Careless driving - pay attention or pay the penalty!

18th June 2012 Driving Offences

Road Safety Minister Mike Penning has recently announced new proposals that will target careless drivers.

Under the proposals put forward for a consultation, which is due to run until the 5th September, the Police would be granted powers entitling them to issue a fixed penalty of £90 and 3 points for minor careless driving offences. They would also have the option to offer educational training, similar to the training that is currently being offered to people accused of speeding, as an alternative to penalty points.

Is this a measure to increase road safety or the dwindling coffers of HM Treasury? Only time will tell.

1. What is the legal definition of careless driving?

The legal definition is simple - 'driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road or other public place without due care or attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road or place.

2. What does 'without due care and attention or reasonable consideration' mean?

Driving without due care and attention - 'If (and only if) the persons' driving falls below what would be expected of a careful and competent driver'.

Driving without reasonable consideration - 'only if those other persons are inconvenienced by his driving'

The court would apply this test objectively i.e. not 'would I have driven in that manner'' but 'would a careful and competent driver have driven in that manner'

3. What driving actions could be considered careless?

Passengers, car radios, eating, smoking, drinking are all commonplace distractions that can divert a driver's attention away from the road.

If you are eating whilst driving or changing the radio station are you driving carelessly? Common sense would suggest that as long as you are in full control of your vehicle whilst doing so and you are not being a nuisance to any other road user, it cannot really be said that you are driving carelessly.

There are more obvious examples of careless driving such as driving into the back of the car in front of you or changing lanes without looking and causing an accident.

4. How will the police determine whether or not they should offer a fixed penalty?

That's a very good question!

By its very nature a fixed penalty notice is normally issued on the spot. A large number of careless driving allegations arise as a result of an accident. Most probably, the motorists involved will have differing accounts in terms of who is at fault for the accident. Under these circumstances one would think that a fixed penalty would not be offered as it would be inappropriate to do so. In effect, if a fixed penalty was offered the officer would be acting as both judge and jury by deciding which of the parties involved was at fault.

It is not uncommon for one party to be prosecuted for careless driving and it later transpires that the other party was wholly at fault. In criminal proceedings this is frequently brought to light via some clever probing by a skilful advocate!

Unless you carry a miniature motoring lawyer in your pocket or have a law library in your car boot, it would be very difficult indeed to argue your case and challenge the issuing of a fixed penalty at the roadside.

Would personal injury or property damage be a determining factor when deciding whether to issue a fixed penalty? If the injury or property damage is relatively minor is there any need to go to court when the officer effectively would have the power to determine who was at fault and the injured party can be reasonably compensated by the other party's motor insurer?

What about undesirable driving manoeuvres, which are neither careless nor cause any inconvenience to any other road user? Take undertaking for example. The Highway Code advises against it and suggests it is permissible in very limited circumstances such as slow moving traffic. There is no legislation that outlaws undertaking manoeuvres as the section of the Highway Code dealing with this particular issue is advisory only.

However, most traffic officers are likely to take exception to someone undertaking on a motorway, which in my opinion will lead to a large number of fixed penalties being issued. How many of these will be contested I wonder?

5. What are the options available if a person receives a fixed penalty notice?

Anyone that disputes the allegation would still be entitled to challenge the matter in court. In theory, it seems as though these proposals are a good idea. For the Police, it would reduce the amount of administrative enforcement processes they currently have to undertake saving valuable man hours that could be used to tackle more serious crime. For the motorist, it would remove the threat of having to appear in court.

However, in practice it could result in many innocent people receiving fines and penalty points for an offence they did not commit? Why?

For some, this may be a quick and easy way of resolving the issue without the risk of receiving a more severe court-imposed sanction. Those people that are risk averse would most likely make this choice even if they had done nothing wrong.

6. Conclusion

There seems to be a misconception that, because the fixed penalty system works for speeding allegations, it will work for careless driving allegations. There is a problem in that there is a fundamental difference between the two; human input! One requires less than the other. The majority of fixed penalty notices that are handed out to motorists for speeding arise as a result of an offence detected by a fixed speed camera or other speed detection device that requires very little human input. Although a speed measuring device is not infallible, there is no emotion or the risk of an error of judgment!

The only way these measures can work effectively is if proper guidelines are issued, which set out the circumstances under which a person can be given a fixed penalty. If police officers are given a carte blanche opportunity to perform what is essentially a quasi - judicial function, innocent motorists may suffer!

If you face an allegation of careless driving and require assistance, contact one of our expert motoring offence solicitors for free, untimed initial advice on 0800 814 8159 or click here to read more about our careless driving defence services.

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Hojol Uddin is a Partner and Head of Motoring Department located in Manchesterin our Driving Offences department

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