Road traffic: New careless driving offence – Serious injury cases
From 28 June 2022, a new category of careless driving offence is in force: causing serious injury by careless or by inconsiderate driving.
This is intended to address careless or inconsiderate driving offences that result in serious injury outcomes. Until now, the simple offence of careless or inconsiderate driving has covered all non-fatal such offences, regardless of injury caused. The offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving has already been in force for some time.
Both private vehicle and commercial vehicle drivers need to be very aware of this legal development. Goods and passenger transport operators need to alert their vocational drivers about this.
What is a ‘serious injury’?
In England & Wales, this is defined as physical harm that amounts to grievous bodily harm (GBH) for the purposes of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. In Scotland, it means severe physical injury.
The test of whether a driver’s standard of driving is careless is whether it falls below the standard of the competent and careful driver.
Penalties for the new offence
A conviction for the offence of careless or inconsiderate driving brings a fine, as well as the endorsement of three to nine penalty points on the driving record unless the Court imposes a discretionary disqualification instead of points.
However, the new serious injury offence is significantly different – it is both imprisonable and brings a mandatory driving disqualification.
The Magistrates Court in England and Wales can impose a fine or custody of max. 12 months. The Crown Court can impose a fine of up to two years’ imprisonment. The mandatory driving disqualification will be imposed, unless in rare cases ‘special reasons’ exist for not disqualifying, in which case the Court can impose three to 11 penalty points. (NB If a driver causes injury by dangerous driving by way of comparison, a driver faces a maximum of five years imprisonment.)
How the implementation of the new offence will play out, remains to be seen.
Drivers involved in careless non-fatal incidents that have caused serious injury will now face the prospect of stiffer penalties and disqualification. Perverse outcomes may arise. A minor incident or momentary lapse in a course of otherwise good driving may lead to serious injury, whereas far worse driving (falling short of dangerous driving) that causes major road risk causes little (if any) injury. In the former case, the driver must be banned – in the latter, a ban will be discretionary. There will be a need for consistency and fairness in sentencing.
It can be seen from the above that there is a risk that the seriousness of the injury will determine the charge and the outcome – but not focus on the risk and danger caused by the driver through his or her driving. Of course, in some cases, the driving will indeed have been bad – leading to serious injury.
This new offence has been long-awaited – a consultation about it was published in 2016.
Time limits: there is normally a six-month time limit for most offences that can only be heard in the Magistrates Court (i.e. ‘summary’ offences), but this time limit does not apply to the new offence category – this is because the case can be heard either in the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.
Careless or inconsiderate driving offences are, in summary:
- causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving
- causing serious injury by careless or inconsiderate driving
- careless or inconsiderate driving (only non-imprisonable offence)
- causing death by driving: unlicensed, or uninsured drivers
- causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs.
The only offence that does not carry a mandatory driving disqualification is the basic offence of careless or inconsiderate driving.
The changes introduced on 28 June 2022 were brought about through the Police Crime and Sentencing Act 2022 which also makes changes to the maximum possible sentence for offences of causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs. These increase to possible life imprisonment, from a previous maximum 14 years imprisonment. It is unclear what actual impact this will have in terms of sentences implemented and in how many cases.
As ever, it is important to take legal advice, in the event of a prosecution for the new offence, not least because of the mandatory driving disqualification.
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