The legal framework and sentencing policy

Cherry Allan's picture
Driver at wheel
Irresponsible driving poses a disproportionate threat to cyclists and pedestrians
Headline Messages: 
  • All road users should share the roads responsibly, with respect for the law and the safety and comfort of others. Irresponsible driving, however, poses a disproportionate threat to pedestrians and cyclists and puts people off travelling by foot or cycle, despite its health, environmental and economic benefits.
  • Society expects high safety standards of other potentially lethal activities – e.g. rail and air travel, in workplaces or on construction sites – and the law creates strong obligations to avoid or minimise the risks. It is not the same for the roads. There, lapses are regularly dismissed merely as ‘accidents’ or ‘carelessness’ and the penalties are often derisory.
  • Driving a car, however, is the one situation in which normally law-abiding citizens put other people routinely at risk. Such people do not deliberately set out to cause harm, but a moment’s inattention may cause serious injury and sometimes death. This is a dilemma for the justice system – one that has yet to be solved effectively.
  • An overhaul of the framework of bad driving offences and sentencing is one of the solutions. In particular, the system should ensure that dangerous driving is never dismissed as being merely ‘careless’; and there should be far greater use of lengthy driving bans both as a penalty and to protect the public. This would make it clearer that it is unacceptable to endanger other road users – and it would help encourage more and safer cycling.


Key facts: 
  • In 2013, only about 1% of all trip stages were made by cycle, but cyclists represented around 6% of fatalities and 15% of serious injuries.
  • Around 88% of cyclists’ road fatalities reported by the police happen in crashes involving a motor vehicle.
  • Between 2009 and 2013, the number of drivers being disqualified dropped by 37.6%, even though there was only a 17% fall in road casualties.
  • For dangerous driving with a fatal outcome, the maximum sentence is 14 years; for both dangerous driving that causes a serious injury, and causing death by ‘careless’ driving, the maximum prison sentence is five years.
  • In 2013, only 80% of motorists convicted of killing another road user had their licence taken away, compared to 94% ten years beforehand. In May 2013, 7,842 of the 12,470 (63%) drivers who had more than 12 points on their licence were not disqualified.
  • Around three quarters of motoring offences are penalised by fines. Bans are given for just over one in 12 offences, most (65%) for less than six months.
Cycling UK View (formal statement of Cycling UK's policy): 

Legal framework

  • The legal framework should reflect the fact that it is unacceptable to endanger and intimidate other road users, not least cyclists and pedestrians who are disproportionately affected by road crashes.
  • The law states that driving is ‘dangerous’ when “… it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.” All too often, however, prosecutors and courts dismiss such driving merely as ‘careless’ offences.
  • In the first instance, prosecutors and courts should understand and apply the current definitions of ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ correctly. Prosecution policy and guidelines should provide accurate advice on these charges and be drafted accordingly. If this does not improve the situation, changes to primary legislation may be needed to end the use of the word ‘careless’ altogether for driving offences that can maim or kill.

Sentencing policy

  • The underlying principle of sentencing must be that offending drivers should not be treated more leniently than those who kill or injure through non-traffic crime.
  • Whether a seriously injured victim happens to survive or die makes too much difference to the sentences available, even though the driving in question may have been equally bad. Sentencing should be consistent and reflect the standard of driving and not its outcome.
  • Sentencing should reflect whether the driver has created danger through willful aggression or obvious risk-taking, or whether it happened as a result of a simple lapse of attention.
  • For the protection of the public, long driving bans should be more widely used to penalise drivers who have caused serious dangers, but not recklessly or intentionally. Pleas of ‘hardship’ should not be accepted.
  • When drivers have caused danger intentionally or recklessly, or if they have a history of breaching driving bans, long custodial sentences are more appropriate.
  • Professional drivers whose licence has been revoked and other disqualified drivers should be required to undergo remedial training and re-testing, as a mandatory step to recovering a licence.
  • The courts should avoid relying solely on fines where a victim has been seriously or fatally injured as this can trivialise the seriousness of the offence, particularly when the fine is small.
  • The courts should be given the power to impose driver re-training as a sanction for convicted offenders.
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Publication Date: 
December 2014

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