Saturday, 27 July 2013

Justice must sent the correct message, or there is no deterrence value.

Over the last day or so, I've been chatting with friends over a recent court case, which followed a horrendous road traffic collision between a motorist and a pedal cyclist in Berkshire last year, in which the cyclist was killed.

In the final analysis, all vehicle drivers on the roads - private and professional alike - are required to meet certain standards during both theoretical and practical driving tests, before they may be issued a licence to drive a road-going vehicle on their own: This is called competency. It exists whether you drive to earn a living, or drive merely to get to work, or to the shops.

Such competency must continue to exist, and be exercised when behind the wheel of a road-going vehicle, from that point onwards, for the rest of the time you retain your driving licence.

Over the years, the government, police, motoring organisations, and even the popular media, have made a point to emphasise that you should not be messing with anything, be it a map, drink, cigarette, cheeseburger, or electronic device (hand held or otherwise), that takes your attention away from the road when you are behind the wheel. I think it's fair to say that this message has been acknowledged by most sensible people, and is therefore one of the foundation stones of driving competency, and thus a cornerstone of careful driving. As professional drivers, I and my colleagues on the buses and coaches, and those in the haulage and goods vehicle industry, as well as Taxi and Private Hire businesses, are more aware of this than most amateur road users, because we see the results of all manner of driving on the roads, both competent and not so competent.

My friends - and a few others over the internet - have made comments as to whether or not Mrs McClure, who was found guilty of the collision at trial, should be jailed at all; comments to the effect "but she's a woman", "The jails are so full", and "It's only a motoring offence, fine her", were amongst some of what I feel are somewhat misguided comments.

Let us not forget that a human being lost their life in an entirely preventable road traffic collision, which was the direct fault of another persons entirely reckless act. There is no reason for taking your eyes off the road whilst your vehicle is in motion, for more than is needed to scan your dials (speed, fuel, engine temperature), or glance at the mirrors. A vehicle is akin to a guided bullet: It's heavy, it's moving at speed, it's steered by a human, and when it hits another human, there's no contest: Flesh and bone will lose, every time. Thus, when you get behind the wheel, the lives of others around you are, quite literally, in your hands. Any road-going vehicle must therefore be actively controlled with competence by its driver at all times.

Now, the law regarding the offence of Careless Driving is quite clear, and the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on this are equally clear; to quote:

The offence of driving without due care and attention (careless driving) under section 3 of the RTA 1988 is committed when the defendants driving falls below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver - section 3ZA(2) of the RTA 1988.

The maximum penalty is a level 5 fine. The court must also either endorse the drivers licence with between 3 and 9 penalty points (unless there are "special reasons" not to do so), or impose disqualification for a fixed period and/or until a driving test has been passed.


Most serious of course, is Causing Death By Dangerous Driving:

The offence of causing death by dangerous driving is committed under section 1 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (RTA 1988) when the suspects driving is a cause or factor in the death of another person and the driving was dangerous. By "dangerous" we mean within the meaning of section 2A of the RTA 1988 i.e. the standard of driving falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
The examples given in relation to dangerous driving also apply to this offence. See examples listed under the Dangerous Driving section.

It is an offence triable only on indictment and carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment, by virtue of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and/or an unlimited fine.

The court must disqualify the driver from driving for at least 2 years, unless special reasons are found for not disqualifying (in which case it must endorse the drivers licence with 3-11 penalty points, again, unless there are special reasons not to do so). An extended retest is also mandatory.


In both offences, note the phrase describing competency of the driver: "it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous."

A specific example of dangerous driving in the examples they make reference to, includes this entry:

  • 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

These two items are the key items that must be proven in both offences; it follows that if a death occurs from such appalling driving, a charge under s1 RTA'88 should be levelled. This was done, and the case has now been heard at a jury trial in front of a very experienced judge, with the jury unanimously deciding that she was guilty of causing the death of a person, as a direct result of her dangerous driving.

