Death by Dangerous Driving
The severity of the offence
Causing death by dangerous driving is the most serious driving offence that you can be prosecuted for. If you are being investigated for this offence, have been charged or are under suspicion it is essential that you get legal representation. The representation you will require will need to be not just a ‘criminal’ lawyer but a lawyer with specialism in Road Traffic Offences.
As it is so serious this is an offence that has to be dealt with in the Crown Court, and persons convicted of this offence can be punished with up to 14 years in prison. For those convicted, a disqualification from driving for a minimum period of two years, and a requirement to pass an extended driving test, are also mandatory.
Understandably, the courts treat offences of causing death by dangerous driving very seriously, and they are not shy about handing down significant prison sentences. A recent example of this would be the case of Marina Usaceva, who pleaded guilty at an earlier Court hearing and was jailed for six years for causing the death of Sukhdeep Singh Johal when she crashed into the back of his car, shortly after using two separate mobile telephones while driving.
What is required to commit the offence?
Driving must be a cause of death.
In order to be found guilty of causing death by driving, you need to be found to have driven dangerously, and your driving must be a cause of the death (See here for a previous blog post on Dangerous Driving). It is not necessary for the Prosecution to show that the driving was a principal or substantial cause of the death, but your driving should ordinarily play more than a minimal role in causing the fatality; for example, after an item of furniture had fallen from a dangerously overloaded truck driven by a defendant, the defendant stopped his vehicle at the side of the dual carriageway. The deceased motorcyclist managed to avoid the item of furniture that had fallen from the truck, but crashed into the back of it. It was held that the Defendant's driving played more than a minimal role in bringing about the death and, therefore, the necessary causative element of the offence was satisfied.
It is possible for the chain of causation to be broken by a sudden and unexpected intervening event (for example, the manner in which another vehicle was being driven), thus creating circumstances where your driving cannot be said to be a cause of death. As with most cases involving death on the roads, the Prosecution are likely to have a specialist collision investigator on their side who will have provided a report as to what he or she feels was the cause(s) of death. It is therefore imperative that, if you find yourself being investigated for an allegation of causing death by dangerous diving, you discuss with a lawyer the possibility of instructing your own independent expert to provide a second opinion on the cause of death.
Caused the death of "another person"
The Courts have decided that you can be prosecuted for causing death by dangerous driving when it is a passenger in your own car who has died.
To be convicted of causing death by dangerous driving, you have to have been "driving" a mechanically propelled vehicle. The test that the Court will apply to determine whether you were driving is whether you were, in a substantial sense, controlling the movement and direction of the vehicle. It follows that you could potentially be convicted of causing death by dangerous driving even if you were not sitting in the drivers' seat (for example, if you were steering the car from the passenger seat while a friend was working the pedals, you both could be deemed to be "driving"). Courts have also previously decided that a person who presses the accelerator pedal by accident (instead of the brake pedal) can be considered to be "driving".
"Mechanically propelled vehicle"
To be guilty of the offence of causing death by dangerous driving you must have been driving a mechanically propelled vehicle. If you believe that what you were driving at the time could not be considered to be a mechanically propelled vehicle, you should tell your lawyer about it and they can advise you accordingly. If this issue is raised, the burden is on the Prosecution to prove that what you were driving was in fact a mechanically propelled vehicle.
It goes without saying that, in order to commit an offence of causing death by dangerous driving you have to have driven dangerously - but what does "dangerously" mean?
A person drives dangerously in this context if the standard of their driving falls far below the standard of driving that would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
A person is also to be regarded as driving dangerously if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous. "Obvious to a competent and careful driver" refers to a dangerous state which would be "seen or realised at first glance". It therefore follows that, if a competent and careful driver would not have seen or realised at first glance that the vehicle was in a dangerous state, and the driver had no knowledge of the danger, an offence of dangerous driving (on the basis of driving a vehicle in a dangerous state) cannot have been committed however dangerous the vehicle turned out to be. If, on the other hand, the owner knew of the vehicle's dangerous condition, but the driver did not, it may be that the owner is prosecuted for the offence as a secondary party, with the driver being considered an innocent agent of the owner.
When assessing whether it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous/driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous, the Court will consider not only the circumstances that the driver could be expected to be aware of, but also any circumstances that are shown to be within the knowledge of the driver.
In terms of "danger", danger means a risk of injury to any person, or a risk of serious damage to property.
It is important to note that the special skill of a driver is irrelevant when a Court is considering whether a driver has driven dangerously. It therefore does not matter how many advanced driving lessons you have taken if a jury has assessed your standard of driving, in the context of all the relevant circumstances, and determined that is falls far below the standard of a competent and careful driver. Notwithstanding this, facts relating to the condition of the driver (e.g. drunkenness) can be taken into account when a jury is determining whether circumstances were present that the driver could be expected to be aware of, or whether there were circumstances that related to the condition of the driver that were within his knowledge.
Mistake of fact is irrelevant as to whether the driving is dangerous (e.g. it was not a defence for a police officer to drive through a red light because he thought the junction was being controlled by other officers).
“Road or other public place”
In order to be found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving, the offence must have been committed on a road or other public place and this is defined in the same way as with offences of driving with excess alcohol. If you suspect that you were not driving on a road or public place you should contact a lawyer immediately as the definitions are by no means straightforward.
What if I am charged with causing death by dangerous driving? What defences are there to causing death by dangerous driving?
Automatism is a defence that is available to an offence of causing death by dangerous driving, however, it is notoriously difficult to establish. In order to run a defence of automatism, there would need to be a genuine circumstance, that was not foreseeable, that caused you to be incapacitated from controlling your vehicle (for example, if you were stunned by a blow to the head, or were attacked by a swarm of bees). Once evidence of automatism is raised by the Defence, the Prosecution must negative it, i.e. they must prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that you in fact had control of the vehicle and that what you were doing was a voluntary act, as opposed to an involuntary act. Medical conditions can amount to automatism in certain circumstances but this is again complicated and beyond the scope of this blog post. Again seek specialist legal advice as soon as possible.
Necessity is available as a defence to a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, however, as with automatism, it is very difficult to establish. A valid defence of necessity must meet the following criteria:
- The commission of the crime must be necessary, or be reasonably believed to have been necessary, for the purpose of avoiding or preventing death or serious injury to yourself or another person;
- That necessity was the sine qua non (essential element or condition) of the commission of the crime;
- The commission of the crime, viewed objectively, was reasonable and proportionate, having regard to the evil to be avoided or prevented.
You would not, therefore, succeed with a defence of necessity if you believed what you did was necessary to avoid the evil, but, viewed objectively, it was unnecessary or, though necessary, was disproportionate.
In addition to the above, where the conduct alleged to constitute the offence is also capable of amounting to the use of reasonable force for the purpose of assisting in the arrest of an offender, the defendant can properly avail himself of the defence in Section 3(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967.
Slightly more common defences to allegations of causing death by dangerous driving are likely to be either:
- “My driving did not fall far below the standard of driving that would be expected of a competent and careful driver”; or
- “An unexpected mechanical defect with my vehicle caused a sudden and total loss of control”.
(See the meaning of “dangerously”, above).
As a specialist Road Traffic barrister Quentin is adept at defending in cases of Death by Dangerous Driving and has an excellent working relationship with a number of excellent specialist collision investigators. Please contact Quentin if you wish to discuss a case of Death by Dangerous Driving.
POSTED: Monday, August 11, 2014