Victoria is on the board for the World Day of Remembrance Foundation. She has written a blog in support for this year’s theme for WDoR.
Almost eight years ago I was cycling to work when the driver of a skip lorry turned left across my path and crushed me. I was very lucky to survive, but suffered life-changing injuries including having my left leg amputated. Following a very thorough police investigation, the cause of the crash was found to be that the driver had failed to look in his mirrors for thirteen seconds leading up to the collision.
The theme of justice for this year’s World Day of Remembrance is fitting as so often victims do not feel they received justice.
In my case, the driver was charged with ‘Causing serious injury by dangerous driving’, which carries a five year maximum sentence. The charge was then downgraded to simply ‘careless driving’, as it was agreed that the driver would plead guilty to this charge. Whilst we have a separate charge for causing death by careless driving, at the time ‘causing serious injury by careless driving’ did not exist. This meant the only sentence available was a few penalty points and a fine, as the charge is fit only for minor driving misdemeanours. In fact at the time of sentencing, the driver’s barrister argued successfully that he should only receive six penalty points, as any more would render it almost impossible for him to find work as an HGV driver (!).
People are often shocked when I explain the justice outcome of my case. A £750 fine and six penalty points seem insulting and wildly disproportionate to the injuries I have suffered. How can someone who has inflicted so much suffering be allowed to continue with their life and their work? Legislation was this year updated though, with a new charge of ‘Causing serious injury by careless driving’ being consulted on by the Sentencing Council. The new charge carries a maximum custodial sentence of two years.
It is not however my personal belief that careless driving, even when it results in death and injury, warrants prison time. Carelessness is often a momentary lapse in concentration, and the seriousness of the outcome is a result of luck and many other factors that are outside of the perpetrators control. Depending on the age and health of the victim, the speed limit of the road, and where the force hits the victims’ body all play a role in the seriousness of the outcome. Whilst careless driving (which causes slight injury or no injury at all) is punishable with a few points, the outcome of serious injury now has a two year maximum custodial sentence, and five years if the outcome is death. The UK has also adopted a ‘safe systems’ approach to its road safety policy, and underpinning this strategy is the concept that transport systems should allow for human error without these errors resulting in death and injury. Criminal, reckless driving behaviour is not human error, but I would say that many ‘careless’ driving behaviours are ultimately just human error. Should we therefore be sending people to prison for outcomes we purport our transport system should protect people against?
Arriving at ‘justice’ for road crime is more difficult I think than other crimes, as the intent to cause harm is often not there, but the outcomes are so serious. The culpability of the defendant is often at odds with the suffering of the victims, and it presents a challenge for us to settle on what is ‘justice’. It is easy I think to just see justice in terms of prison sentences, but I don’t believe longer prison sentences are necessarily appropriate for the level of culpability, nor do they act as a deterrent to drivers to improve their driving behaviour.
Justice for victims should
- Mitigate the suffering of victims
- Punish criminal driver behaviour
- Deter others from offending
It is my sense that we are currently not doing very well on these three criteria. Victims frequently feel let down by the justice system, and dangerous driving behaviour is still widely accepted by society as not being criminal. Speeding is socially accepted, despite it being found to be a factor in 50% of fatal crashes in London.
Prison is appropriate where culpability is significant and the driver is knowingly driving in a way that is putting others at risk, for example with drink or drugs or driving in a dangerous manner. However a large proportion of cases which result in death and injury are not caused by this level of culpability, they are caused by momentary lapses of concentration, and I do not think the criminal justice system currently is serving victims, perpetrators or society for these crimes.
Whilst I do not have all of the answers, there are two areas which I feel would go a long way to remedying the three criteria of justice:
- More thorough collision investigation
Victims frequently report that they feel their crash was not investigated properly. Whilst this is true of some bereaved families, it is more frequent amongst seriously injured victims, who in most cases will not have their crash investigated by a specialist Serious Collisions Investigation Unit, and will not have a forensic collision investigator. It has been reported to me that even when injuries are very serious, limited evidence is gathered (no CCTV, few witness statements etc). The impact of this is significant. Not only does this render it impossible to secure a criminal conviction, it also impacts significantly on victims being able to access financial support to help them cope and recover from their injuries. We have a fault-based civil compensation system in the UK, and lack of evidence means it is difficult to prove liability and therefore prove a victim is entitled to funds to help rehabilitate them. Ensuring more thorough investigations, with standards set, would not only improve criminal justice outcomes but also mitigate a lot of suffering that seriously injured people endure.
- Longer and more driving bans
Driving bans are the punishment that truly fit the crime. Whilst as I have outlined earlier some criminal driving offences deserve prison, there are many that do not. Driving bans not only punish, they also remove the risk that the driver poses to society. A recent analysis by campaign group Action Vision Zero found that although lifetime bans have increased for more serious dangerous driving charges, only a very small proportion of less serious charges such as careless driving and speeding resulted in a ban, with wide variation across the country. Increasing the number and length of bans would not only protect society, it would also deliver justice in cases where a person has been injured. Whilst I don’t know of any research undertaken to date of the deterrence factor of driving bans, I strongly suspect it would be significant, thus improving driving behaviour across society.
I did not want the lorry driver who injured me to go to prison, but it would have been fitting I think for him to receive a driving ban. I hope that this year’s World Day of Remembrance theme prompts decision makers to look beyond prison and think more creatively and practically as to how the criminal justice system can deliver justice for victims and address the driving culture we currently have.