Jill Archer’s brush with the law

Jill Archer’s brush with the law

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An elderly lady with failing eyesight runs her car into a cyclist on a country lane, causing him some slight injury and torn clothing. This will sound familiar to listeners of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. But what does the law say about motorists who find themselves in this situation? A brief discussion of the issues.

Driving with failing eyesight

The law specifies the minimum acuity level for motorists – the standard is higher for taxi drivers and commercial drivers. The minimum eyesight standard is set out in Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999, which was amended in March 2013. You can see (or not) the standards here.[1] The DVLA will revoke the licences of motorists who do not meet the standard. Where a motorist has her licence revoked by the DVLA, she can appeal to the magistrates’ court.[2]

But what of the motorist who is in denial about failing eyesight? Those who quite naturally don’t want to lose their independence and have trouble accepting their failing health? Driving without meeting the standard is an offence resulting in 3 penalty points. The penalty points are particularly relevant to a motorist who drives without wearing their glasses, or who refuses to take an eye test.

The accident

In The Archers, Jill Archer collided with a cyclist (her grandson), knocking him off his bike. Is there any liability here?

Careless driving

Careless driving is an offence under Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which can result in disqualification from driving. The question would be whether Jill’s driving fell below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver. If Jill knew that her eyesight was failing, it would tend to support the prosecution case that she was not being a careful driver: she told David, ‘I just didn’t see him.’ Ultimately, we don’t know anything about the road layout, sight lines, driving conditions, weather, Jill’s speed, or the behaviour of Josh the cyclist as he pulled out, so advising on liability for this offence is impossible at this stage. Suffice to say, the question would be whether a competent and careful driver would have had the same collision as Jill.

Failing to report

The law states that a motorist who has had an accident must stop immediately[3] and be prepared to supply their name and address. There’s no technical definition of ‘accident,’ but knocking someone of their bike is pretty obviously encompassed.

In Jill Archer’s situation there’s no practical requirement for her to give her name and address to her grandson, but is she obliged to report the accident to the police station? That’s always a thorny issue, because the motorist may well think to herself, ‘If I tell the police I’ll only make it worse – I may be prosecuted!’ In fact, failing to report an accident is the most serious of the three offences considered, and is imprisonable.

Since there is no injury to Josh, there is no requirement for Jill to make a report to the police or produce her insurance documents. Although she might yet be prosecuted for driving with poor eyesight or careless driving, it’s unlikely that her family members would tip off the DVLA or police, and very unlikely that Josh would support a prosecution of his grandmother. In the circumstances, Jill’s had a very lucky escape. Of course, she should resist the urge to tweet about it.

Jon Mack is a barrister at Blackfriars Chambers, and tweets @JonDMack


[1] https://www.gov.uk/driving-eyesight-rules

[2] Road Traffic Act 1988 s.100

[3] Hallinan v DPP [1998] Crim LR 754, DC

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this. If I may, have a question for you, and anyone reading this, please. I’m a relatively newly-appointed, and young (30’s) magistrate (a relative term: average bench age is late 50’s). We had a case earlier this year in which an older man (late 60’s) was driving appalling badly on a motorway and ended up knocking a car containing a mother and her small children off the road. The mother was injured, and the car written off. CPS charged careless rather than dangerous driving (one inferred because it was almost guaranteed to be proven: why risk charging the arguably more accurate offence if there’s a greater risk of the defendant being acquitted?). What concerned me most was the defendant evinced no regret whatsoever in either his atrocious driving, the deeply unpleasant effect it had on the victim and her children, and finally the potentially lethal effects had events transpired differently: he was, we considered, both arrogant and defiant (it was a NG plea in the face of all the evidence).

    We imposed a fine and a driving ban, and we had the *discretionary* power to mandate that the defendant retake his driving test before regaining his license. I was very firmly in favour of imposing the requirement for a retake: my understanding of the law is that passing the driving test is the threshold laid down by parliament to be permitted to drive, and therefore we ought properly to impose a driving test retake on anyone whom we reasonably suspect may not be at that standard. My colleagues took a different view: the chairman was ambivalent and largely silent, but the other winger was viscerally and palpably opposed to imposing a driving test retake. She was of a similar age to the defendant (late 60’s), and accused me, “You just don’t want to let him drive again. Most older people wouldn’t be able to pass a driving test retake!”. The chairman deferred to her view, and the guy will be back on the road next year.

