Prosecutors and courts

Cherry Allan's picture
Royal Courts of Justice
Injuries to cyclists rarely lead to prosecution of the driver involved
Headline Messages: 
  • Injuries to cyclists rarely lead to prosecution of the driver involved and, when they do, the accused often appears to escape lightly. This reinforces fears that the roads are lawless, dangerous places for cycling and walking.
  • One of the reasons behind this is a failure by prosecutors and courts to interpret the existing law on bad driving offences correctly, together with their propensity to dismiss dangerous driving as nothing more than ‘careless’.
Key facts: 
  • In law, dangerous driving falls not just “below”, but “far below” the standard that would be expected of a “competent and careful driver”; it should also “… be obvious to a competent and careful driver” that the driving would give rise to “danger either of injury to any person or of serious damage to property”. Hence the distinction between “dangerous” and “careless” driving is not about the state of mind of the driver, but whether their driving objectively caused obviously foreseeable danger.
  • The number of people who are killed in road crashes far exceeds the number of drivers who are convicted of this offence: in England and Wales, there were 1,541 road deaths in 2013, but only 129 people were found guilty in the Crown Court of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’.
  • Fatal and serious injuries are increasingly unlikely to result in ‘dangerous’ driving prosecutions or convictions.
  • Between 1985 and 2013, the numbers of people taken to court in England and Wales for the offences of ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ driving, and their ‘causing death by…’ equivalents, fell by 82%, with an 84% drop in convictions, whereas fatal and serious injuries in Britain (KSI) fell by only around 69% over this period.  
  • Similarly, there has been a sharp drop of around 50% in the number of drivers prosecuted for ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ in England and Wales since the introduction of the charge of ‘causing death by careless driving’ in 2008. By contrast, road fatalities only dropped by about 30% over the same period.
CTC View (formal statement of CTC's policy): 
  • The prosecution of bad drivers should reinforce the message that it is unacceptable to endanger and intimidate other road users, not least cyclists and pedestrians who are disproportionately affected by road crashes. Offending drivers should not be treated more leniently than those who kill or injure through non-traffic crime.
  • The law states that driving is ‘dangerous’ when “…it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.” All too often, however, prosecutors and courts dismiss such driving as ‘careless’ and the result is lenient sentencing.
  • Prosecutors and courts should understand and apply the current legal definitions of ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ correctly. Prosecution policy and guidelines should provide accurate advice on these charges and be drafted accordingly. Equally, juries should not be misdirected on the definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving.
  • Prosecutors and courts should not take the driver’s intentions into account when deciding between a charge of ‘dangerous’ or ‘careless’ driving. If the driving in question caused obviously foreseeable danger, it is irrelevant whether or not the driver meant to do harm and a ‘dangerous’ charge should be brought.
  • Manslaughter or assault charges should be more widely used where there is evidence that danger was caused recklessly or intentionally.
  • Specifically, looking but failing to see a cyclist at a junction is inherently dangerous, and should be prosecuted as such.
  • Both the police and prosecutors should be more open and transparent about how they decide whether to charge a driver or not and, if they do charge, what charges to bring.
  • Cases of bad driving should not be prosecuted in the lower courts when death or very serious injury has occurred.
  • Juries should not be misdirected on the definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving.
  • Courts should not let drivers off driving bans on the basis of pleas of ‘hardship’.
  • Courts should not pass sentences that demean the victim who may have been killed or seriously injured. Whilst CTC does not advocate long prison sentences for dangerous driving offences arising purely from lapses of attention by generally responsible drivers, the courts should nonetheless signal disapproval by considering substantial driving bans.
  • Courts should not indulge in ‘victim-blaming’ when directing juries in criminal cases or making judgements over civil compensation to the extent that it plays a part in downgrading, sentencing, acquittal and lower insurance payouts.
  • Coroners should ask witnesses relevant questions and/or permit relevant questions to be asked during inquest hearings.
  • Coroners should take their duty to write ‘Preventing Further Deaths’ reports seriously to highlight actions needed to prevent future road fatalities.
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Publication Date: 
December 2014
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