A government minister has rejected an MP’s call for the offence of causing death by careless driving to be scrapped, warning that such a move could result in less serious charges being brought against motorists who kill. Greg Mulholland, who made the appeal, claims the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has “misused” the law to increase the chance of securing a conviction in cases where the more serious charge of causing death by dangerous driving would be warranted.
Mr Mulholland, who represents Leeds North West, was speaking during a House of Commons debate on Monday evening on the subject of whether motorists who killed while disqualified from driving should be subject to harsher penalties.
He asked Jeremy Wright, parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, whether he accepted that “the greater ease of getting a potential conviction for death by careless driving is being misused, because there are cases… where people’s driving clearly fell far below the standard and was clearly wilful and grossly dangerous?”
The offence of causing death by careless driving, which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, was brought in under the former Labour Government in the Road Safety Act 2006.
Previously, the CPS could only charge a motorist who had killed someone with causing death by dangerous driving, punishable by up to 14 years in jail, or with careless driving, which attracts a maximum penalty of a £5,000 fine.
Careless driving, or driving without due care and attention, is defined as “'driving below the standard expected of a reasonable and prudent driver in the circumstances.”
Dangerous driving, on the other hand, requires that the standard of the motorist’s driving “falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.”
Mr Mulholland’s concerns reflect widespread views among road safety campaigners and many road users, including cyclists, that the CPS will often choose to prosecute the lesser offence when the more serious one may be more appropriate.
Yesterday, we reported on the case of a lorry driver found guilty of careless driving in connection with serious injuries sustained by a man using a ‘Boris Bike’ in London last April, although the police had originally arrested him on suspicion of causing serious injury through dangerous driving, an offence introduced in 2012.
While the cyclist involved in that survived, the distinction between the definitions remains the same as in cases where someone has been killed.
Responding to Mr Mulholland, Mr Wright said: “I understand his argument, but he will appreciate that there are, of course, risks.
“The offence [of causing death by dangerous driving] was created because in many cases the choices available to a prosecutor were either to bring a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, or a simple charge of careless driving where a death had resulted.
“If prosecutors felt unable to prove dangerous driving under the definitions we have discussed, they were left with what many would consider the inadequate remedy of a simple charge of careless driving.
“That was the reason why the offence was brought in, and we have to think through very carefully the consequences of removing it from the statute book.”
The issue of the CPS only pursuing cases where it believes there is a reasonable prospect of conviction, as alluded to by the minister, may reflect the fact that it can be difficult for jurors, should the case be held at a Crown Court to apply the legal definitions to the facts as presented to them.
Pressed by Mr Mulholland who outlined his belief that the lesser charge is being misused in the hope of increasing the likelihood of securing a conviction, Mr Wright said: “It is for Crown prosecutors to decide what the appropriate charge should be.
“We would all expect, however, that where they feel they are able to prove that driving fell far below the required standard, dangerous driving would be the appropriate charge; or, indeed, as others have said, in cases of gross negligence manslaughter would be the appropriate charge.
“The difficulty is that where prosecutors believe that in their judgment it is not possible to prove that driving fell far below the required standard, were we to remove this offence from the statute book they would simply be left with the charge of careless driving, which, of course, has considerably lower penalties,” he added.
During the debate, Mr Mulholland also pointed out that Brake has called for all careless driving offences to be abolished and for all cases to be treated under a redefined class of dangerous driving offences.
On its website, the road safety charity says: “Careless driving charges should be scrapped, with cases prosecuted under these charges instead prosecuted under the charges of Dangerous Driving, Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, and Causing Serious Injury by Dangerous Driving, with a full range of penalties handed out up to the maximum (which should be at least five, 14 and 14 years in prison respectively, all with an unlimited fine), according to the seriousness of the offence.
“At the same time, Brake advocates a redefinition of 'dangerous driving' so these charges may be brought when anyone is found to be driving in a way not in accordance with road safety laws or the Highway Code. This definition is far less subjective and would make it clear to drivers that if they do not driving in accordance with legal requirements, they are posing a danger, and therefore may face these serious charges.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.