    My question are these:

    1. What, in law, is the proper threshold for imposing a requirement for a driving test retake?
    2. What is the general public’s expectation of the circumstances in which a requirement for a retake will be imposed (i.e. was I being draconian, or was my colleague being overly deferential to older people)?
    3. From whom can we seek advice about such things in the future? Legal advisors are, as the title suggests, there to provide narrowly-worded advice on the law, and Justices’ Clerks are increasingly fewer, busier, and scattered by MoJ/HMCTS cuts in to distant HQs far from individual magistrates’ courts.

    The case bothered me because the guy nearly killed someone, and I think that next time he causes an accident, he quite possibly will do. Any advice gratefully received.

    • First of all, congratulations on your appointment as a magistrate.

      In terms of the tale you recount, you’re right that careless driving is easier to prove than dangerous driving. Bear in mind, a fairly minor lapse of concentration on the motorway can have catastrophic consequences, when compared against a similar lapse on a residential street. The standard of driving does not have to fall far before a serious accident can occur. With that in mind, it may explain why the CPS charged careless driving. As you may have spotted from your time on the bench, the evidence in many careless driving trials would probably suffice for a dangerous driving charge, which illustrates how that choosing between a charge of careless driving or dangerous driving is as much an art as a science. Moreover, careless driving is a summary offence.

      Turning to the sentencing issue, from what you say it seems that you placed the offence in the most serious category for sentencing purposes (p.117 of the Sentencing Guidelines). Clearly “greater harm” owing to the damage caused to the other vehicle and the injury to the occupants, but possibly not “higher culpability”? The guidelines say a Band C fine, and either discretionary disqualification (Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, s.36(4)), or mandatory 7-9 penalty points. Had the charge been for dangerous driving, a mandatory extended re-test follows conviction.

      In terms of whether there is a threshold, I think you answer your own question: it is at the court’s discretion. Although this is primarily a matter of common sense and reasonableness, some guidance might be derived from the Sentencing Guidelines, which states at p.185, “The discretion to order a re-test is likely to be exercised where there is evidence of inexperience,
      incompetence or infirmity, or the disqualification period is lengthy (that is, the offender is going to be ‘off the road’ for a considerable time).” In these circumstances, you may have been justified in ordering a re-test.

      Your final question is about from whom can you seek advice. If you are in any doubt, you should seek advice from your Legal Advisor – you are generally bound to follow that advice. It is not unusual to ask counsel or solicitors for representations. In my experience, District Judges do this more frequently than lay magistrates: ‘Mr X, how do you say I should approach y legal issue in this case?’ Barristers and solicitors are professionally bound to assist the court, and I think in your case the prosecutor would have drawn p.185 of the Sentencing Guidelines to your attention in a fairly neutral submission. I should add, this is not the same as asking the advocates what the law should be, rather, you’re asking both sides for submissions as to the applicability of the law in this particular case.

      Ultimately, it has to be a decision for the bench. Your comment that the other winger was against disqualification is one of the reasons that benches usually sit in threes – there has to be someone to cast the decisive ‘vote’ in cases of dispute in the retiring room!

      Finally, this may well have been a case where the victim impact statement would have weighed heavily against the defendant during the sentencing process, as would the defendant’s ‘lack of insight into his offending behaviour’ as the Probation Service might have said.

  2. 1. Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 s 36(4):

    Where a person to whom subsection (1) above does not apply is convicted of an offence involving obligatory endorsement, the court may order him to be disqualified until he passes the appropriate driving test (whether or not he has previously passed any test).

    Mags’ Court Sentencing Guidelines page 185 para 16

    The discretion to order a re-test is likely to be exercised where there is evidence of inexperience, incompetence or infirmity, or the disqualification period is lengthy (that is, the offender is going to be ‘off the road’ for a considerable time).

    2. This is impossible to answer!

    3. This sounds like an issue to raise with your court and/or local bench chairperson. Certainly do so if you feel that the advice you are given is insufficient or incorrect.

    In court, you could have asked the prosecutor to address you on disqualification until test is passed. He or she should have been able to tell you the threshold.

  3. It is blatantly obvious that older drivers should have to submit to a regular medical examination (not by their own GP or any member of the same practice) and eye-test (by a professional who has never met them) – and if you fail, you don’t keep your licence. But older licence-holders are, I guess, a demographic which votes, and it’s not going to happen.

  4. 100% with Andrew on this. I’d also like to see horse trailers made subject to annual MOT testing. But just imagine how the Chipping Norton set would react.

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