Until recently there was no separate offence committed by those who cause serious injury when driving dangerously. Prosecutions have been confined to cases involving fatalities, or to dangerous driving on its own. The Courts took account of injuries only when sentencing.
With effect from the 3 December 2012, a new driving offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving came into force under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
Punishment on conviction is significant and is designed to address a gap in the law where those convicted of causing life changing injuries to others through their driving were subject to a maximum of two years imprisonment. The new offence carries a maximum of 5 years imprisonment.
The Road Traffic Act of 1988 is amended by Section.143 of LASPO by inserting a new Section 1A:
'A person who causes serious injury to another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously on a road or other public place is guilty of an offence'.
The definition of dangerous driving remains the same and will apply, for example, to driving with alcohol, texting and telephoning, dangerous overtaking and prolonged bad driving. There is no fixed list of what constitutes dangerous driving. There are two testes – it must firstly be driving which falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and secondly it must be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
The term serious injury is defined in Section 1A(2) as any physical harm which amounts to grievous bodily harm and so juries will be looking at both the standard of driving and the injuries caused. These may be difficult cases. There is no limit on the definition of “another person” and so it includes anyone in another vehicle, a pedestrian, or someone in the drivers own car.
The offence is an either way offence, meaning it can be heard by either Magistrates or Crown Courts depending on the facts and seriousness. Magistrates will decline to deal with the offence if they think their sentencing powers might be inadequate. In the Magistrates Court the offence carries a level 5 fine and/or 6 months custody with a mandatory disqualification period of at least 2 years (unless special reasons are found not to disqualify) and endorsement. An extended retest is also mandatory.
In the Crown Court, the maximum penalty is 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine with a mandatory 2 year minimum period of disqualification (unless special reasons are found not to disqualify) and endorsement. An extended retest is also mandatory.
CPS guidelines suggest the charge should only be used in cases where the level of injury is most serious and has occurred as a result of an incident involving a mechanically propelled vehicle being driven on a road or other public place. “Roads” are widely defined and might include a car park, depending on the facts.
Parliament has responded to road safety campaign groups and victims and their representatives who have called for the gap in sentences between the current 2 year maximum for dangerous driving and the 14 year maximum for causing death by dangerous driving to be addressed. The 5 years imprisonment maximum for this offence addresses that concern.
The following are examples of circumstances that are likely to be characterised as dangerous driving are derived from decided cases:
- racing or competitive driving;
- failing to have a proper and safe regard for vulnerable road users such as cyclists, motorcyclists, horse riders, the elderly and pedestrians or when in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing, hospital, school or residential home;
- speed, which is particularly inappropriate for the prevailing road or traffic conditions;
- aggressive driving, such as sudden lane changes, cutting into a line of vehicles or driving much too close to the vehicle in front;
- disregard of traffic lights and other road signs, which, on an objective analysis, would appear to be deliberate;
- disregard of warnings from fellow passengers;
- overtaking which could not have been carried out safely;
- driving when knowingly suffering from a medical or physical condition that significantly and dangerously impairs the offenders driving skills such as having an arm or leg in plaster, or impaired eyesight. It can include the failure to take prescribed medication;
- driving when knowingly deprived of adequate sleep or rest;
- driving a vehicle knowing it has a dangerous defect or is poorly maintained or is dangerously loaded;
- using a hand-held mobile phone or other hand-held electronic equipment whether as a phone or to compose or read text messages when the driver was avoidably and dangerously distracted by that use
- driving whilst avoidably and dangerously distracted such as whilst reading a newspaper/map, talking to and looking at a passenger, selecting and lighting a cigarette or by adjusting the controls of electronic equipment such as a radio, hands-free mobile phone or satellite navigation equipment;
- a brief but obvious danger arising from a seriously dangerous manoeuvre. This covers situations where a driver has made a mistake or an error of judgement that was so substantial that it caused the driving to be dangerous even for only a short time.
It is not necessary to consider what the driver thought about the possible consequences of his actions: simply whether or not a competent and careful driver would have observed, appreciated and guarded against obvious and material dangers.