It's up to Circuit Court Judge, His Honour Nicolas Wood, to decide her fate now. There will be pleas of mitigation, especially if she has kids of school age; there will be the victim impact statement to be made by Mr Hilson's widow and family, court reports on Mrs. McClure, to amongst other things, determine her physical and mental state, and so on, but at the end of the day, the entire process, and sentence, has to stand for something and have meaning - and deterrence value - to others.

But it's a statement by a cycling organisation, the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC) that's got me amazed. You would think that they'd be baying for blood over the death of a cyclist at the hands of a motorist, but not so in this case. Here's their sound-bite on the case:

"McClure will now almost certainly face a custodial sentence.  However, we think it much more important that she faces a long driving ban. Only then can we be confident that drivers like her won’t kill again.”
- Rhia Weston, Road safety campaigner, CTC.

Their full report on the case and it's verdict, is on their website, here:

I very much doubt that Mr Hilson's family would agree with that remarkably lenient sentiment at this trying time.

While Mrs. McClure has yet to be formally sentenced by the Judge, and has been handed an interim driving ban until that time, I'm rather concerned about the opinion expressed by CTC on sentencing in cases like this.

Over the last few years, it's become overwhelmingly apparent that long-term driving bans are being overturned, on appeal, with disappointing regularity - you just need to look over the news to see another example, practically every month, somewhere across the country. Granted, most of those do not involve collisions causing injuries or deaths, but the reason and principle of a long-term driving ban is being weakened all the time.

And thus we come to the sentence of jail; jail time has a couple of main intentions:

Firstly, it provides punishment (of a form) by placing severe restrictions on the freedom and liberty of the guilty, and allows society the chance to assist the guilty in reforming the way they behave (if, of course, such retraining and/or counselling is actually available inside prisons; can you say "funding cuts in a recession"?).

Secondly, it provides a limited form of closure (the "they got what was coming to them" effect) for the relatives of those killed by the actions of the guilty.

So, by all means, Your Honour, give Mrs. McClure a lengthy driving ban, and require her to have to retake an extended retest driving examination, before her licence can be restored to her. But please, back it up with some jail time, if for only one simple reason: A Human Life was taken. By failing to jail those who cause the reckless death of another human we, as a society, send a mixed message, along the lines of "what you did was bang out of order, but it really only warrants a slap on the wrist".

And that's just plain wrong, any way you shake it.

Update, 1st September, 2013.

I don't know if His Honour Nicolas Wood, the Circuit Court Judge in this case, read this blog or not (probably not, on a split seconds' thought into the matter), but I think he got it right. You can read the BBC report here.

In sentencing Victoria McClure, he awarded her a two-and-a-half year driving ban, which requires that she sit an extended test to re-acquire a licence after the ban is completed, and jailed her for eighteen months. She'll be out in nine months or so, which is normal for sentences with a duration of under 36 months (three years).

The longer term consequences of her conviction will be there for her, for the next ten years, care of the Rehabilitation Of Offenders Act 1974. Amongst the conditions imposed on her, at her release from prison, will be:
  • First and foremost, she'll be assigned a Probation Officer, who she will be required to meet with at set appointments for a specific period, to oversee her release and reintegration to life on the outside of prison, and to assist her in preventing her from offending again - frankly, I suspect that this shouldn't be a problem for a few years yet.
  • She'll have to disclose this conviction to any prospective employer for those ten years.
  • Although not required by the Act, many countries restrict who may visit their countries: The USA has strict rules regarding former convicted persons; other countries have similar rules that they impose on visitors, and she'll be required to disclose it to many of those countries that are outside the EU, if she wishes to visit those countries on holiday, once her complete 18-month sentence has been served.
  • She'll be flagged up on any jobs requiring a Criminal Record Background check, via the Disclosure and Barring Service (which replaced the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) in 2012).
  • Further, her car insurance, when she's legally able to drive again, will be hiked up massively due to her conviction, which may even render it prohibitively expensive for her to drive again.

There is another reason for this sentence: For justice to work, it has to be publicly seen to work. And thus, in this case, it has. I just hope that other motorists get wind of this, and stop the potentially lethal habit of mucking about with their electronic devices when behind the wheel.

I suppose there's about as much chance of this happening rapidly as there are chances of my winning the Euro Lottery in the next ten minutes, but one lives in hope.