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Drivers who kill should face prospect of life in prison

The Times: Drivers who kill ‘should face prospect of life in prison’ says police expert

Last updated February 13 2012

Motorists who cause death on the roads should face tougher sentences of up to life in jail because current penalties are too lenient, according to one of Britain’s most senior road death investigators.

The head of Scotland Yard’s Road Death Investigation Unit has called for the merging of road traffic and homicide laws to impose stronger penalties on those found guilty of killing cyclists or pedestrians.

Detective Chief Inspector John Oldham said that the relatives of car-crash victims resented the “very small” sentences when motorists had been reckless. He added that many cases were wrongly considered “accidents” when they were the result of human decisions.

Causing death by dangerous or careless driving carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison, compared with up to life for manslaughter and an automatic life sentence for murder. “The sentences are very small, and the families hate that,” Mr Oldham told The Times. “In my particular world we get very upset by the word ‘accident’. For families there is no accident about it. An accident on the road is the result of the decisions people make.”

His comments come after The Times began its nationwide Cities fit for cycling campaign, which calls for action to reduce the numbers of cyclists killed or seriously injured on the roads.

Mr Oldham added that motorists who were reckless or negligent should be given penalties more in line with homicide offences. “We should amalgamate the two acts,” he said, explaining that he was referring to drivers who could be proved to be at fault. “When you have a proper case — eg, a cup of tea in their hand, [or] they’ve been driving for 24 hours.”

He gave his support to two elements of The Times campaign: a cycling commissioner in each city; and that large vehicles should be fitted with sensors, mirrors, alarms and safety bars if they enter city centres. Mr Oldham also warned that there would be “more and more” cycle fatalities unless there was a radical rethink of the way London and other big cities are structured.

The latest official figures show that 456 people appeared before crown courts in 2005 and 2006 on charges of causing death by dangerous driving. The average sentence for those who pleaded guilty was between three years and eight months and three years and nine months.

One reason why the offence of death by dangerous driving was introduced by the Labour Government was that juries were reluctant to convict motorists charged with manslaughter. It is more difficult to prove an offence of gross negligence manslaughter than to prove death by dangerous driving.

Speaking of Transport for London’s recent decision to evaluate 500 junctions that are a danger to cyclists, Mr Oldham pointed out that Mary Bowers, the Times reporter critically injured in a cycling accident, was not hit at one of these junctions — like many others involved in cycling accidents.

“These deaths are coming from all over the place, not just dangerous junctions,” he said. “With the increase in traffic there will be more deaths. We have a road layout not designed for the two forms of transport.”

Police needed more say in discussions that determined how a junction was made safe, he added.

Possible charges

Murder Where there is evidence that the motorist killed another person, intending to kill them. Must impose a life sentence

Manslaughter Gross negligence applicable where there is no intent to use the vehicle as a weapon of assault, but driving falls far below the required standard. Up to life imprisonment

Causing death by dangerous driving Maximum jail term 14 years, usually with an eight-year starting point, increased for aggravating factors such as aggressive driving, driving while using a mobile phone, failing to regard cyclists, driving too close to them and driving into a cycle lane

Causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs Maximum 14 years’ imprisonment

Causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving Maximum sentence five years