'My daughter was dead and all the legal system had done was slap a wrist.'
Roger Barry tells how he was denied justice
Wednesday 16 August 1995
When the case came to court seven months later, the driver was charged only with the minor offence of careless driving and pleaded guilty. My wife and I were shocked and horrified that she was not facing at least a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, which would have reflected the events and their tragic consequences. But worse was to come.
Fining the driver just pounds 250 and eight penalty points, the magistrate made it clear that the death of my daughter could not be taken into account under the charge that had been brought. He had at his disposal under that paltry charge a fine of pounds 2,500 and the power to suspend the driver for an indefinite period. Yet he chose a penalty at the lowest end of the scale.
And that was it. My daughter was dead and all the legal system had done was slap a wrist. I had no right of appeal against the charge or sentence; only the guilty have that privilege. I could not tell how my happy, healthy child had had a miserable death after suffering for three days, as I was represented by the state and so had no right to address the court; only the guilty have that privilege. But I did learn from the driver's lawyer, during his long argument in mitigation, of her "bravery" in continuing to drive soon after the crash and how full of remorse she was. However, she has never apologised for what she did.
The whole process was a sham. The law did not, and to this day has not, censured anyone for killing my child. It found the driver guilty only of bad driving, and has never said she was culpable for what followed on from that. In effect, it has attached greater importance to the smashing of two cars than to my daughter's life.
The charge of careless driving was also an insult. In what other sphere of life would the killing of someone be put down to mere carelessness or be treated in such a dismissive manner?
Sadly, I have since learnt our case was not unusual. RoadPeace, a charity that campaigns for safer roads and supports road crash victims, has a dossier of similar complaints. Courts in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland routinely bring manslaughter charges against drivers who kill. In Britain, such drivers are seldom charged with the death.
In passing his ridiculously lenient sentence, the magistrate said the "court was bound to look at the driving itself rather than the consequences of the driving which may, of course, be disproportionate to the driving error".
However, this does not apply elsewhere. The penalties imposed on drink- drivers are heavy, even when the drivers are not involved in a crash, because the courts anticipate the consequences of the drivers' action. So why can it not take into account the consequences when someone is killed by other forms of dangerous driving?
The police hid behind the letter of the law in not prosecuting the driver with causing death by dangerous driving. Before my car was hit I had been driving at about 35mph, which I considered a safe speed for the narrow, wet and winding road. The speed of the car that crashed into us was calculated by the police as just within the 60mph national speed limit. Because of this, the driver was considered to have been driving without due care and attention but not dangerously.
However, the speed limit determines the maximum speed for a road, not the safe speed. The limit on motorways - where traffic moves within clearly marked lanes with the protection of safety barriers - is 70mph. It was nonsense for the police to condone a driver travelling just 15mph slower down a wet, twisting country lane, where cars were passing each other with less than 3ft to spare. Failure to prosecute for the more serious offence was tantamount to encouraging dangerous driving.
Above all, the issue of the death itself not being addressed by the law is the one families of road crash victims find hardest to bear. To lose someone through a sudden, violent death is hard enough to cope with; to see those responsible getting away with nothing more than a mild rebuke arouses feelings of deep anger and a sense of betrayal.
It is this aspect of the law that most needs changing. There are no simple solutions, but Andrew Miller MP (Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston) is promoting a change in the law that would introduce a charge of "motor manslaughter". According to RoadPeace, only about 5 per cent of deaths on the road involve a prosecution that addresses the fatality. Motorists who kill are mostly charged only with careless driving. The "motor manslaughter" charge, which would override existing laws, would force the law to recognise death on the road and those responsible would face the full consequences of their actions.
As our lives and roads grow busier, there is a tendency to chip away at the rules. Many of us drive a few miles over the speed limit, reluctantly give way at pedestrian crossings, overtake cyclists in the face of oncoming traffic, use mobile phones while driving ... the list is endless. But unless the law holds a driver wholly responsible and accountable for anything that occurs while in control of a car, truck or motorcycle, then attitudes will not change.
It is no good merely saying accidents will happen. Each year more than 300,000 people are killed or injured in crashes on Britain's roads. There are nearly 50,000 serious injuries and about 4,000 deaths, all but a few preventable. Bad driving has become commonplace.
Government efforts to educate road users, like the Speed Kills campaign, have to be enforced through sentences that compel motorists to take their responsibilities seriously and change their bad habits. The courts have altered our perception of drink-driving by introducing stiff penalties, and they should be applauded for this. But magistrates must remember that five out of six deaths on the road are caused by sober drivers.
The law, as it stands, is a shambles. Before the case I was involved in was heard, the magistrate justifiably imposed a pounds 200 fine on a man who had sped through a non-residential part of town in the early hours one Sunday morning.
The crash last year left our daughter dead and the lives of my wife and I in tatters. The court thought it appropriate to fine the driver just pounds 50 more than the man mentioned above. What is worse, she was never charged with her true offence. And that, surely, is not justice.
RoadPeace can be contacted on 0181 964 1021.
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