Serious Injury by Careless Driving: How Competent Are You?

20 October 2020

Tougher sentences and the introduction of a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving are the reforms proposed for Road Traffic Offences in the recently published Government White Paper on Sentencing Reform.

The overhaul, which is currently underway and headed up by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has proposed the following modifications in this area:

  • An increase to the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life;
  • An increase to the maximum penalty for causing death by careless driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs from 14 years to life;
  • A new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving.

The changes were first announced in 2017 following a public consultation in December 2016, which reported the public’s concern that sentencing should reflect the seriousness of the crime committed. The new legislation, which has been proposed for early next year, has been welcomed by ‘Brake’ a road safety charity which has have been fighting for amendments to the law for a considerable amount of time, to deliver justice to victims and keep roads free from dangerous drivers. It was reported previously in a BBC News article that Brake had argued that ‘penalties faced by drivers who kill and injure are "grossly inadequate" and cause added anguish to their families’.

Presently there are two driving offences of causing serious injury. The first, causing serious injury by dangerous driving, which the new offence almost mirrors in its definition, was created by The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and provides for a maximum penalty of 5 years’ imprisonment. The second, causing serious injury when driving whilst disqualified, was introduced by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 and allows a maximum penalty of 4 years’ imprisonment.

Until recently it was considered there was a loophole where only very limited sentencing powers were available in cases of careless driving that had disastrous results. The offence of simple careless driving is non-imprisonable and punishable by a fine only, which in the most serious cases could be seen as failing to fit the offence and as too lenient due to the harm caused. While it might technically have been possible to charge some such cases as assaults (the definition of serious injury for the dangerous driving offence being ‘physical harm which amounts to grievous harm for the purposes of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861’), the considerable obstacle of proving the necessary intent meant that in practice it was extremely rare.

‘Careless’ driving covers a very wide range of activities, and is defined by s3ZA of the Road Traffic Act 1988 as being where ‘the manner of driving falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver’. Examples of what might constitute careless driving are: overtaking on the inside, driving too closely to another vehicle, being distracted by operating music controls and lighting a cigarette. Dangerous driving, on the other hand, requires a standard of driving that falls far below what is expected of a competent driver and that it is obvious that driving in such a way would be dangerous.

It is anticipated that the new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving will be punishable by imprisonment, though with a lower maximum than is available for the equivalent dangerous driving offence. However at this stage there are no further details on sentencing and legislation is proposed for early 2021.

Further information

For further information on issues raised within this blog, please contact a member of our criminal team. Our criminal law team has experienced solicitors who specialise in representing individuals involved in serious road traffic collisions or accidents, often representing clients accused of causing death by careless or dangerous driving as well as other serious driving matters. 


About the authors

Ed Smyth is a Partner in the Criminal Litigation Department and represents individuals and corporates involved across the full spectrum of criminal and quasi-criminal matters. 

This blog was co-authored by Emma Wardall, Paralegal, in the Criminal Litigation Department. Emma has been with the team for 9 years and is an associate member of CILEX.


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