Should dangerous drivers who cause death while using their mobile phones or speeding face a life sentence as is now the case in the United Kingdom?
The UK maximum sentence is the toughest in the world for at-fault drivers in distracted driving crashes. It is equivalent to the penalty for manslaughter. The previous maximum penalty was 14 years.
The debate about sentences for distracted drivers follows a recent Motorbike Writer article in which rider Mark Daniels lost a leg to a texting driver who was despite the driver being fined just $176 and received an eight-month suspended sentence.
Motorcycle riders are one of the most vulnerable groups on the road and likely to suffer most from distracted drivers talking or texting on their mobile phones
Texting drivers was the biggest complaint among MotorbikeWriter readers in an online poll conducted last year.
More than 900 votes were cast in the snap poll that found texting drivers were the top-scoring motorcyclist peeve with 11.7% of the vote.
AMC to discuss sentence
Australian Motorcycle Council chairman Shaun Lennard says they have not formally discussed sentences or penalties for at-fault drivers but it could be raised at the AMC annual conference on November 11.
“There’s often online chatter about sentences appearing to be low or light in crashes resulting in someone else’s death,” Shaun says.
Motorcycle Council of NSW treasurer Steve Pearce says they are concerned with the growing number of distractions inside vehicles such as touchscreen technology that even offers social media access wile driving.
However, he agrees that texting is the main source of accident risk through driver distraction.
“We support any deterrent to make drivers put down their phones, particularly texting, whilst in control of a vehicle,” he says.
“The first offence, where no one is injured or a fatality is involved, should be treated as a lapse of reason, a mistake perhaps.
“However the second offence needs to be approached more seriously, as a serious breach of road rules, such as a negligent driving charge.
“Where a fatality is involved, and when there is a history of this type of offence, then yes, a maximum life sentence is probably appropriate.”
Motorcycle Riders Association of WA Safety Officer Dave Wright agrees that repeat offenders should be receive tougher penalties.
“I think in extreme cases of repeat offences and with a driver having a total disregard for the safety of other road users, then the magistrate could be given the option of the maximum sentence of life,” he says.
“I would see this more as a deterrent to show that we are serious about stopping people driving whilst distracted for any reason.”
John Eacott of the Victorian Motorcycle Council says mandatory sentencing is a very political argument/discussion in Victoria.
“But the VMC will always support a sentencing regime that recognises a suitable punishment for a driver, rider or cyclist who cause the death of any other road user when that death has been proven to be the result of their negligence,” John says.
Ulysses Club vice president Peter Baulch says a problem with mandatory or minimum sentencing is that the legal fraternity will always find away around the mandate.
“The minimum is 10 years for one punch (coward’s punch). Every case that has come before the Courts in Victoria since that legislation was introduced has been downgraded to manslaughter, thereby avoiding the 10-year minimum sentence,” he says.
“This is because the Department of Justice does not agree with mandatory or minimum sentencing as they believe it is a case of politicians removing the Judge’s right to exercise discretion.”
Liberal Democrats Senator and avid rider David Leyonhjelm casts doubt on harsher terms for distracted drivers.
“What will we do with murderers? Hang draw and quarter them?” he asks. “Then bring them back to life and execute them again. Otherwise they will be under-punished.”
South Australian support
Tim Kelly of South Australia’s Ride to Review says they would definitely support harsher penalties for distracted drivers who kill other road users.
“For distracted drivers that kill, life is fair,” he says.
“They’ve made a conscious decision to remove their focus away from operating the vehicle and as a result, someone is now dead.
“Sadly, we currently live in a society where the perpetrator is treated better than the victim.”
Fellow South Australian safety campaigner and motorcycle crash widow Judith Kuerschner says the problem is that police are “too lazy to charge drivers with being distracted”.
“The attitude of many of the constabulary is against riders to begin with, so I very much doubt these types of penalties would ever be used,” she says.
The American Motorcyclist Association supports increasing penalties for distracted and inattentive motorists “because roadway users such as motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians pay a disproportionately higher price for motor vehicle operator distraction and inattention”.