Nobody could fail to be deeply moved by hearing, as I did on Radio 4 this morning, the relatives of victims killed by dangerous drivers speaking about how they felt the killers responsible should face charges of manslaughter rather than death by dangerous driving. The amazing charity, Roadpeace, has been calling for this for years and is now, due to recent events, at last getting somewhere with Prime Minister May indicating at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions that the Department of Justice are to review the laws relating to those who cause death by dangerous driving.
I welcome this of course. However what appears to me to be at least as important is that the killer of Lee Martin (the cyclist whose brother was on Radio 4) was a serial offender who had been caught on 8 previous occasions texting whilst driving. On the last such occasion just 6 weeks before he killed Lee Martin, Christopher Gard had pleaded with magistrates that he should be permitted to keep his licence to drive because otherwise he would suffer ‘special hardship’. It is a sad sad indictment of the way in which the criminal justice system operates in relation to such relatively low level offending that his plea succeeded.
This is the worst manifestation yet of the ‘no harm done’ mentality: he was permitted to continue to drive and therefore to kill.
Gard probably thought he was a safe driver, almost every driver does. Yes, he texted all the time as he drove but until he ran down Lee Martin no harm done and no really serious consequences to him. Equally with drivers who close pass cyclists and/or speed excessively (I attempted unsuccessfully once to prosecute one) no harm done so why any fuss?
I heard the piece on Radio 4 just after I had written a piece for the Telegraph about the Jeremy Vine incident. Jeremy said he reported the matter to the police because the woman involved would one day harm somebody. He is right. Behaviour such as that in his video and such as that exhibited by Gard leading to his previous attendances before magistrates needs to be checked BEFORE they kill. That is why, rightly or wrongly, I expended enormous time and energy in prosecuting a man who passed me at 50-60 mph in a 30 mph zone with a clearance of 0.7 metres. No harm done on that occasion but what about next time?
Were my life to be cut short by an offender who had transgressed before, my ghost would be haunting the people who failed to act upon the earlier minor transgressions when ‘no harm was done’ rather than those whose decisions led to nine rather than twelve years imprisonment when it was too late to save me.
I place prevention and deterrence well above retribution. I would prefer the high likelihood of relatively minor punishment (disqualification) over the remote chance of high punishment. It probably seemed to Gard very unlikely he would kill. No doubt he had been texting and driving for years without serious comeback. He would have been more likely to be deterred by meaningful punishment for minor infraction than the remote prospect of serious punishment if he killed.
This is why I believe the review should not just look at throwing the book at the worst offenders but also at making a serious effort to crack down on relatively low level offenders who have not yet killed but whose casual texting, close-passing, speeding etc. increases the risk that they will kill or seriously harm in the future. We have made some progress in recognising that drink drivers need to be taken off the road even if ‘no harm done’. Do let us extend this and take away the privilege of driving from those who are likely to harm. A review of the absurd system of pleading ‘special reasons’ to keep a licence to drive notwithstanding serial offending would be a useful start. In addition the equally absurd view adopted by many police forces that if there is no injury due to careless or dangerous driving then it is not in the public interest to prosecute must be jettisoned.
Stiffer sentencing for manslaughter / dangerous driving captures the public mood and politicians’ interest but let us not forget that the kid-glove treatment of relatively minor offending left Gard to kill Lee Martin in the first place.