Road safety campaigners have welcomed a decision to introduce life sentences for killer drivers as a “major victory”.
Motorists who cause fatal accidents while speeding, racing or using a mobile phone behind the wheel currently face a maximum sentence of 14 years. But the penalty is set to be increased after a public consultation showed “substantial backing” for the UK government’s plan.
It follows the Drive For Justice campaign – launched by Johnston Press papers across the country including The Scotsman – which revealed that drivers who kill have been sentenced to an average of just five years in prison, with many escaping jail altogether and no one has been handed the maximum 14-year sentence since Parliament lengthened the sentence from ten years in 2004.
Life sentences will also be introduced for drink and drug drivers if they are convicted of careless driving which results in someone’s death. Ministers also plan to create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving.
Jason Wakeford, director of campaigns for Brake, the road safety charity, said: “This announcement is a major victory for the families of victims and charities, including Brake, who have tirelessly campaigned for punishments which better fit road crimes that kill and seriously injure people.
“We applaud the government for at last recognising that the statute books have been weighed against thousands of families who have had their lives torn apart through the actions of drivers who have flagrantly broken the law.”
While Scotland has its own legal system, driving offences are still reserved to Westminster.
Over the period 2006 and 2016 there were 297 convictions for death by dangerous driving in Scotland, with 41 of these in 2015-16 alone.
Recent road casualty figures also showed 191 people were killed on Scotland’s roads in 2016 – an increase of 14 per cent from the previous year.
Scotland Officer minister Lord Duncan said: “Dangerous and careless driving remains a real problem in Scotland. Over the past five years alone there have been 166 convictions for causing death by dangerous driving.
“That is why the UK government is introducing these tougher sentences which will address these senseless crimes that devastate far too many families each year.”
The Drive for Justice investigation found no one had been handed the maximum 14-year sentence for death by dangerous driving since parliament lengthened the sentence from ten years in 2004.
Ministers say the tougher penalties will be part of wider action to clamp down on dangerous and criminal behaviour on our roads.
Comment: Dominic Raab
In a split second, someone’s life can be changed forever.
It could be when they are picking their kids up from school, when making their way home from a night out, or, as it did for Miriam Parker, when walking across the road at a pedestrian crossing.
Miriam, a teenager, was hit by a driver who jumped a red light in 2014.
She spent a month in intensive care, underwent five major operations and had to re-learn to walk, talk and eat. The driver received a fine and a driving ban. This is just one example of how in a split second an irresponsible driver can cause carnage to a completely innocent person’s life.
It’s an example too of how our justice system has fallen short in providing for punishments that fit the crime.
Likewise, drivers who bring death and destruction on to our roads because they are speeding, drunk or high on drugs should face the full force of the law.
But too often, victims and their families are left feeling justice has not been done.
Too often, they watch as the defendant who was behind the wheel gets only a handful of months or years in prison or leaves the court with just a fine or a driving ban.
I have heard this anguish from victims first-hand.
That’s why last year, we put forward our proposals in a consultation to increase the powers judges have to hand down tougher sentences in these cases.
The fact that there has been such an overwhelming response – including from victims, bereaved families, road safety groups and charities – shows just how important this issue is to so many.
Today, following that consultation, we are announcing our plans, including two key changes to the law. First, we will bring in tougher penalties for the very worst cases.
An offender who kills someone as a result of driving dangerously or carelessly while under the influence of drink or drugs will face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Second, we will create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. This will allow judges to hand down much tougher penalties in cases like Miriam’s.
Nobody who has inflicted such horrific and life-changing injuries from behind the wheel should only face a fine or a driving ban.
Dominic Raab is UK justice minister