We were asked to look at death by driving and when careless driving becomes dangerous, in particular, with reference to the sad case some 10 days ago of Courtney Meppen-Walter, who pleaded to causing death by careless driving.
Firstly, let’s look at the different offences.
1) Causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving (RTA 1988 s 2B) (this is the ‘simple’ offence)
2) Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs etc. (RTA 1988 s 3A)
3) Causing death by dangerous driving (RTA 1988 s 1)
It is also worth noting that there is now an offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving (LASPO 2012 s 143), thereby filling the lacuna between dangerous driving and causing death by dangerous driving.
Offences 1) and 2) are obviously the same offence, save for the presence of drink/drugs in the driver’s system at the time of the offence. So, in the context of the Meppen-Walter case, let’s treat them as one and the same.
The maximum sentences are as follows:
1) Death by careless (simple) 5 years and obligatory 12 month disqualification
2) Death by careless (drink/drugs) 14 years and obligatory 2 year disqualification
3) Death by dangerous 14 years and obligatory 2 year disqualification
So what makes careless into dangerous?
Well this is no doubt a question of specific facts.
Helpfully, the Act provides us with some assistance:
RTA 1988 s 3ZA Meaning of careless / inconsiderate driving
(2)A person is to be regarded as driving without due care and attention if (and only if) the way he drives falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver.
(3)In determining for the purposes of subsection (2) above what would be expected of a careful and competent driver in a particular case, regard shall be had not only to the circumstances of which he could be expected to be aware but also to any circumstances shown to have been within the knowledge of the accused.
(4)A person is to be regarded as driving without reasonable consideration for other persons only if those persons are inconvenienced by his driving.]
RTA 1988 s 2A Meaning of Dangerous driving:
(1)For the purposes of sections 1 and 2 above a person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if (and, subject to subsection (2) below, only if)—
(a)the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and
(b)it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
(2)A person is also to be regarded as driving dangerously for the purposes of sections 1 and 2 above if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous.
So essentially, we are talking about the level by which the driver in question falls below the standard expected of him or her.
The sentencing guidelines (which can be found here) provide a list of factors which are designed to assist the court in determining the correct level of culpability and therefore the appropriate sentence for the offence with which it is dealing. These include:
a) Previous convictions for motoring offences,
b) Disregarding warnings,
c) Failing to stop,
d) Falsely claiming the victim was to blame for the collision,
e) Injuries caused in addition to the death
Death by driving cases can be categorised by reference to the behaviour of the driver. For example, where the resulting collision and death are a product of taking one’s eyes off the road to change the radio station, this can be categorised a momentary inattention. This helps to ascertain the level of culpability attributable to the driver.
Where the driver has been consistently speeding 20 mph above the prescribed limit, ignoring warnings that the road ahead contains sharp turns or a ‘T’ junction, this is clearly deliberate, persistent poor driving which is far more culpable than the ‘momentary inattention’ example above.
So what about Meppen-Walter?
Well we have very few details about the case. We know that he was ‘racing’, playing or otherwise acting irresponsibly with another vehicle. We know that he was speeding at the time of the incident, 55mph, and was still accelerating.
BBC News reported that: The court was told Mr Singh, 32, and Mrs Kaur, 37, had been sitting in the front of a Nissan Micra when it was struck by Meppen-Walter’s Mercedes C220 saloon, owned by his grandfather, at 22:15 BST on 1 September.
They had been emerging from a side street when the crash happened, at the junction of Great Ducie Street and Sherborne Street.
Mr Meppen-Walter remained at the scene and tried to help the victims. Meppen-Walter had one previous conviction for speeding – again doing 56mph in a 30mph zone.
BBC News also reported that: “The probation report says he’s a young man who wished he could have those 10 seconds back, but of course he can’t.”
This suggests to us that it was a case of more than a momentary inattention, and The Telegraph reported that: The traffic investigation concluded the “overriding factor” in the incident was the speed of the Mercedes.
So, taking account of the speed and the fact that Meppen-Walter was ‘jockeying’ with another vehicle, it appears that case was one that fell not far short of dangerous driving.
Looking at the guidelines, it would have likely attracted a starting point of 15 months with a range of 36 weeks – 3 years. The Judge appears to have increased the starting point to reflect some aggravating factors, and then reduced it to take account of his plea and (probably) his young age.
The sentence was one of 16 months.