Achieving the correct balance between mercy and punishment is difficult
On The Telegraph website on Saturday 7 September, the following headline appeared above a story about death by dangerous driving:
The article reported: “I hate the word ‘accident’,” says the victim’s widow, her eyes red with grief. “She bloody murdered him as far as I’m concerned.”
Mrs McClure, 38, was found guilty at Reading Crown Court of causing death by dangerous driving and is now starting an 18-month prison sentence.
The article is powerfully written. Describing the collision, it states:
“The prosecution would later say she had at least 18 seconds in which to see him and make a slight adjustment to go past.
One, two, three, four, five… She was looking down at the satellite-navigation system in the car instead of at the road, according to her own statement.
Six, seven, eight… She was travelling at 40mph or more, and he was getting closer, fast.
Ten, 11, 12… She was trying to make the satnav zoom out for a better map, she told the police.
Thirteen, 14, 15… Tony was dressed in a bright-red cycling vest and silver helmet.
Sixteen, 17, 18… she saw him at the very last moment, the judge and jury at Reading Crown Court heard in July. There was no time to swerve.”
Mrs McClure’s trial
We know nothing of the facts (save for what was reported by The Telegraph) however, we can make some (fairly safe) assumptions based on what we know.
The fact that she was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving may suggest that she had offered to plead to the lesser offence of causing death by careless driving (maximum sentence 5 years – many receive community orders). This is common in such cases and the prosecution (in consultation with the victim’s family) has to make a decision as to whether that was appropriate. It may be that it was deemed inappropriate and so the case went forward to trial on the count of death by dangerous.
With no plea (and therefore no basis of plea – a written document setting out the facts as claimed by the defendant, often used to restrict their culpability) the sentence has to be based on the prosecution’s case as found by the jury.
This, according to The Telegraph, is as outlined above. There may be more to it that has not been reported.
We know little about Mrs McClure’s personal situation, other than she is aged 38, married and has two young children. The effect on the children – particularly if she is the primary carer for the children – is highly relevant.
It can be assumed that she has no convictions.
The Telegraph reported:
“Judge Nicholas Wood said she was “avoidably distracted” by the navigation system. Sentencing her at Reading Crown Court last Friday, he said: “This case is a tragic loss of life and shows the potential dangers of looking at a satnav while driving, even at an average speed.”
The judge said Mrs McClure had “failed to have a proper regard for a cyclist, a vulnerable road user”.
Considering the guidelines, that would suggest that the judge placed the case into level 3 – driving that created a significant risk of danger . The guideline suggests a number of scenarios which may fall into level 3, one of which is:
• Driving whilst avoidably distracted
It is arguable that the length of time during which she was distracted warranted an increase from the level 3 starting point (3 years).
It is unclear as to why the sentence was below the starting point. The judge should have given his reasons for this when sentencing. It may be that the remorse, the help given at the scene and the previous (assumed) good character warranted a reduction.
In another article on The Telegraph over the weekend, Mic Wright wrote about the case:
No one who kills with their car as a result of that kind of gross negligence just “makes a mistake”. A speeding motor vehicle is a weapon in reckless hands. It doesn’t matter if that driver is a nice woman who bakes cakes and cares about her community. Fiddling with a satnav as you move down a road at 60mph is inexcusable. It is too easy to say: “But it could happen to any of us”.
That is certainly a view shared by many.
The views of the victim’s family in this case – that the sentence should have been longer and that death by dangerous driving is akin to murder – are completely understandable.
However, from a (necessarily) dispassionate view point, one might ask what would be achieved by imprisoning Mrs McClure for 3 years, or 6 years or 9 years. No sentence can adequately mark the loss of life, not even a life sentence.
The sentence must reflect the factors of the offence – this was a piece of seriously bad driving. Had the victim been 1 minute earlier, or Mrs McClure been 1 minute later, then the collision most likely would not have happened. It is for that reason that many see death by driving cases as misfortune, and that can ‘happen to anybody’.
There has to be a balance. Custodial sentences for seriously bad driving are necessary, because, driving a vehicle on a road comes with great responsibility. The consequences of mistakes or poor decisions are all too apparent. However, the other side of the scales, to achieve that balance, is that no one sets out to kill someone when they get into their car. To advocate lengthier sentences above those currently imposed, would be to unduly ‘skew’ the sentencing system and result in disproportionate sentences for people who, often, have made a terrible error of judgement.