Prosecutors and courts

Cherry Allan's picture
Royal Courts of Justice
Injuries to cyclists rarely lead to prosecution of the driver involved
Headline Messages: 
  • Injuries to cyclists rarely lead to the prosecution of the driver involved and, when they do, all too often the incident seems to be dismissed or minimised as “just one of those things”. This reinforces fears that the roads are lawless, dangerous places for cycling and walking.
    One of the reasons behind this is the difficulty faced by prosecutors and courts when trying to interpret and apply the law consistently. There is also a cultural tendency to dismiss driving that caused obviously foreseeable danger as ‘careless’, rather than deeming it ‘dangerous’. 

Key facts: 
  • In law, dangerous driving falls not just “below”, but “far below” the standard that would be expected of a “competent and careful driver”; it should also “… be obvious to a competent and careful driver” that the driving would give rise to “danger either of injury to any person or of serious damage to property”. Hence the distinction between “dangerous” and “careless” driving is not about the state of mind of the driver (i.e. whether what they did was intentional), but whether their driving objectively caused obviously foreseeable danger.
  • The number of people who are killed in road crashes far exceeds the number of drivers who are convicted for causing death by driving. In 2015, there were 1,568 road deaths in England and Wales, but only 122 people convicted of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’, and 176 of ‘causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving’.
  • Between 1990 and 2015, counting principal offences alone, the number of people taken to court in England and Wales for causing death or serious injury by driving, or of dangerous or careless driving fell by c72%, with a c77% drop in convictions.  It is unlikely that a drop on this scale reflects better driving standards. Even though the number of people killed or seriously injured (KSI) declined by c62% over this same period, this is still significantly less than the decline in the number of people proceeded against or found guilty of bad driving offences.  
Cycling UK View (formal statement of Cycling UK's policy): 
  • The prosecution of bad drivers needs to reinforce the message that it is unacceptable to endanger and intimidate other road users, not least cyclists and pedestrians who are disproportionately affected by road crashes.
  • Drivers who cause injury or death through reckless behaviour should not be treated more leniently than those who do so through reckless behaviour associated with non-traffic crime.
  • 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 tend to dismiss such driving as ‘careless’, and the result is lenient sentencing.
  • Prosecutors and courts should understand and apply the current legal definitions of ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ consistently and correctly. Prosecution policy and guidelines should provide clearer advice on these charges and be drafted accordingly.
  • Prosecutors and courts should not take the driver’s intentions into account when deciding between a charge of ‘dangerous’ or ‘careless’ driving. If the driving in question caused obviously foreseeable danger, it should be irrelevant to the charging decision whether or not the driver meant to cause harm and a ‘dangerous’ charge should be brought.
  • Manslaughter or assault charges should be seriously considered where there is evidence that danger was caused recklessly or intentionally.
  • Specifically, looking but failing to see a cyclist at a junction is inherently dangerous, and should be prosecuted as such. Not seeing what is there to be seen is clearly below the standard to be expected of a competent and careful driver.
  • Both the police and prosecutors should be more open and transparent about how they decide whether to charge a driver or not and, if they do charge, what charges to bring.
  • Juries should be clearly directed not just on the definitions of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving, but also on the Highway Code as it relates to the standard of driving to be expected.
  • Courts should make greater use of driving bans, and not routinely let drivers keep their licence on pleas of ‘exceptional hardship’, i.e. the predictable consequences of their offending behaviour.
  • Courts should seriously consider the impact that the sentences they pass may have on the victim of the crime, to make sure that it does not demean their suffering. Whilst Cycling UK does not advocate long prison sentences for dangerous driving offences arising purely from lapses of attention by generally responsible drivers, the courts should nonetheless signal disapproval and protect other road users by considering substantial driving bans.
  • Courts should be careful to avoid the appearance of ‘victim-blaming’ when directing juries in criminal cases. For example, if a driver has failed to see a cyclist, whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet is irrelevant.
  • Coroners should have sufficient understanding of the Highway Code and road safety issues relating to cycling, so that they can ask witnesses relevant questions and/or permit relevant questions to be asked during inquest hearings.
  • Coroners should be more willing to write ‘Preventing Further Deaths’ reports in road traffic cases to highlight actions needed to prevent future road fatalities.
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Publication Date: 
July 2017

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