial sentences. The average custodial sentence length has increased consistently over recent years from 7.7 months in 2000 to 9.7 months in 2010. In his speech on his ten-minute rule Bill, the hon. Gentleman argued that the courts could not sufficiently punish instances of dangerous driving when very serious harm is caused. He then argued, as he did today, that the maximum penalty of two years for this offence does not give the courts enough scope, and that it should be raised to seven years. He will recall that I was on the Front Bench and that I sat and listened to his speech. I have, of course, given thought to the issues that he raised.

Maximum penalties are not necessarily the only way of addressing issues of appropriate punishment within the criminal justice system. As will be clear from what I have said, there is a complex legacy of maximum penalties relating to traffic offences, and we should not regard making changes to them as the answer to every issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth

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Johnson) said that there are other penalties that are apparently logically inconsistent. The challenge of ensuring a completely consistent range of offences and penalties against a backdrop of ever-changing social problems and priorities will be well understood by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East, who knows that the Law Commission has given that some thought. The alternative legislative answer to a major one-off overhaul of our criminal law to deliver the coherence that he seeks would be to legislate on a case-by-case basis to address identifiable gaps. That approach would not necessarily improve the overall coherence of our system

The Government have said that they do not want to pursue a pattern of constantly tinkering with legislation if we can possibly avoid it, so we must consider other possible solutions if they are available.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11).

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