Legislating for Real Road Safety

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One of the latest ideas to be thrown into The Times’s cycling campaign is the suggestion that the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving should be lifted from 14 years to life, to come in line with other homicide offences. There’s some sense in removing this anomaly, but I don’t believe it will achieve anything.

Other charges are available

Firstly there’s the fact that in cases which are particularly severe and/or carry intent to harm, other charges may be used. The only example that springs to mind is that of Carl Baxter, who intentionally reversed his Range Rover into a cyclist towing his daughter in a trailer. He was found guilty of two counts of GBH as well as dangerous driving. Nevertheless, he still only received two years’ imprisonment; this is precisely the sort of lenient sentencing that the proposal seeks to address, but it would seem that the law already has ways of applying a more severe charge — the question here probably concerns not the maximum possible sentence but the actual sentence given.

Missing the point

But that’s by the by. The thing is, maximum sentencing is not the problem. Changing the maximum sentence for this offence makes a difference where (a) the driver has caused a death by dangerous or careless driving and (b) the circumstances are severe enough to attract the maximum sentence. More importantly, it would only avert the death if (c) the driver weighs up the sentencing prior to causing the death and concludes that although 14 years would be acceptable, life is enough to be a deterrent – and even that assumes forethought on the part of the driver.

In reality (c) is a total non-issue. Driving-related deaths are caused by ineptitude of some sort (see below), not by premeditation. Acts like those of Carl Baxter are, fortunately, extremely rare; similar acts made on a calm and measured “pros and cons” decision are of course non-existent.

Finding the point

The real problem is not one of malice or intent. The real problems are those which markedly raise the risk of a non-malicious individual causing a collision:

  • Distraction; whether by phone, satnav, radio, screaming child, hair and make-up, Ginster’s pasty, cigarette or whatever.
  • Incapactitation; whether by drink, drugs, lack of sleep, medicinal side-effects, illness, old age or anything else.
  • Failure to adapt to conditions: driving too fast on wet roads or in fog, failing to anticipate black ice, continuing blindly when sun-glare fills the windscreen, etc.
  • Poor anticipation and hazard perception: assuming a road is clear after a blind corner, overtaking with insufficient visibility of oncoming traffic, failure to give a cyclist enough room to swerve if necessary for potholes etc.
  • Other incompetence: inadequate spatial awareness, lack of control of the vehicle, and so on.

All of these are real risks that result in real incidents, real injuries and real deaths. All of them can happen to people who have no malicious intent whatsoever.

The point, then, is to see that our society has become far too tolerant of dangerous road use – a blurring that is written in statute itself, given that actions which present clear and potentially fatal danger to other road users are labelled as simply “careless”.

The problem is not that people aren’t in enough hot water after someone has died; the problem is that someone has died.

The solution

The solution is, in no small part, to become intolerant of these distractions and incapacitations and inadequacies. As a society, we are getting there. Most people are already pretty revolted by drink driving. Many have a similar opinion about mobile phone use (though I see drivers on the phone on a pretty much daily basis). Others… not so much.

But the true solution is to teach everyone that these inattentions and incompetencies are not tolerable; to emphasise how dangerous they are before someone dies.

Thus, we should have a mandatory ban for all offences directly related to road safety, with a minimum ban for each. Even a short ban will have far more impact than a paltry ¬£60 fine, or points that have no effect until at least 9 have been accrued. Moreover, a ban actually removes dangerous drivers from the road, at least temporarily, thus actually serving to protect the vulnerable. When a ban is awarded, the licence should be forfeit and a new one would be issued on passing a retest following the ban. The punishment for driving whilst disqualified should be extremely severe. There should be no upper limit for a ban. And the “exceptional hardship” plea should be revoked: if anyone’s licence is that important, they should look after it, and there’s no reason why they should be held to lower standards than the rest of us.

If the threat of not driving is constantly hanging over all of us, we would all be less blas√© about those marginal drops in standards that we all make, and all get away with… until the one time we don’t.

Being more strict with driving offences is all well and good, but let’s do that in a way that actually makes a difference to road safety rather than just making headlines.