What are the legal implications for careless driving?

What are the legal implications for careless driving?

BCL’s Daniel Jackson discusses the law regarding careless driving and the recent Court of Appeal judgment in Jones v Crown Prosecution Service & Anor [2019] EWHC 2826 (Admin).

The definition of careless, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is ‘not taking or showing enough care and attention’. The Collins Dictionary adds a little more to the definition, which helps us to appreciate how this might be applied in the context of driving and ultimately road traffic collisions: ‘If you are careless, you do not pay enough attention to what you are doing, and so you make mistakes, or cause harm or damage.’ It is, therefore, no real surprise that s.3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (‘RTA 1988’) refers to the offence of careless driving as when a person drives ‘without due care and attention’.

The legal test for careless driving is whether the way the person drives ‘falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver’ (s.3ZA RTA 1988). You might be thinking that this sounds like an ‘objective’ test, well, it is, because regard shall be had not only to the circumstances of which the driver could have been expected to be aware (objective) but also to any circumstances shown to have been within his knowledge. The surrounding ‘circumstances’ are all important. As well as competent and careful, you will have heard words such as reasonable and prudent, when describing the driver possessing the requisite standard of competence.

So, are we more concerned with the condition of the driver or the manner of driving, or both? In Jones v Crown Prosecution Service & Anor [2019] EWHC 2826 (Admin), one of the two case stated questions was: Can an offence of careless driving be established based upon the physical condition of a person when driving? The case concerned the appellant who was originally convicted of a number of driving offences, including dangerous driving, before the magistrates’ court, and then committed to the crown court for sentence. The appellant appealed against conviction and was acquitted of dangerous driving, but convicted of careless driving, as well as the other original driving offences.

In relation to the offence of careless driving, according to the case stated, the crown court found that it ‘could not be sure that the accident was caused solely as a result of the driving of the defendant’. Reference was made to the defendant’s evidence that he was attacked (supported by CCTV) outside the venue of the wake following a funeral that he had attended. As a result of the attack, he suffered injuries to his head and a loss of consciousness. Shortly after, the defendant got into a car and drove off, with blood pouring down his face as he was driving. The defendant was found to be driving carelessly, as the court concluded that the ‘reasonably prudent’ driver would not have driven in such circumstances and such physical condition.

Counsel for the appellant submitted, in my view correctly, that it is necessary for the prosecution to show that the driving fell below that of a competent and careful driver, not simply that a competent and careful driver would not have driven, highlighting the importance of the ‘way’ in which a person drives. The Court of Appeal’s judgment cited the appellant’s reliance on the case of R v Webster [2006] EWCA Crim 415, a case concerning dangerous driving, where it was held that the condition of the driver was ‘relevant and admissible evidence’ but did not determine whether the way in which the defendant drove was, in this particular case, dangerous. The Court of Appeal in Webster held that in order to prove the offence of dangerous driving, it was not sufficient to simply rely on the ‘condition’ of the driver. Unlike the standard applied to careless driving, the test for dangerous driving is where the way person drives falls ‘far below’ what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.

It is worthy of note that when it comes to dangerous driving, a person is also to be regarded as driving dangerously, if it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving the vehicle in its current state would be dangerous (s.2A(2) RTA 1988). Clearly referring to the ‘defective state’ of the vehicle, not the driver.

One now asks, well what about a driver who has consumed a large amount of alcohol or drugs? In R v Woodward [1995] 2 Cr.App.R. 388, the Court of Appeal held that evidence that the defendant had consumed alcohol before driving was admissible in respect of the issue as to whether the defendant was guilty of dangerous driving. It was evident from the conclusions in Webster that the statutory definition (of dangerous driving), when it comes to the prosecution proving the offence, is not ‘limited to the danger occasioned by the condition of the driver’.

In the recent case of Jones v Crown Prosecution Service & Anor, Mr Justice Lane emphasised that the definition of both driving offences (careless and dangerous driving) refers to the ‘way’ or ‘manner’ of driving. Mr Justice Lane adapted the conclusion that the Court of Appeal came to in Webster, but in respect of careless driving, when he stated: ‘It is not sufficient merely to rely on the condition of the driver in order to prove the offence of careless driving or of causing death by careless driving. The condition of the driver is relevant and admissible. But it does not determine whether the way in which the defendant drove was careless.’ The Court of Appeal interpreted the related case stated question as asking whether the offence of careless driving can be established based solely upon the physical condition of a person when driving, and the court held that the answer to that question was ‘no’.

Those contesting offences of careless driving should also remember that whether the manner of driving is careless is a question of fact rather than law. Further, the failure of a driver to adhere to the Highway Code is not in itself an offence, although many of the rules are legal requirements, and if a driver contravenes the rules, they may commit an offence. A lack of compliance with the Highway Code could, together with the circumstances of the particular case, lead to the determination that the standard of driving fell below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver, therefore creating liability under s.3 RTA 1988.

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Daniel Jackson is a solicitor at BCL specialising in serious and general criminal litigation. He has considerable experience of acting for individuals being investigated and prosecuted for sexual, dishonesty, violence, drugs and road traffic offences. He defends professional clients facing high-profile and complex criminal matters.