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Senior policeman says sentences should reflect human contribution to fatalities that are anything but 'accidents'...

The head of the Metropolitan Police’s Road Death Investigation Unit has echoed the sentiment of many cyclists by issuing an appeal for motorists who cause death while driving to face tougher sentences, including life imprisonment in some circumstances.

As many cases reported here on road.cc testify – we’ve highlighted some at the end of this article – all too often there is a perception that drivers benefit from a lenient approach from the courts, with a number of motorists found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving escaping custodial sentences.

According to The Times, Detective Chief Inspector John Oldham of the Metropolitan Police believes that the families of victims of road traffic incidents, including pedestrians and other road users besides cyclists are resentful of what he calls “very small” sentences imposed in cases where there has been recklessness on the motorist’s part.

He added that the common description of such incidents as “accidents” was often misleading, since human intervention had contributed to the tragic outcome.

Currently, causing death by dangerous driving has a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison, although that is seldom imposed; Dennis Putz, the lorry driver convicted of killing Catriona Patel while drunk and on his mobile phone, who had a string of previous driving-related convictions, received seven years in jail.

“The sentences are very small, and the families hate that,” explained DCI Oldham. “In my particular world we get very upset by the word ‘accident’,” he added.

“For families there is no accident about it. An accident on the road is the result of the decisions people make.”

For DCI Oldham, where drivers were found to have been guilty of recklessness, sentences should come more into line with those for manslaughter or murder.

In the case of the death of cyclists, such charges are extremely rare. In 2010, five men were sentenced to between five and a half and 12 years in jail for the manslaughter of cyclist Graham Thwaites in South-East London.

The men, involved in a dispute over money, had been engaged in a car chase when the vehicle being driven by one of them struck and killed Mr Thwaites.

The same year, a motorist in Coventry who deliberately ran down and killed cyclist Paul Webb in a road rage attack in Coventry was convicted of murder and received a mandatory life sentence, with the judge recommending that he serve a minimum of 13 years before being considered for parole.

Such cases are very much the exception, however, with charges more likely to be brought under the offences of causing death by careless driving, introduced in 2008 and carrying a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment or, in more serious cases, causing death by dangerous driving.

Referring to the body of legislation regarding causing death by dangerous or careless driving on the one hand, and laws regarding homicide more generally on the other, DCI Oldham maintained: “We should amalgamate the two acts.”

He underlined that he was specifically talking about instances where fault on the driver’s part could be established – “ “When you have a proper case — eg, a cup of tea in their hand, [or] they’ve been driving for 24 hours.”

A case that springs immediately to mind in that context was reported here just last week – that of 43-year-old cyclist Robert Gregory from Milton Keynes, killed by a car driving by a motorist who was adjusting his radio at the time of the fatal collision. The driver was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to causing death by careless driving, as well as causing death by driving a vehicle while uninsured.

Adding his support to The Times’ Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, DCI Oldham said that “more and more” cyclists would be killed unless there was a fundamental rethink in the approach to road design in the capital and eslewhere, not just focused on the dangerous junctions currently being reviewed by Transport for London.

“These deaths are coming from all over the place, not just dangerous junctions,” he explained. “With the increase in traffic there will be more deaths. We have a road layout not designed for the two forms of transport.”

The Times reported that according to official figures, some 456 people stood trial at Crown Court between 2005 and 2006 charged with causing death by dangerous driving, with those who pleaded guilty receiving an average prison sentence of between three years eight months and three years nine months.

Clicking on the ‘causing death by careless driving’ and ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ tags below will bring up other cases that we have reported upon where such charges have been brought.

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.