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Non-fatal collisions. New offences in force from six points to potential imprisonment

On 28 June 2022 a new offence with a maximum two year sentence comes into force: “Causing Serious Injury by Careless Driving”.

Imagine you (or one of the drivers you employ or insure) are driving on your usual morning route. You come to a junction. You are not driving quickly or aggressively. You look both ways, and think it is safe to pull out, and so you do so. However, it turns out it was not in fact safe for you to pull out, and you collide with another vehicle. Maybe you misjudged the speed of the approaching cars — maybe there was a motorbike that you did not see — maybe you thought the car indicating left was going to turn left into your sideroad. The person you hit suffers injuries as a result — a few broken bones, but nothing life-threatening or life-changing.

Under the current law as it has stood for some time, you would be charged with “Careless Driving” - an offence that would usually result in six penalty points and a fine (discretionary disqualification is possible, but rare). A driver following such a ‘minor’ collision would not be arrested. The case would have to be charged within six months from the date of the collision, would be heard in the local Magistrates’ Court, and would usually be resolved within the year. Often you would not need to attend court, and could enter your plea, and any mitigation, by post.

However, provisions of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 due to come into force on 28 June 2022 will significantly change the legal landscape around what many will still perceive as a relatively minor collision.    

On 28 June 2022 (as previously announced) a new offence comes into force: “Causing Serious Injury by Careless Driving” — an offence that carries a maximum punishment of two years imprisonment. The case might well be heard in the Crown Court, rather than the Magistrates’ Court. There would be no limit on how long after the event the charges could be brought, and, once in the Crown Court system, it could potentially take years to resolve.

This is a huge change that all drivers need to be aware of, as well as operators and insurers of commercial fleets.

In brief:

  • careless driving is any driving which falls below the standards of a careful and competent driver — even a momentary lapse of concentration is enough
  • any collision causing injuries of “broken or displaced limbs or bones”, or anything more serious, could be caught within the ambit of “Serious injury
  • the new offence of “Causing Serious Injury by Careless Driving” carries up to two years imprisonment
  • cases could now be heard in the Crown Court – leading to substantially increased timeframes and legal costs
  • the maximum sentence for the more serious offences of “Causing Death by Dangerous Driving” and “Causing Death by Careless Driving under the Influence of Drink or Drugs” will also increase from 14 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment (in reality, this is likely to only affect a very small number of the most serious cases)
  • the new changes will apply to any collision taking place on or after 28 June 2022.

It is currently unclear exactly how the new “Causing Serious Injury by Careless Driving” cases will be sentenced in practice. The Sentencing Council (which publishes sentencing guideless to assist with certainly and consistency) notably did not previously publish guidelines for the (similar, but more serious) offence of “Causing Serious Injury by Dangerous Driving” – leading to considerable problems in such cases. Until the Sentencing Council produces any such guidelines, it will be difficult to reassure anybody who is involved in what could be a relatively minor accident, causing no more than a few broken ribs, that they will not face the real risk of a custodial sentence. 

How should those operating a commercial fleet react to this change?

  • educate your drivers about this new offence
  • ensure you have provision in place to allow drivers access to legal advice at the roadside immediately following a collision
  • where any collision occurs in which the other person receives medical attention, proceed on the assumption that the driver is being treated as a suspect for a potentially-imprisonable offence and act accordingly
  • consider what technical and organisational measures you could put in place to assist drivers, in order to prevent such accidents in the first place. For example, could you make changes to driver hours and breaks (beyond the minimum legal requirements)? Should you ban the use of hands-free phones whilst driving? Should you offer increased driver training and retraining? Do you need to review the way you monitor compliance with your procedures and how you follow up on infringements?
  • review the business’s procedures for how it would respond in the event of a collision involving injury. How would you deal with any media interest? Should you instruct lawyers to carry out an internal investigation protected by legal privilege?
  • if you hold an operator’s licence, ensure you have a robust policy in place for reporting relevant convictions to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner. If you are a PSV operator, your reporting obligations also include serious injuries, which must be notified to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).

We are continuously advising commercial fleet clients around the ever-changing landscape of an increase in new offences, and tougher sentences. The introduction of this new offence will have an impact to all drivers, as well as those who employ drivers.

Should you wish to discuss any aspect of the new offence or wider commercial fleet risks, please contact our specialist transport regulatory lawyers.