Causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving while drunk or on drugs will now carry the top-level punishment of life imprisonment. The previous maximum was 14 years.

These sentences will be available in the more serious cases involving use of mobile phones, speeding or street racing after a government shake-up to sentences following a public consultation. A new offence will also be created -causing injury by careless driving- with the government still deciding on the maximum sentence.

Figures released from the Department for Transport show that three in five motorists who cause death by dangerous driving are jailed, however the average sentence for this offence is just four years. Figures from 2016 show that 157 were sentenced for causing death by dangerous driving and 32 people were convicted of causing death by careless driving while under the influence.

Justice Minister Dominic Raab introduced the changes, saying: “Based on the seriousness of the worst cases, the anguish of the victims’ families, and maximum penalties for other serious offences such as manslaughter, we intend to introduce life sentences of imprisonment for those who wreck lives by driving dangerously, drunk or high on drugs.”

The Minister went on to explain: “We will introduce a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, punishable by imprisonment, to fill a gap in the law and reflect the seriousness of some of the injuries suffered by victims in this category of case”.

The changes are due to come into effect following criticism that sentences were too lenient for those who were convicted over road deaths or caused serious injuries, akin to grievous bodily harm. A government consultation from December 2016 which generated 9000 responses showed that 90% of respondents believed there was a sufficient need for a new offence of causing injury by careless driving, and 70% backed increasing the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving from 14 years to a life term.

The changes to the law will apply to England, Scotland and Wales but will not be imposed in Northern Ireland, which has its own road safety laws.

There has been some public confusion suggesting that death by dangerous driving offences are to be treated akin to murder, which involves an explicit intention to kill. This is not the case. Murder cases carry a mandatory life sentence. Death by dangerous driving cases and causing death by careless driving while drunk or on drugs cases are now to be treated akin to manslaughter where there is no intention to kill but death is however caused as a result of the defendant’s actions. The increase in maximum sentence gives the power to the Court to impose a life sentence at their discretion but can sentence on a case by case basis and impose a much lesser sentence if the case warrants.

Explaining the rationale behind this back when the changes were originally proposed, Anton Balkitis explained as follows: “Both negligence manslaughter and causing death by dangerous driving are charges where the intention to kill is absent. Likewise, both share the same base requisite that, given the risk of death involved, the conduct fell far below the standard of that expected of a reasonable person. With that in mind, and considering the fact that manslaughter carries a discretionary life sentence, I believe judges should be able to impose a similar maximum penalty.”

The changes come following a government consultation which was published earlier this week. Further details about the government consultation can be found here:

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