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Dangerous and Careless Driving

The differences between the two offences

Both offences are fairly commonly charged by police, but there are some very significant differences between the two. They each have their own legal definition and the court deals with each very differently.

Careless driving

Careless driving is an offence created by section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. To quote “a person is to be regarded as driving without due care and attention if (and only if) the way he drives falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver.”

All careless driving cases are prosecuted in the Magistrates Court. They do not go to the Crown Court and this is one of the big differences between careless and dangerous driving prosecutions.

The court has to judge the driving by this standard and what the ‘careful and competent driver’ would have known and how he/she would have acted. In determining what would be expected of a careful and competent driver in any particular set of circumstances, a court must consider what the driver knew or saw, and also what he should have known.

It’s quite an easy test to apply and a very easy offence to commit. It covers a wide range of activity from the trivial as a car park knock, incidents involving a momentary lapse of concentration or misjudgement, loss of control due to speed mishandling or insufficient attention to road conditions and traffic, to overtaking manoeuvres conducted at speed resulting in collisions where the driving is so bad that it borders on the dangerous.

On conviction a court must endorse the licence with penalty points of between 3 and 9, but there is also a discretion to disqualify. In addition, the driver is invariably fined. In deciding what sentence to impose the court has got to judge the seriousness of the offence and will look at factors such as excessive speed, carrying passengers, tiredness, injury to others, damage to other vehicles or property, the high level of traffic or pedestrians in the area, and whether the offence took place near a busy location such as a school where children might be present. In practice the court will take a wide range of factors into account.

Drivers are not at risk of prison for careless driving, but where the careless driving causes death there is a very serious risk of prison. The same legislation creates an offence of causing death by careless driving. It carries a minimum disqualification of 12 months and a maximum imprisonment of five years. Such cases are often sent to the Crown Court either for trial or sentence, but not always.

I have represented many drivers facing these charges and considerable experience of advising how to deal with them.

Dangerous driving

Dangerous driving has a different legal test. A person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if (and only if) the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and it would be obvious that driving in that way would be dangerous. The words ‘far below’ are important and this is what separates it from careless driving.

It is important to remember that the opinion of the driver committing the offence is not relevant. The driving is to be measured by reference to what the competent and careful driver might think. The Magistrates or the jury decide that.

There are connected offences of causing serious injury or death by dangerous driving which carry substantial prison sentences. Most prosecutions for dangerous driving go to the Crown Court, but by no means all. Magistrates have been encouraged recently to deal with more dangerous driving prosecutions and only send them to the Crown Court if on conviction it is apparent they have insufficient sentencing powers.

There is no fixed list of what constitutes dangerous driving but examples would include grossly excessive speed or showing off, prolonged bad driving involving a deliberate disregard for the safety of others, bad driving where there was evidence of alcohol or drugs, text link or telephoning whilst driving, aggressive driving such as driving much too close to the vehicle in front, inappropriate attempts to overtake water cut in, driving when knowingly suffering from a medical condition which impairs driving skills, and driving a poorly maintained or dangerously loaded vehicle. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service will make their own judgement based on what eyewitnesses have had to say.

I have substantial experience in advising and representing motorists in court charged with dangerous driving and can advise in the most complex of circumstances.

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