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Death by dangerous driving

Date Updated: January 2012

Title: Road traffic offences

Offence: Causing death by dangerous driving

Legislation: Road Traffic Act 1988 s.1

Commencement Date: 1 July 1992

Mode of Trial: Indictable only

Statutory Limitations & Maximum Penalty:

  • 14 years imprisonment with effect from 27/02/2004 (increased from 10 years imprisonment by s.285 Criminal Justice Act 2003)
  • Minimum disqualification of 2 years with compulsory extended re-test.

Sentencing Range: See below

Relevant Sentencing Guidelines (If Any)

The SGC definitive guideline "Causing Death by Driving" applies to all offenders convicted of this offence and sentenced on or after 4 August 2008.

The guideline applies to a "first-time offender" aged 18 or over convicted after trial who has not been assessed as a dangerous offender requiring a sentence under ss. 224-228 Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended).

Culpability & Harm

Levels of seriousness

The 3 levels are distinguished by factors related predominantly to the standard of driving; the general description of the degree of risk is complemented by examples of the type of bad driving arising. The presence of aggravated factors or combinations of a small number of determinants of seriousness will increase the starting point within the range.  Where there is a larger group of determinants of seriousness and/or aggravating factors, this may justify moving the starting point to the next level.

Level 1 - The most serious offence encompassing driving that involved a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others.  Such offences are likely to be characterised by:

  • A prolonged, persistent and deliberate course of very bad driving AND/OR
  • Consumption of substantial amounts of alcohol or drugs leading to gross impairment AND/OR
  • A group of determinants of seriousness which in isolation or smaller number would place the offence in level 2.

Level 1 is that for which the increase in maximum penalty was aimed primarily. Where an offence involved both of the determinants of seriousness identified, particularly if accompanied by aggravating factors such as multiple deaths or injuries, or a very bad driving record, this may move an offence towards the top of the sentencing range.

Level 2 - This is driving that creates a substantial risk of danger and is likely to be characterised by:

  • Greatly excessive speed, racing or competitive driving against another driver OR
  • Gross avoidable distraction such as reading or composing a text message over a period of time OR
  • Driving whilst ability to drive is impaired as a result of consumption of alcohol or drugs, failing to take prescribed medication or as a result of a known medical condition OR
  • A group of determinants of seriousness which in isolation or smaller number would place the offence in level 3.

Level 3 - This is driving that created a significant risk of danger and is likely to be characterised by:

  • Driving above the speed limit/at a speed that is inappropriate for the prevailing conditions OR
  • Driving when knowingly deprived of adequate sleep or rest or knowing that the vehicle has a dangerous defect or is poorly maintained or is dangerously leaded OR
  • A brief but obvious danger arising from a seriously dangerous manoeuvre OR
  • Driving whilst avoidably distracted OR
  • Failing to have proper regard to vulnerable road users

The starting point and range overlap with Level 2 is to allow the breadth of discretion necessary to accommodate circumstances where there are significant aggravating factors.

Nature of offence: Level 1
The most serious offences encompassing driving that involved a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others 

Starting point: 8 years custody 
Sentencing range: 7-14 years custody

Nature of offence: Level 2
Driving that created a substantial risk of danger 

Starting point: 5 years custody 
Sentencing range: 4-7 years custody

Nature of offence: Level 3
Driving that created a significant risk of danger

[where the driving is markedly less culpable than for this level, reference should be made to the starting point and range for the most serious level of causing death by careless driving]

Starting point: 3 years custody 
Sentencing range: 2-5 years custody

Aggravating & Mitigating Factors

Additional Aggravating Factors:

  • previous convictions for motoring offences, particularly offences that involve bad driving or the consumption of excessive alcohol or drugs before driving
  • More than one person killed as a result of the offence
  • Serious injury to one or more victims, in addition to the death(s)
  • Disregard of warnings
  • Other offences committed at the same time, such as driving other than in accordance with the terms of a valid licence; driving while disqualified; driving without insurance; taking a vehicle without consent; driving a stolen vehicle
  • The offender's irresponsible behaviour such as failing to stop, falsely claiming that one of the victims was responsible for the collision, or trying to throw the victim off the car by swerving in order to escape
  • Driving off in an attempt to avoid detection or apprehension

Additional mitigating factors:

  • Alcohol or drugs consumed unwittingly
  • Offender was seriously injured in the collision
  • The victim was a close friend or relative
  • Actions of the victim or a third party contributed significantly to the likelihood of a collision occurring and/or death resulting
  • The offender's lack of driving experience contributed to the commission of the offence
  • The driving was in response to a proven and genuine emergency falling short of a defence

Relevant Sentencing Case Law

Previous sentencing case law is superseded by the SGC guideline with effect from 4 August 2008.  The following cases (R v Cooksley and Others [2004] and R v Richardson and others [2006]) were the relevant cases prior to that date.

R v Cooksley and others [2004] 1 Cr.App.R(S) (following advice of the Sentencing Advisory Panel)

R v Richardson and others [2006] EWCA Crim 3186 where the Court of Appeal considered the impact of the increase in maximum penalty and reassessed the starting points set out in R v Cooksley and others.

R v Bowyer [2010] 1 cr.App.R.(S.) 22 - A sentence of six-and-a-half years' imprisonment and a 5 year disqualification was appropriate for an offence of causing death by dangerous driving where two drivers had been racing each other, driving aggressively, competitively and dangerously over 'A' roads for a number of miles.  This was a level 2 offence and was a conviction following a trial.

R v Searles [2010] 1 Cr.App.R.(S.) 49 - a sentence of 6 and a half years imprisonment following a guilty plea for causing death by dangerous driving was not manifestly excessive where a police officer had killed a woman who was crossing a road whilst he had been driving a police car at nearly double the speed limit at the end of a prolonged period of dangerous driving and where he had not been on any legitimate police business but had been driving with flashing lights and the siren on.  This was a level 1 offence, and the fact that he had lied about what happened and that he abused his position were aggravating factors.

R v Knox [2010] 1 Cr.App.r.(S.) 52 - following conviction after a trial D was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and disqualified for 7.  He had been driving at excessive speeds whilst using a mobile phone.  He overtook a car but failed to see a motorcycle in the inside lane and the motorcyclist was killed as a result of a collision.  The sentencing judge said that the use of the mobile phone created a significant risk of danger in accordance with level 1 of the guidelines but the fact that D was a taxi driver raised the risk to substantial; level 2.  Held it was not clear why the sentencing judge had reached the conclusion that this was level 2.  Both the prison sentence and the disqualification were reduced to 4 years.

R v Oughton [2010] 1Cr. App. R.(S.) 62 - D pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving and manslaughter by gross negligence.  He was part-owner of a coach company and drove a coach knowing that the braking system was faulty.  Whilst it was descending a hill the brakes failed; there was a collision in which 2 people were killed.  The basis of the dangerousness was the fact that he knew of the poor state of the braking system.  D must have known that there was a substantial risk involved in driving a vehicle in that state.   The fact that the coach was being driven for commercial gain was an aggravating feature.  This offence was in level 2 and a sentence of 5 years and 3 months with a starting point of 7 years was not manifestly excessive.

Ancillary Orders:

  • Disqualification from driving and until passes extended driving test is mandatory (s. 36(1) RTOS 1988)
  • Power to deprive offender of property used for commission of offence (s. 143 PCC(S)A 2000)

Consider Also:

  • Possibility of alternative verdicts (Archbold para 32-165)
  • NB: the offence is a "specified" violent offence with in the meaning of Schedule 15 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and a "serious" offence for the purposes of ss 224-229 of the CJA 2003.

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