Fleet News

Crackdown on fleet danger drivers

COMPANY car drivers face jail if they cause accidents through bad driving under Government proposals to reflect in court the true cost of vehicle accidents on victims' families.

The move follows a detailed study of hundreds of court cases which showed drivers who kill can escape with fines of just £100 because of technical arguments by defence legal teams.

The case studies compiled in a TRL report for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), called 'Dangerous Driving and the Law', show how arguments over legal definitions of different charges are hampering the courts.

Prosecutions for causing death by dangerous driving are hard to pursue successfully, prompting a shift towards lesser charges such as careless driving, which offer a drastic reduction in punishments.

The cases in the report make chilling reading for anyone driving for a living, as fleet drivers face some of the greatest risk of being involved in accidents, either as the cause of accidents or as victims.

One driver smashed into a stationary vehicle, killing a passenger in the car in front. He pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention and was fined £500, with £60 costs and eight penalty points, which allowed him back on the road with no extra training. In another case, a speeding driver smashed into a pedestrian on a marked crossing, resulting in him losing his right leg below the knee.

The court heard the pedestrian may have been 'larking about' on the crossing, but the driver pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention. He was fined £100, with £100 costs. Another driver had just finished a 12-hour shift at work and is suspected of falling asleep at the wheel. He drifted into a layby and smashed into a parked car, killing the occupant. The driver was fined £350, with £50 costs and disqualified for six months.

One of the most tragic cases involved a driver who clipped the back of a car he was trying to overtake, before losing control and forcing both vehicles off the carriageway. The victims' car rolled over in a field, throwing two children in the rear seats out of the vehicle, killing one and leaving a front seat passenger dead.

However, the Crown Prosecution Service could only bring a charge of driving without due care and attention, resulting in a £250 fine, £70 costs and a year's driving ban.

Amid official concern that the justice system is not reflecting the devastating effect careless drivers are having on their families, there has been growing demand for action to reflect in sentences the damage these accidents have had on people's lives.

Radical proposals from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions include a new offence between dangerous driving and careless driving, called negligent driving and causing death or serious injury by negligent driving.

This would fit between dangerous driving and careless driving and carry penalties including imprisonment, disqualification and community service. The offence would focus on the driver's duty of care to other drivers.

Penalties for causing death by dangerous driving would be extended to include severe injuries. A new offence called causing death by careless driving will also be considered.

Fixed penalty notices and substantial fines would be created for specific offences, including tailgating, poor lane discipline and the use of mobile phones while driving. The report said attempts to try to obtain tougher sentences through the Road Traffic Act 1991 had 'not led to an increase in convictions for serious driving offences, even though they were intended to be easier to prove'.

The DTLR cannot directly introduce new legislation for tougher sentencing, but a spokesman for the Home Office said the departments would be looking at the proposals together in future.

The Home Office has already introduced its own proposals to toughen up sentencing. The consultation, launched in December 2000, included new short-term penalties, such as driving bans of a few weeks, and impounding the cars of dangerous drivers.

Drivers would also receive an automatic six month ban without a court appearance if they received too many points on their licences under the 'totting-up' procedure. There will also be a greater focus on driver re-training after they break the law, and the use of compulsory improvement programmes, with drivers who are disqualified automatically having to re-qualify for their licences.

Consultation on the proposals ended more than a year ago, but the Government has yet to act. A White Paper on new sentencing powers for courts will be introduced later this year, but may not refer to motoring offences.

The reports have ignited increased debate about the role of employers in ensuring drivers are safe and whether tougher penalties are fair when fatal crashes are put down to simple errors of judgement.

Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, said: 'It is a very difficult issue. Just saying you will sentence drivers on the severity of the crash is like saying a life for a life. Drivers do not take to the wheel intent on killing someone.

'You cannot generalise these issues. There is no doubt training and education will help and that drivers who are careless or dangerous should be punished, but if there is a genuine accident, you must look at it objectively when deciding whether to prosecute.'

But a spokeswoman for the Fleet Safety Forum said: 'The charging system is inadequate as the definition between careless and dangerous driving is too close, while the penalties are wildly different.'

Road safety organisation Brake claims the charge of careless driving should be scrapped after a driver who caused the deaths of two people recently received a £100 fine under the charge. Mary Williams, chief executive of Brake, said: 'When we are on the road we all need to be safe. If we drive in a manner that is not safe, it should not be described as careless as we are endangering lives.

'It should be described as dangerous. Carelessness suggests you have just spilt a pint of milk.'

Research published by Brake in conjunction with Green Flag, the motoring assistance provider, showed seven out of 10 drivers say that tougher penalties for driving offences would make them take more care on the road.

  • Copies of the DTLR report, called Dangerous Driving and the Law, are available on the department's website, on www.roads.dtlr.gov.uk/roadsafety/research26/index.htm, or by calling 0870 1226236.
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