Victims of dangerous driving can be left with injuries amounting to a life sentence, whilst the perpetrators can walk free in as little as six months.
By Karl Turner MP
The current maximum sentence for dangerous driving is woefully inadequate and does not give judges enough discretion to give a sentence that reflects the severity of the crime. Victims of dangerous driving can be left with horrendous injuries. Some have been left brain damaged, paralysed or with serious amputations. However as long as the victim does not actually die the maximum sentence that can be given is only two years. The judge is then required to reduce this sentence by a third if the defendant pleads guilty at the first opportunity. The driver is often left with a sentence of six months while the victim is punished for life.
The case of my constituent Katie Harper is a perfect example of how the law can monumentally fail the victims of dangerous driving. Katie, 23, was left with life-changing injuries after being hit by a dangerous driver. She suffered multiple breaks to her pelvis, two broken arms, facial damage and nerve damage to her right leg, which means that she is unlikely to ever walk properly again. Her mother was also permanently injured. Katie's father was forced to give up his job at a local primary school to care for them. The driver was never sentenced. However the Harpers would likely have found little solace if he had been sentenced under the current rules. The driver would be likely to receive a 16-month sentence and be released after six months. This is not an isolated case.
The most high-profile case is that of Cerys Edwards. Cerys was only 11 months old when she was hit by a driver travelling at 70mph in a 30mph zone. The driver lost control of his mother's Range Rover while overtaking hitting Cerys and leaving her severely paralysed, brain damaged and reliant on a ventilator to breathe. The dangerous driver was released from prison after just six months but Cerys will have to live with the consequences of his actions for the rest of her life. There are hundreds of victims like Katie Harper and Cerys Edwards who are demanding that we toughen up dangerous driving laws.
I am not alone in thinking that these sentences make a mockery of our judicial system. I have received support from a number of organisations including the government's Victims commissioner, Brake, RAC and The AA. When introducing my bill I received cross party sponsorship with support coming from Members of four different parties.
Even senior members of the judiciary frequently speak out about the inadequacy of a two year maximum sentence. Judge Dyson commented, "This is one of those cases of dangerous driving that actually highlights just how inadequate the maximum penalty is." The law is so unbalanced at the moment that Judge Person was moved to state in the Telegraph that judges would rather give heavier sentences but their hands are tied by the current statute. In September last year Judge Everett wrote to the David Cameron expressing his frustration at the soft sentences Judges were forced into handing down.
An anomaly has developed in our dangerous driving laws. The system has become unbalanced. The maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving is 14 years. Providing the driver does not actually kill the victim the maximum sentence is merely two years. Imagine a scenario in which two young men have decided to have a race. They speed through crowded streets, overtake each other in the face of oncoming traffic and tear over roundabouts. As they navigate a corner one crashes into a tree maiming innocent bystanders the other kills a cyclist. The one who leaves his victim paralysed for life will likely spend a few months in prison where as the one that killed receives 14 years. The outcomes could so easily have been reversed and the results equally tragic yet the current sentencing rules do not reflect this.
The anomaly is even more pronounced when looking at the offence of careless driving which carries a maximum of five years imprisonment. The act of careless driving is almost an accident. It is the failure to indicate or taking your eyes from the road. Although the results are just as tragic surely the blameworthiness is different. Dangerous driving is turning a car into a lethal weapon and there is clearly a higher level of intent.
I was encouraged by the positive response I received from David Cameron at prime ministers questions but there is still plenty to do. I would urge all readers to contact their local MP to ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1969 and vote for my private member's bill.
The law is unbalanced and needs amending. These small sentences come nowhere near reflecting the severity of the crime. The victims and their families are left feeling short changed and let down by the justice system. The changes I have proposed in my private member's bill will require a small change to the law which will have a big impact on justice.
Karl Turner has been Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East since 2010.
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