I am infuriated, pretty well every time I am on the roads, when I see other drivers using their portable telephones while driving. The problem, of course, is that we now have a generation which is convinced it must spend every waking moment glued to its clever electronic devices. Time was when sane men and women looked on being away from home or the office as a blessed relief from the telephone. But people have changed: they now think it vital to be in constant touch with their pals through the medium of the portable telephone. Pavements are packed with perfectly decent looking people staring at the screens of their portable telephones, and suddenly stopping when a fascinating text message arrives. And, yes, drivers, despite the obvious danger, put attention to portable telephones above attention to the road. This infatuation with the portable telephone is obviously horribly dangerous.
But does that mean our judges should send drivers to prison for life if their inattention, caused by use of portable telephones, leads to dreadful accidents in which innocent men, women and children are killed?
Chris Grayling, a rather pathetic seeker after populist policies in every ministerial post he holds (witness his strange belief when Justice Secretary that the public was deeply opposed to justice), has decided, now he is Transport Secretary, that life sentences should be available for drivers who cause death by dangerous driving if their bad driving was brought about by the use of portable telephones.
The offence of causing death by dangerous driving was introduced because juries were notoriously reluctant to convict drivers of manslaughter, an offence which has always carried a possible sentence of life imprisonment. The sensible reasoning was that it would be better to have a slightly lesser offence (which now carries a maximum sentence of fourteen years) so that juries would be prepared to convict in the knowledge that judges would not be able to impose vastly excessive sentences.
It remains open to prosecutors to charge the more serious offence of manslaughter in very bad cases. And that does, occasionally happen. But, on the whole, the view is taken that juries would be unlikely to convict seriously bad drivers on a charge which could lead to life imprisonment.
Mr Grayling, apparently wholly unaware of the reason for the introduction of the offence of causing death by dangerous driving, has announced that he intends to make people convicted of that offence liable to life imprisonment, just as if they had been convicted of manslaughter, if they are found to have been texting or talking on their telephones immediately before their accidents.
I entirely agree that the use of portable telephones while driving is dreadful. It horrifies me to discover that more than a quarter of drivers admit to the dangerous practice, though it doesn’t surprise me, because I see it every day. It certainly seems to me to be sensible to increase the fines and penalty points imposed on people found to have been breaking that law. If that is done it may be that this horrid new generation of drivers will grasp the fact that good driving is much more important than following every tiresomely trivial thing happening on their portable telephones. Stiff fines and the possibility of being disqualified from driving may well deter most offenders. But the idea that these, on the whole, decent people will be deterred from using their telephones because, should they cause someone’s death as a result of being distracted by a text message, they might be sentenced to life in prison rather than a few years in prison is just plain barmy.
Does Mr Grayling really think that people get into their cars and say to themselves: “I might as well use my portable telephone on this journey because, if it leads me to have a crash and kill someone, I will only go to prison for ten years but, obviously, if there were to be a risk of a life sentence, I wouldn’t dream of using my telephone”? What Mr Grayling, who is admittedly not very bright, can’t understand is that it simply never occurs to all those hundreds of thousands of drivers who are glued to their telephones that they are a danger to other road users. They don’t give a moment’s thought to the options open to judges when sentencing people for causing death by dangerous driving. They don’t believe they are driving dangerously and, of course, they are convinced they will not crash and kill other road users (or themselves – surely an even greater deterrent).
So, let us see where logic takes us. Higher fines and more penalty points for drivers caught using their portable telephones are likely to deter the dangerous practice. Life imprisonment for drivers whose use of portable telephones causes death will not deter anyone from using them. On the other hand, juries, unless they are now all tabloid devotees eager to see Mr Grayling as our next Prime Minister, are highly likely to refuse to convict drivers of causing death by dangerous driving because, being sensible men and women, they won’t want bad drivers to be locked up for life. That is especially so now that the alternative offence of causing death by careless driving is available.
Where does that leave us? Mr Grayling, no doubt, would say, once pushed into a corner, that it has nothing to do with deterrence. What is important, he would say, is that those whose serious negligence leads to the death of innocent people should be banged up for the rest of their lives. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, and let justice never be tempered by mercy in Britain. He probably reads all those heart-rending accounts of the near and dear of victims of bad driving declaring that a mere ten years in prison can never bring their loved ones back to life (I don’t imagine he reads anything other than tabloid newspapers). And, I suppose, he ignores completely the far more moving declarations (and, thank God, there are many of them) of those who, while hating the losses they have suffered, are prepared to forgive those who have caused them.
It seems to me that the case against Mr Grayling’s latest attempt to establish himself as the darling of “the people” is made out without recourse to sordid considerations of money. But I might as well hammer in the last nail. The cost of imprisoning people is eye-wateringly high. Adding many years to the terms of imprisonment served by very bad drivers, people who are highly unlikely to re-offend, will cost a fortune. Is it really in our interests to go along with yet another of Grayling’s efforts at being a populist?
Finally, “at last”, I hear you shout, I must just remind you that the law already allows for life imprisonment for really evil drivers. That sentence is available when drivers are convicted of manslaughter. There is simply no need (and every reason not to do it) to increase the sentences for causing death by dangerous driving.