Defending our clients in dangerous driving cases
There is a specific offence of dangerous driving, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 2 years. If that driving is a cause of someone’s death, that maximum sentence unsurprisingly increases to one of 14 years. A more recent offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving was created in 2012 and carries a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison.
In each case there are minimum disqualification periods and very lengthy actual disqualifications which involve the passing of a mandatory re-test before a driver can return to the road. Insurance premiums which will remain significant for many years to come, with some drivers unable to secure insurance at all, at any price.
What is dangerous driving?
Dangerous driving is defined by section 2A Road Traffic Act 1988:
“…a person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if (and, subject to subsection (2) below, only if)—
(a) the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and
(b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.”
There is also a further element of dangerous driving related to unsafe vehicles, although this is not within the scope of this article.
The test is an ‘objective one’ which means that it is not to be judged through the eyes of the actual driver but the eyes of a ‘competent and careful driver’. As a result it, in any trial, it will be for a magistrate, District Judge or jury to decide on guilt.
The crucial part of the test is that the driving falls ‘far below’ the standard expected. It is this aspect of the offence that, on occasion, makes advising in these cases such a highly skilled task.
In some cases it will be immediately obvious that the driving falls ‘far below’ the standard of a competent and careful driver. For example, if a person is driving at 100 mph on the wrong carriageway of the motorway at night without lights, then there is no room for debate.
But some case are more difficult. What if, believing that you have sufficient sight of the road ahead, you overtake only to hit an oncoming vehicle in the opposite lane. Would that fall into the category of driving ‘far below’ the standard, or it is simply an unfortunate error of judgement, and one that could perhaps be properly categorised as careless rather than dangerous driving?
No statutory definition exists of driving falling ‘far below’
There is no statutory definition of what is meant by ‘far below.’ Section 2A(3) of the 1988 Act states that “dangerous” must refer to the danger of personal injury or serious damage to property.
Case law also makes it clear that the driver’s particular skill or lack of is not relevant as set out in Bannister  EWCA Crim 1571.
A full exploration of the circumstances of the alleged offence will be required in borderline cases. The Crown Prosecution Service regards the following as being examples of dangerous driving:
- racing or competitive driving;
- failing to have proper and safe regard for vulnerable road users such as cyclists, motorcyclists, horse riders, the elderly and pedestrians or when in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing, hospital, school or residential home;
- speed, which is particularly inappropriate for the prevailing road or traffic conditions;
- aggressive driving, such as sudden lane changes, cutting into a line of vehicles or driving much too close to the vehicle in front;
- disregard of traffic lights and other road signs, which, on an objective analysis, would appear to be deliberate;
- disregard of warnings from fellow passengers;
- overtaking which could not have been carried out safely;
- driving when knowingly suffering from a medical or physical condition that significantly and dangerously impairs the offender’s driving skills such as having an arm or leg in plaster, or impaired eyesight. It can include the failure to take prescribed medication;
- driving when knowingly deprived of adequate sleep or rest;
- driving a vehicle knowing it has a dangerous defect or is poorly maintained or is dangerously loaded;
- using a hand-held mobile phone or other hand-held electronic equipment whether as a phone or to compose or read text messages when the driver was avoidably and dangerously distracted by that use (R v Browning (2001) EWCA Crim 1831, R v Payne  EWCA Crim 157);
- driving whilst avoidably and dangerously distracted such as whilst reading a newspaper/map, talking to and looking at a passenger, selecting and lighting a cigarette or by adjusting the controls of electronic equipment such as a radio, hands-free mobile phone or satellite navigation equipment;
- a brief but obvious danger arising from a seriously dangerous manoeuvre. This covers situations where a driver has made a mistake or an error of judgement that was so substantial that it caused the driving to be dangerous even for only a short time. Cases that illustrate this principle include where an offender failed to stop at a junction where there was a give way sign, failing to see a taxi that was being driven across the junction perfectly properly and colliding with it; offender unintentionally pressed the accelerator instead of the brake; offender drove across a junction marked by a give way sign and collided with a car that was being driven along the major road and had no explanation for his failure to see the other car.
It should be stressed, however, that ultimately it will be a matter for the court to decide.
Cases of dangerous driving less than clear cut
Some of the examples in the above list may seem surprising, for example where a person unintentionally pressed the accelerator instead of the brake. It is worth repeating that much will depend on what actually happened. Argument may well be possible around concepts such as ‘…even for only a short time…’
Similarly, argument can be raised about when a breach of a legal duty in ‘…failing to have proper and safe regard…’ strays over the line from being careless driving to an incident of dangerous driving?
A lawyer will need to try and dilute the very real risk of judging everything from the perspective of hindsight and the outcome of the driving.
Legal strategies to defend dangerous driving cases
In stressful situations, particularly where serious harm has been caused, there is an instinctive reaction to think that the driving error must also have been very serious.
Standing back, as lawyers, we know that the truth is that on occasion even the slightest error can result in very serious consequences. It is therefore vital that if you are to be interviewed by the police following an accident that you secure legal representation at the outset.
All of our legal advice and assistance at a police station or any other place will be free of charge to you as a suspect regardless of your financial means. You can read more about the help we can give here. The scheme also operates if you are not under arrest but being spoken to on a voluntary basis. This does not mean that the police are treating the allegation any less seriously and more information can be found here.
Accident investigation and reconstruction is now an important consideration in many cases. This allows scientists and engineers to see exactly the cause(s) of an accident and the magnitude of error, often exposing the culpability of others. Such reports can be expensive, but help will be available if you are eligible for either Magistrates or Crown Court legal aid.
Eye-witness testimony is not always reliable and is also often tainted by the result of the driving as opposed to the driving itself. This will need to be exposed through expert cross examination of the witnesses in court.
In some cases there may still be some room for manoeuvre and a plea to the lesser offence of careless driving may be appropriate.
How we can assist you if you face dangerous driving allegations
Whether an act of driving amounts to dangerous driving is often not easy to ascertain. Our experienced lawyers routinely deal with all manner of driving cases, from the minor to the most serious.
Whether facing imprisonment or not, the loss of a driving licence is for many people an incredibly serious penalty in itself. We will take all steps possible on your behalf to avoid that happening.
We have six offices across the East Midlands and provide advice and provide nationwide advice and representation. Find your nearest office here. Alternatively use the contact form below.