Dozens of people convicted of killing by driving dangerously have walked free despite being convicted of a crime for which no one has ever received the maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, an investigation can reveal today.
Grief-stricken families expressing disappointment outside Britain’s courts following the sentencing of motorists whose reckless behaviour has claimed at least 800 lives since 2010 have become a familiar sight as the number of deaths on roads begins to rise once more.
But figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution Service can now lay bare the full extent of the disparities in the way the law and the criminal justice system is dealing with drivers, some of them under the influence of drink and drugs, who are responsible for deaths described by the bereaved as “feeling like murder”.
What we’re campaigning for
Drive For Justice is seeking to give families affected by the anguish of road deaths as a result of reckless and criminal driving a voice to bring about change and better justice.
People think road crime is viewed and treated as a second rate crime. If your loved one was shot dead, everyone would say how horrific that was. But people are more accepting and complacent about road deaths. The law needs to change so sentencing fits the crime.Gary Rae, campaigns director at road safety charity Brake
Our campaign aims to:
• Call on the Government to re-work sentencing guidelines and give judges specialist training so they can use the full powers that are available to them when deciding sentences for offenders
• To have tougher sentences for the worst offenders
• Have all culpable deaths treated as manslaughter
• See more driving bans and longer driving bans handed out to those who kill or seriously injure on the roads or risk injury and death
• Close the loopholes that exist such as with hit and runs where failure to stop carries a maximum of six months in prison while drink driving penalties are tougher meaning those who have been drink driving can get a lesser sentence if they flee the scene
• Look at the charges of Dangerous Driving and Careless Driving. Bereaved families feel “careless” undermines the severity of the offence when someone is killed or seriously injured by illegal and risky behaviour.
Our investigation details for the first time what campaigners argue is the chronic leniency of the courts in dealing with killer drivers.
The findings will increase the pressure on the Government to revise sentencing rules for dangerous driving offences.
Data released under the Freedom of Information Act shows:
• In the 12 years since Parliament increased the longest sentence from ten to 14 years in jail, not a single person has been handed the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, publicly available statistics indicate that sentences have also fallen short of the maximum term.
• Of the 738 people convicted between 2010 and 2015 of the offence, the most serious driving crime on the statute book, just seven – or 0.9 per cent of the total – were jailed for more than ten years.
• The average jail sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is four years and one month, with 46 per cent of all those convicted sentenced to less than four years in prison.
• A total of 111 people convicted of dangerous driving between 2006 and 2015 have walked free from court. Of that total, 93 received suspended jail terms or community service.
• In ten cases, the offender escaped with only a fine while three were given an absolute discharge – effectively a finding that the experience of prosecution was sufficient punishment.
Figures obtained from the Crown Prosecution Service showed that in the North East, 321 people appeared in court charged with dangerous driving 2014-15, and this number increased to 387 in 2015-16.
A long-delayed consultation on a review of sentencing in dangerous driving cases has been promised by ministers to begin by the end of the year. But critics point out the review was first promised in 2014 and former Cabinet minister last night accused current ministers of “foot-dragging” over the issue, saying it was clear that the law and sentencing governing culpable deaths on Britain’s roads is “wholly inadequate”.
Campaigners are demanding a package of measures, including a root and branch review of sentencing guidelines for judges to ensure that tougher sentences are imposed in the most serious cases and the closure of loopholes which mean that it is in the interest of drink drivers involved in a fatal collision to flee the scene.
The number of drivers charged with dangerous driving is rising. Last year saw an increase of 20 per cent to 5,940 in motorists facing the charge.
But critics say those convicted are escaping too lightly.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter and a former culture secretary, said: “The penalties and sentences passed on people who kill behind the wheel of a car are wholly inadequate and have been so for a number of years.
“The Government has consistently dragged its feet on addressing this – we have had warm words from a series of ministers but no action.
“It is time that our law reflected the fact that when you get behind the wheel of a vehicle you are in charge of a lethal weapon.
“If you kill somebody by misusing that weapon you should receive a punishment that is appropriate to the suffering that you inflict on your victims and their families.”
Every day an average of five people are killed on Britain’s roads, all too often in sudden and traumatic circumstances which families liken to losing a loved one to violence.
Last year the number of people dying on Britain’s roads rose for the first time in recent years. Provisional figures published by the Department for Transport reported 1,780 deaths – a rise of 49 on 2014.
In cases where such deaths arise from an act of criminality, the consequences are all the more devastating.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Driving offences can have devastating and heart-breaking consequences for victims and their families.
“This government is determined to make sure sentencing fits the crime for those who kill or seriously injure on our roads.
“That is why we will launch a consultation on dangerous driving offences and penalties by the end of the year.”