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Will tougher sentences deter reckless drivers?

2nd May 2012 Print

In February 2012, Detective Chief Inspector John Oldham, head of the Road Death Investigation Unit, a division of the Metropolitan Police, made it clear that the families of victims killed in road traffic accidents were largely dissatisfied with the light sentencing imposed on reckless drivers. The detective also questioned the use of the word 'accident' to describe such incidents, before suggesting that tougher sentences would deter many dangerous or reckless drivers.

Dangerous Driving

The penalty for causing death by dangerous driving is substantial. Any person convicted of the offence could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. The problem is that very few maximum sentences are imposed on convicted dangerous drivers. Most escape with relatively light sentences, which can be reduced on appeal or following good behaviour. This tends to cause considerable distress for the families of road-death victims.

The point is perhaps no better illustrated than in the case of Catriona Patel. Dennis Putz received a seven-year prison sentence after he drove his lorry into Ms Patel, a 39-year-old executive who was riding a bicycle on Kennington Park Road in London at the time. Mr Putz was one-and-a-half times over the drink-driving limit and had been talking on his mobile phone when he struck Ms Patel.

The sentence of seven years' imprisonment was a marked improvement on many previous cases, but some people would argue that even half the maximum sentence was insufficient. It should be noted that Mr Putz, who had several previous driving convictions, was also banned from driving for life.

Reckless or Careless Driving

The law distinguishes death by dangerous driving from various other types of offence. Dangerous driving, for instance, has a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment, while careless driving merely attracts a fine, penalty points and discretionary driving ban. Causing death by careless driving, however, has a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. Reckless driving (and causing death) was abolished as an officially recognised offence by the Road Traffic Act 1991.

Detective Oldham argued that tougher sentencing ought to reduce the number of people who commit serious road offences. If causing death by dangerous or careless driving were subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, it is claimed that many drivers would think twice about their actions and behaviour on the road, leading to fewer serious injuries. Many a spinal injury solicitor in Britain would argue in favour of tougher sentencing for the most serious offences.

Evidence in support of a correlation between tougher sentencing and reduced casualties is hard to find, not least because the number of people who are killed or seriously injured on British roads has been in decline for various reasons for the past five years or so. Clearly, longer prison terms would change the attitude of some drivers, but many would continue to drive dangerously or carelessly if they are not even aware that they are doing something wrong or that they can be caught or penalised.

The problem would appear to be systemic. Tougher sentencing at all levels – not merely for accidents resulting in fatal injury – could change the mentality of more drivers because expectations would be altered so that even relatively minor offences are regarded as serious. If the gravity of causing death by careless or dangerous driving is properly weighed, accident rates could fall.

This post was composed by Zoe on behalf of Barlow Robbins.