Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Road Traffic Offences: Fatal Collisions

Peter Dowd Excerpts
Monday 15th November 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 323926 and 575620, relating to road traffic offences for fatal collisions.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. E-petition 323926, started by Louise Smyth and Helen Wood, with the title “Tougher sentences for hit and run drivers who cause death”, opened on 20 July 2020 and closed on 20 January 2021, and received 104,324 signatures. It states:

“The maximum penalty for failure to stop after an incident is points and a 6-month custodial sentence. Causing death by careless/dangerous driving is between 5-14 yrs. The sentence for failing to stop after a fatal collision must be increased.

Our sons, Matt aged 25 & Paul aged 23, were both killed on their motorbikes just 9 months apart. Both drivers fled the scene. We are not the only families to have suffered this tragedy or endure unjust sentencing. We at the Roads Injustice Project want the laws changed as we feel they are both outdated and unfair. Tougher sentences are needed for the life sentence we have to deal with every single day from the loss of our son’s due to the actions of somebody else.”

On 28 August 2020, the Ministry of Justice responded to the petition, saying:

“It is wholly irresponsible for drivers to fail to stop and report an incident. However, the offence of failing to stop should not be used to punish an offender for a serious, but not proven, offence.

We were very sorry to read of the deaths of Matt and Paul; our sympathies are with their families and friends.

Failure to stop and report offences are often referred to as ‘hit and run’ but this is not an accurate reflection of the offence. The offence is designed to deal with the behaviour relating to the failure to stop, not to provide an alternative route to punish an offender for a more serious, but not proven, offence.”

E-petition 575620, started by Leanne Saltern, with the title “Ryan’s Law: Widen definition of ‘death by dangerous driving’”, opened on 2 March 2021 and closed on 2 September 2021, and received 167,470 signatures. It said:

“The offence of causing ‘death by dangerous driving’ should be widened to include: failure to stop, call 999 and render aid on scene until further help arrives.

A hit & run driver left my brother Ryan in the road & he died. Hiding for 36 hours, charged with failure to stop, the driver received a suspended sentence/fine. Failure to stop/careless driving offers lighter custodial sentences & focuses on fines/suspensions. Drivers should STOP, ring 999 & render AID until help arrives. If they do not they should face charges for death by dangerous driving. The Law should require this & aim to reduce the number of hit & runs & roadside deaths. With this definition, a minimum 10 years-max life sentence, citizens would be better protected.”

On 24 March 2021, the Department for Transport provided a response identical to that given by the Ministry of Justice, apart from this sentence:

“Ministers are aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Ryan Saltern and extend their sympathy to family and friends.”

The DFT added:

“The Government takes this issue seriously. The Department for Transport is looking into the issue of such incidents of failure to stop resulting in death or serious injury, and exploring whether there are further options that can be pursued.”

It is no surprise that those in favour of a change in the law say that there is a perverse incentive for a driver who is under the influence of drink or drugs to leave the scene of a traffic collision, thereby avoiding a drink and drugs test by the police. If they hand themselves in to the police later, they cannot be tested because of the time that has elapsed and are likely to avoid a more serious offence or penalty.

I met the petitioners virtually last week and listened to their heartbreaking stories, which reduced me to tears. I cannot image the pain they have gone through and are still going through. They have come to Parliament today. I met them again this afternoon and they are in the Public Gallery this evening. I cannot pretend to understand the depth of their grief, but I commend their courage and tenacity in wanting something good to come out of their grief.

On 29 August 2018, 25-year-old Matt Smyth left his girlfriend’s house at about 3 am. He was heading home on his motorbike on the A1307 when he was hit by a delivery van that pulled out of a side junction into his path. The driver stopped briefly at the scene but then drove off, leaving Matt lying in the road. A passing HGV driver found Matt about 25 minutes later. The driver who had collided with Matt came to a stop a few miles up the road and telephoned his employer. He told his company that he had hit a deer and his van was damaged, so it could not be driven. The company arranged for him to be sent a new van and he continued on his delivery round before going home to bed.

The police caught up with the driver, Mr Ricardas Taraska, later that day when he was still asleep in his bed. Mr Taraska was charged with causing death by careless driving and failing to stop after a collision. The prosecutor said that it was inconceivable that the driver did not realise that he had hit a motorcycle, because Matt was thrown on to the van’s bonnet and the driver had to manoeuvre around Matt’s body and motorcycle.

Mr Taraska was sentenced to 14 months, of which he served only five months, and he was disqualified from driving for 31 months. The judge said that it was a “grossly irresponsible act” not to stop, and that driving around Mr Smyth’s body and the wreckage of a motorcycle was inexcusable. On the morning that Matt was killed, he had been due to attend his first midwife’s appointment as a father-to-be. Matt never lived to see his daughter, who is now two and a half years old. Matt’s father was also tragically killed in similar circumstances 18 years ago while he was driving his motorcycle.

