What constitutes “dangerous” driving?
Causing death by dangerous driving is the most serious driving offence contained within the Road Traffic Act 1988 (“RTA”), carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment (and/or a fine). Under section 1 RTA, as we have outlined elsewhere, to be found guilty of this offence the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant “cause[d] the death of another by driving a mechanically propelled vehicle dangerously on a road or other public place.” This article will focus on the definition of “dangerous” in this context.
It should be noted from the outset that dangerous driving (ie. without causing death) is an offence in itself, which carries a maximum sentence in the Crown Court of 2 years imprisonment (and/or a fine).
How is ‘dangerous’ defined?
The test for dangerous driving is set out in s2A RTA 1988. A defendant will be found guilty of dangerous driving if:
(a) the way he drives falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver;
(b) it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous.
It is important to note that the court is not concerned with the defendant’s own state of mind at the time of the offence: the relevant questions to ask relate to what a competent and careful driver would have thought and/or done at the relevant time. This is always a question for the jury to answer (where available).
Even though the jury ultimately decide whether the driving was dangerous, the court must pay attention to the following (non-exhaustive) legal principles:
- The driving skills of an individual defendant are irrelevant when considering whether the driving is dangerous. The defendant’s driving should be assessed against the same standard, regardless of whether the defendant is a learner driver or a traffic officer who has recently completed an advanced driving course.
- A breach of the Highway Code does not automatically make an individual’s driving dangerous. However, the fact that the Code was breached may be considered of evidential value when the jury are considering whether the driving was dangerous.
- Driving cannot be considered dangerous on the basis of speed alone, unless some other circumstances surrounding the act of speeding are relevant. This issue was covered in more detail in one of our previous articles (click here).
- If a driver is himself in a ‘dangerous state’ when he is driving, this has evidential value but cannot be the sole basis of conviction. If a driver is adversely affected by alcohol or drugs, he may only be convicted of dangerous driving (or causing death by dangerous driving) if his driving is dangerous within the test set out above. The fact that a defendant was affected by alcohol/drugs when he was driving is circumstantial evidence which can be used to suggest that the standard of driving was poor, but is not determinative of guilt by itself: such a defendant may be driving impeccably, notwithstanding his inebriation.
- Generally speaking, anything the driver does when driving which distracts his attention from the road can amount to dangerous driving. Even everyday activities such as selecting and lighting a cigarette, or setting a satellite navigation system, could attract a charge, according to the CPS. Whilst it would be possible in some cases to defend such a charge by arguing that the driver was not distracted to the point of the driving being dangerous, it should be emphasised that the Court of Appeal has recently confirmed that there is never any excuse for using a hand-held phone or texting whilst driving.
Dangerous State of Vehicle
It is important to note that it is possible to convict a defendant for dangerous driving if the vehicle was being driven in a dangerous state, but only if “it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving a vehicle in its current state was dangerous”. For the avoidance of doubt, this variant of the offence may be committed where any attachment or load, or the way in which it is attached or carried, would make driving it obviously dangerous in the eyes of a competent and careful driver. This provision is, therefore, as relevant to HGV drivers and farmers as it is to car drivers who take large loads of rubbish to the tip, transport large goods, or tow caravans, for example.
Relationship with Careless Driving
It should also be noted that a defendant may be convicted for the less serious offences of careless or inconsiderate driving (or of causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving) in cases where the driving cannot be properly labelled as ‘dangerous’. A driver is ‘careless’ for the purposes of the RTA if the driving “falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver”, and is ‘inconsiderate’ if other drivers are inconvenienced by the defendant’s driving.
Note the contrast with the standard of driving required for the driving to be labelled as dangerous: it must “fall far below” for dangerous driving, and need only “fall below” for careless driving.
Even if a defendant is convicted of an offence involving dangerous driving, the right legal advice and representation can be very effective in minimising the sentence imposed by the court. In the case of R v H, Mr H pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and was facing either a High Level Community Order or even time in prison. However, with the expertise and experience of a Road Law Barrister on his side, he received an Absolute Discharge, which is the most lenient sentence possible in law.
If you have been accused of a road traffic offence, please call us now for your free consultation: with our help and advice, you could avoid a conviction.
The contents of this article should not be relied upon in isolation. Each case is fact specific and this article should not be treated as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.
 s1 RTA 1988
 s2 RTA 1988
 R v Loukes  1 Cr App R 444
 Note that the s1 offence is triable in the Crown Court only, whereas the ‘basic’ dangerous driving offence under s2 can be tried in either the Crown Court or the Magistrates Court.
 R v Bannister  RTR 28
 R v Taylor  EWCA Crim 213
 R v McBride  2 QB 167
 A-G’s Ref (No. 17 of 2009)  RTR 1
 s3 RTA 1988
 s2B RTA 1988
 s3ZA(2) RTA 1988
 s3ZA(4) RTA 1988
 See https://www.roadlawbarristers.co.uk/about-us/case-studies/