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Criminal Defences

A Guide to Death by Dangerous Driving Defences

Learn more about defences that can be used for the offence of Death by Dangerous Driving

fatal collision

If you have been charged with death by dangerous driving, it’s likely you yourself were involved in a traumatic motor vehicle accident. You may be running the events over in your head, wondering whether your actions amounted to criminal conduct, and if you will be found guilty of this offence. Being charged with any crime is stressful, but the good news is that the right information about the alleged offence can settle your mind somewhat. This article provides an overview of the offence of death by dangerous driving. The article covers the types of evidence that the court will consider and the maximum sentence that you could face if you are found guilty, along with the defences that you may be able to rely upon to reduce your sentence or avoid conviction altogether.

An overview of the offence of death by dangerous driving

The offence of death by dangerous driving is set out in section 1 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. To be guilty of this offence, a person must be found to have caused the death of another person by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously in a public place.

Driving is considered ‘dangerous’ when it falls far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver where it would be obvious to such a driver that driving in that way would be dangerous. But dangerous driving does not only relate to the driver of the vehicle.

Indeed, driving can be ‘dangerous’ if the vehicle that is being driven is in poor condition. The question that the court will consider is whether it would be obvious to the competent and careful driver that driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous. The definition of vehicle includes anything attached to, carried on, or carried inside it. For example, if you drive a lorry knowing that the vehicle has an unsafe load, this would be considered to be dangerous. Similarly, if you drive knowing there is a serious mechanical error with your vehicle and some mechanical error causes a crash, you can be held liable for dangerous driving (even if you didn’t think anything would come of the fault).

The law says that dangerousness means danger of injury to any person or serious damage to property. Examples include speeding, driving aggressively, and ignoring traffic lights. Driving when under the influence of drink or drugs, including prescription drugs, will also be considered dangerous. If you know, for example, that a legal prescribed antihistamine makes you drowsy, you can be held liable for dangerous driving if you caused injury to person or property.

Dangerous driving can also include being distracted by items in the car, such as a handheld mobile phone, cigarette, or map. When assessing whether the test for dangerous driving has been met, the court must consider not only the circumstances the driver could have been expected to be aware of, but also any information shown to have been within their knowledge. For example, if the driver knew the car’s brakes were faulty, but this would not have been immediately obvious to someone without this knowledge, the actual knowledge of the driver will be taken into account in determining dangerousness.

What kind of evidence is used in death by dangerous driving cases?

The prosecution will need to show that the death arose due to dangerous driving. Therefore, any video footage showing the events is likely to be important evidence, as is witness testimonies of any bystanders who witnessed what took place. Witness statements of anyone involved in the accident will also be important. If the prosecution alleges that the car was speeding, they will need to prove it. They may do this by showing records from speed cameras. They may also use evidence from other speed measurement tools such as police laser guns.

If the prosecution alleges that you were intoxicated, they must provide evidence of this. They will rely upon the results of your breathalyser test and/or urine samples taken after you were arrested to show your blood alcohol levels or the presence of other drugs in your body at the time of the accident.

Where the alleged dangerousness relates to the vehicle, evidence from a mechanical expert in respect of faults in the vehicle is likely to be produced. The prosecution will need to show either that you were aware of the fault (perhaps the car failed its MOT test), or that you should have been aware of it (you should keep accurate driving records to know when your MOT is due so you can test for some unroadworthy conditions of your car). The prosecution may suggest you should have been aware of the fault if it was visually obvious, or obvious due to the way that the vehicle was running, or would have been obvious if you had taken the vehicle for its MOT test.

What is the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving cases?

The maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving is life imprisonment, according to a new update to the sentencing guidelines, along with a minimum driving licence disqualification of 5 years and a compulsory extended repeat driving test.

The length of the sentence that you are given depends mainly on the seriousness of the offence. When considering the seriousness of the offence, the court will consider your standard of driving and the degree of risk taken. The most serious cases involving factors from ‘culpability A’, such as a deliberate decision to ignore the rules of the road, or a high level of intoxication that grossly impaired the driver’s ability to travel the road safely, will receive at least 12 years’ imprisonment.

Cases involving factors from ‘culpability B’, such as poor attention by the driver (sending text messages whilst driving or driving at an excessive speed) will receive at least 6 years in prison. Cases involving factors from ‘culpability C’, such as dangerous driving due to lack of adequate sleep or failing to adapt the prevailing conditions will receive at least 3 years’ imprisonment. Detailed sentencing guidelines can be found here.

What are the applicable death by dangerous driving defences?

Defences are a complex area of law. Whether you have a valid defence depends on the facts of your case. That said, a common defence to the charge of death by dangerous driving is that the driving in question was not dangerous. For example, perhaps the collision occurred due to other factors, such as the driving of the injured party or unforeseeable events such as an oil spill on the road.

In some circumstances, it may be possible to defend a charge of dangerous driving on the basis that the dangerous driving did not cause the person’s death. This might apply, for example, in circumstances where a pedestrian stepped out in front of a moving vehicle; while the prosecution might advance their case that the driver was speeding, the defence could argue that the pedestrian would still have been killed even if the car was travelling within the speed limit (making the situation an accident rather than a dangerous driving case).

In most cases, however, a general defence to dangerous driving is advanced.

General defences

A ‘general defence’ to relates to the person accused rather than the crime itself. The following general defences may apply to the charge of death by dangerous driving:

Automatism: If you were not aware of your actions when committing the offence, in some rare circumstances, you may be able to rely upon the defence of automatism. Generally, if you were under the voluntary influence of alcohol or illicit drugs you will not be able to rely on this defence. Courts do not want to give people excuses for criminal behaviour when they voluntarily got drunk or took drugs. Rather, this defence might be available if you were unaware of your actions due to an unpredictable side effect of prescription medication or some other medical condition (including sleep-walking).

Insanity: To succeed in this defence, you need to do more than simply show that you were suffering from mental health issues. If the court finds that due to mental illness, you lacked the ability to reason such that you did not know that the act that you were doing was against the law, you may be acquitted on the grounds of insanity.

Self-defence: The law says that if you are attacked, you may use the force that is reasonably necessary to defend yourself. You may also use reasonable force to defend another person, property, to prevent crime, or to conduct a lawful arrest. If the dangerous driving occurred in the context of you seeking to protect yourself from death or serious injury, you may be able to rely on this defence.

Duress: This is where you were forced by a person or a set of circumstances to commit an offence. The court will consider whether you reasonably feared death or serious injury if you did not commit the act, and whether a reasonable person in your situation would have shared those fears and responded in the same way. Duress is used rarely in dangerous driving cases, but it could nonetheless apply in exceptional circumstances (like if someone held you at gun or knife point in your car and demanded you drive them somewhere quickly, for example to escape the scene of a crime).

Mistake: This defence could apply if you were mistaken as to certain factual circumstances and would not have committed the offence if you had known otherwise. For example, perhaps you were previously aware of a fault to the vehicle but reasonably believed that it had been fixed. You cannot rely on your mistaken understanding of the law as a defence.

What will a successful defence achieve?

A successful defence may lead to you being acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge, such as causing death by careless driving. The penalties for causing death by careless driving are substantially lower, with a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

Where to find help with death by dangerous driving offences

If you have been accused of death by dangerous driving, Stuart Miller Solicitors is here to help. We will provide you with help and guidance on your case and robust advice on the options that are available to you. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.

(This page was last updated on November 21, 2023.)


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