Matt’s best friend, Paul, was 23 years of age when he was killed nine months later. Paul left for work on 24 May 2019 at 6.45 am on his daily motorbike drive to work. He was hit by a Range Rover that pulled out in front of him. The driver, Mr Cooksey, got out of his vehicle and lit a cigarette. A witness at the scene spoke to Mr Cooksey and noticed the smell of alcohol on his breath, but he ran away and hid behind some trees before walking to Cambridge train station. There, he got into a taxi to go to a pub in Romford, where he lived. He drank eight pints of lager before handing himself in to the local police station that evening, and he could not be breathalysed because he was intoxicated. Paul was pronounced dead at the scene.

Mr Cooksey had been disqualified from driving the previous month, and had previous convictions for drink driving and driving while disqualified. He admitted drinking heavily the evening before until about midnight and said that he was driving his car at about 5 am, but that could not be proved because he had left the scene, and he continued to drink until he handed himself in to the police. The judge said that the driver was “devious and untrustworthy”, with

“a bad record for driving offences that have resulted in disqualification and even prison sentences”,

and:

“No sentence…will ever reflect the loss of a human life”.

Mr Cooksey admitted failing to stop at the scene of the collision and was found guilty of causing death by careless driving, causing death while disqualified from driving and causing death while driving uninsured. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment—he will serve half, or less—and banned from driving for four and a half years. Paul’s family told me that they have not been the same since he was killed. His family are living a life sentence, but the criminals on our roads are not punished in accordance with their crimes.

Our loved ones need to be recognised as human beings, not wing mirrors or bits of metal damaged in a road traffic collision. The hit and run, or leaving the scene, sentencing guidelines were put in place many years ago. They need updating to encourage drivers who have caused a collision to stay and get the help needed for the victim, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of victims on our roads every year.

Ryan Saltern, a postman, husband, and father of young children, was killed in the early hours of 28 July 2019 while walking along the single-track B3267 to a party. He was hit by a driver who did not stop. Ryan’s body was dragged beneath the car and he died of catastrophic injuries. The driver made no attempt to stop, and Ryan was subsequently left in the road to be discovered by the next passing vehicle. The forensic investigation proved it was the failure to stop that caused the injuries relating to Ryan’s death.

The driver, Mr Wayne Shilling, was identified some 36 hours later after being reported to the police by his own father. A blood test proved negative for alcohol because of the time that had elapsed, and it was too late to conduct a toxicology test. Mr Shilling admitted to failing to stop and failing to report an accident while he was driving home from a carnival, at which witnesses said he had been drinking. Mr Shilling told the police that he felt a slight bang and did not realise that he had hit anyone, but the collision was found to have punctured his car’s radiator.

Mr Shilling received a sentence of four months—suspended for 12 months—and he was disqualified from driving for 12 months, given an evening curfew for four months and ordered to pay a £207 victim surcharge and prosecution costs. Ryan’s family believe that the law protects not the victim of crime, but the criminal, and that it is a total injustice to Ryan. Although Mr Shilling chose not to answer questions leading up to and at the trial, he admitted at the coroner’s inquest to drinking four cans of alcohol before hitting Ryan. He has never displayed any remorse whatsoever to Ryan’s family, and he taunts them.

Ryan’s family believe that when a driver hits a person, they should stop, ring for help and remain on the scene, rendering aid when possible, appropriate, and necessary, and as instructed by emergency services. When a driver does not to do this, they should be considered a dangerous driver and a minimum sentence should be set, ultimately encouraging drivers to stop after a collision. Stopping at the scene will help to save lives and identify those who have genuine accidents, as opposed to those who leave the scene to protect themselves. There are many more cases like Ryan’s, with drivers escaping justice by not stopping at the scene.

I also met virtually with Alison Hernandez, who is the police and crime commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and the road safety lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. Alison launched a strategy in 2018 to create the safest roads in the UK. A 2020 APCC road survey received 66,266 responses from across England and Wales, and 81% of respondents believed that road offences required more enforcement.

This is not the first time that these life and death issues have been debated in Parliament. On 8 July 2019, the former Member for Warrington North introduced a debate on e-petition 236952, “Violet-Grace’s Law – Life sentences for Death by Dangerous Driving”, in memory of four-year-old Violet, who was tragically killed when a stolen car was driven at 83 mph in a 30 mph zone. Violet’s nan was with her and suffered life-changing injuries. The driver and his passenger did not attempt to help Violet and her nan; they fled from the scene. There is evidence that they had to step over the bodies of Violet and her nan, lying in the road, when they got out of the stolen car. The driver not only fled the scene, but fled the country and went to Amsterdam. When he eventually returned, he and his passenger were sentenced but served less time in prison than Violet was alive. For people to have confidence in the law, it has to protect the innocent, punish the guilty and deter further offences. However, families believe they have not had justice with the imposition of unduly lenient sentences.

