Law change targets killer phone drivers

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A new offence of causing death by careless driving - catching motorists who kill while on their mobile phones - should be created to plug a loophole in the law, the Government proposed today.

A new offence of causing death by careless driving - catching motorists who kill while on their mobile phones - should be created to plug a loophole in the law, the Government proposed today.

The Home Office said the new offence should carry up to five years' imprisonment. Currently anyone who kills on the road and is charged with careless driving can only be handed a fine.

Ministers also proposed another new offence of death resulting from illegal driving - meaning while disqualified or unlicensed - which would also carry a five-year sentence.

At the same time a consultation paper said some less serious motoring offences such as driving while disqualified should be dealt with by greater use of non-custodial sentences.

Handing offenders a sentence of electronic tagging or community work may be more effective punishment than prison, the paper said.

The new offences of bad driving could create demand for an additional 800 prison places at any one time, officials said, although greater use of community punishments for lesser offences was expected to balance the figures.

In other proposals announced today the courts will have to take serious injuries into account when sentencing motorists.

Home Office minister Baroness Scotland said: "We have put forward some pretty radical proposals to create a tougher legal framework to deal with bad driving.

"Although the maximum 14 year sentence is available for dangerous drivers who kill, the courts have only been able to hand a fine to careless drivers who kill.

"Various campaign groups have lobbied hard about the big gap between these sentences.

"We thought it was absolutely right to seek to respond to that."

Baroness Scotland said: "We want to be able to drill down and look at the pattern of offending behaviour that has caused these offences and fashion the punishments more accurately to that behaviour.

"These reforms will allow serious offenders to be sent to prison while the lower level offenders can be dealt with more appropriately with penalties more likely to recognise the level of their offending."

She added: "If you were chatting away on your mobile and not looking where you're going, or eating a sandwich at the time, and you kill somebody it is very hard for the person whose family member is dead to be told that you were just being careless and thoughtless."

The minister said the Government wanted to "change the culture" of bad driving offences in the same way that attitudes towards drinking and driving have altered in recent decades.

Today's consultation paper also asked whether uninsured drivers should face the same penalties proposed for disqualified and unlicensed motorists, including up to five years in jail.

It also looked at using restorative justice schemes for some motoring offences as part of the sentencing process.

Another offence should be replaced with a modern alternative because it was a "relic from a bygone era", said the paper.

The offence of "wanton and furious driving" dating from 1861 originally applied to driving non motorised vehicles and only applies on private land.

However, it is still used with proceedings begun in 55 cases in England and Wales in 2003, leading to 12 convictions including eight offenders who were sent to prison.

Today's consultation paper said it should be replaced with "suitable modern provisions".

The documents said ministers had rejected the idea of creating a single offence of "bad driving" and the idea of a third bad driving offence to sit between dangerous and careless driving.

The consultation period ends on 6 May and legislation will follow later.

About 3,500 people are killed on Britain's roads every year - about 10 a day - with more than 30,000 injured.

RoSPA head of road safety Kevin Clinton said: "We very much welcome this consultation as we have been expressing concern for many years that people who drive in a clearly dangerous and irresponsible manner and kill someone have been treated too leniently by the courts.

"RoSPA is very pleased to see proposals to introduce new offences to deal with this type of behaviour and hopes this process will include better guidance to the prosecuting authorities to ensure that appropriate charges are levelled at offenders."

He added: "We feel that one of the reasons why offenders have been treated unduly leniently is that lesser charges have often been used because it is easier to secure a conviction rather than charges which reflect the seriousness of the offence.

"We also want to see this process include measures to promote retraining and to change the behaviour of offenders on the roads.

"It is also crucial that there is a high-profile police presence on our roads so that offenders are aware they are likely to be caught rather than assuming they will 'get away with it'.

"Today's proposals send a clear message to those callous and irresponsible drivers, who completely disregard everyone else's safety, that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated."

Founder of road traffic victim charity RoadPeace, Brigitte Chaudhry, said: "RoadPeace has been calling for many years for an end to using minor traffic charges in response to culpable road deaths and injuries.

"But our long wait for action will require that the laws that will finally replace the inappropriate summary charges bring justice and serve as a deterrent.

"We hope will be the outcome of the Government's present consultation on road traffic offences involving bad driving."