The offence of causing death by dangerous driving was not introduced until the Road Traffic Act 1999, but even then there were widespread complaints that the Crown Prosecution Service often charged people with the lesser offence of careless driving, because it was felt that doing so was more likely to lead to a conviction. In 2003, the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving was increased from 10 to 14 years. The Road Safety Act 2006 introduced the offence of causing death by careless driving, and of causing death by driving while unlicensed, disqualified, or uninsured. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 introduced the offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, which is punishable with a sentence of up to five years. The Criminal Courts Act 2015 introduced the offence of causing serious injury by driving while disqualified, which is punishable by four years’ imprisonment and a fine.

In October 2017, following a consultation in which 70% of respondents thought that the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving should be increased from 14 years to life imprisonment, the Government announced that they would do so when parliamentary time allowed. A one-clause Bill would have had widespread support across the House and from the public, but the Government failed to find any parliamentary time. Nearly three years later, on Tuesday 21 July 2020, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), introduced a Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act 1988 to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to life imprisonment, and for connected purposes. She said that

“dangerous driving is an all too familiar phrase”

that does not reflect

“the tragedy and devastation of lives that lies behind it.”

She told the House about her constituents, saying that

“19-year-old…Bryony Hollands died at the hands of a dangerous driver—a driver under the influence of drink and drugs. He was sentenced to eight years and served just four years in jail…Ciara Lee’s husband Eddy was killed on the M4. The driver responsible was sentenced to just 22 months”.—[Official Report, 21 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 2039.]

She also spoke of 13-year-old Max Simmonds, who was hit and killed by a driver who was under the influence of drugs. The Bill was short, specific, and targeted. It would have allowed judges to retain the discretion to decide the appropriate length of sentence, as well as providing greater scope and enabling more severe sentences. It would have done the Government’s work for them.

The latest statistics provided by the House of Commons Library show that the current law does not cope with these offences. In 2020, there were 2,467 prosecutions and 1,889 convictions for failing to stop or report a road traffic accident; the most common sentence was an average fine of £289. A small number of people received custodial sentences, the average being 3.6 months. In 2020, there were 184 prosecutions and 154 convictions for causing death by dangerous driving; the most common sentence was immediate custody, with an average sentence of four years and seven months.

In September 2020, the Government produced a White Paper. Clauses 65 and 66 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill propose increasing the maximum penalties for causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs, and for causing death by dangerous driving, from 14 years’ to life imprisonment, and they create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. That Bill is currently going through Parliament.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) moved new clause 20 in the House of Commons on 5 July 2021. It proposed a maximum sentence of 14 years where a driver fails to stop and exchange details or to report the accident to the police in cases where they knew or ought reasonably to have known that a serious or fatal injury had occurred or might have occurred. The then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice said that

“more work needs to be done to identify that class of driver who manipulates the system and evades responsibility in a way that clearly outrages the community and offends the wider public.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 675.]

On 8 November, at Committee stage in the House of Lords, the right hon. Lord Paddick moved amendment 161, which had wording very similar to that of new clause 20. Lord Paddick stated that six months may be appropriate when someone drives off after scraping the paintwork of someone’s parked car, but not when someone is left dead by the roadside.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab)
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My 31-year-old daughter, Jennie, was hit by a car just over 100 yards from my house 13 months ago. The driver drove off, came back to look at the scene, and drove off again. My daughter died nine days later. The driver received a 12-month custodial sentence for careless driving but is now appealing that sentence, as it is, I think she believes, disproportionately hard. Does my hon. Friend agree that at the very least —the very least—sentencing guidelines need a full, thorough and substantial review, to assure families left bereft that justice is done?

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees
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I thank my hon. Friend—my dear friend—for his intervention. Sometimes words are not enough to express what you must be going through and what you have been through. I completely agree—completely agree.

Lord Paddick moved provisions including a new subsection of section 170 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, to cover hit-and-run collisions, and mentioned the petitions that we are debating this evening. He said that they highlight the inadequacy of the existing legislation. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb spoke in support, calling hit-and-runs a menace and saying that judges should have available a range of sentences to reflect the severity of the offence and that there should be a lifetime driving ban for a hit-and-run driver fleeing the scene—a cowardly thing—and trying to escape justice. As she said, it is a life-and-death situation for the person who has been hit.

Responding for the Government, Baroness Williams of Trafford gave the standard response that we have heard so many times this evening. She said that her

“ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport understand the concerns that have been raised”

and are “exploring options”, including

“the available penalties and how the offence operates as part of long-term and wider work on road safety.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2021; Vol. 815, c. 1557.]

It was on that basis that Lord Paddick withdrew his amendment.

The petitioners, and many more families who have lost loved ones in road traffic collisions, do not want any more warm words and empty rhetoric from the Government. They want the law to be changed. I have read a portfolio compiled by Leanne Saltern that features hundreds of families who have contacted her after losing a loved one in circumstances similar to those of the petitioners. It made me cry. No sentence will ever make up for the tragic loss of a loved one, and families have been constantly told that reform will be introduced when parliamentary time allows.

The time is now. Will the Minister urge his Government to change the law, as set out in the petitions, and will he meet the petitioners and other families in order to give them the opportunity to be heard? They must be heard.