Q I read recently of a motorist falling asleep at the wheel and being convicted of dangerous driving. I thought that dangerous driving was for really bad driving, like racing and being reckless about endangering life. I thought that the motorist in question might be convicted of careless driving, but not dangerous driving. Was this right?
A The motorist in question nodded off at the wheel and crashed her car after switching over from Radio 4 to Classic FM. She collided with a road sign after her Vauxhall Corsa veered across the A595 at Mealsgate in Cumbria. She was charged with dangerous driving at Carlisle Crown Court, who were told that the motorist had completed a five-hour walk around Derwent Water in the Lake District before heading home.
After the crash she called 999 to report it, telling the operator that she had ìswerved across the roadî and hit a sign after falling asleep. Her car was a write-off, but no other vehicles were involved. The driver admitted that she had struggled to stay awake that day ìsince she woke upî. After her walk, she had eaten some food before starting her journey. She said she had put the windows down and put Radio 4 on. She realised she was tired and thought this would allow her to concentrate and keep her alert while driving. But having decided against stopping for a coffee and having joined the A595, she put up the windows and made what the prosecutor called the ìmistakeî of switching to Classic FM. She told police that she knows Classic FM is the type of music that would send her to sleep. She fell asleep for ìone to two secondsî, before being jolted awake by a ì30mphî impact.
The motorist admitted a dangerous driving charge, and was sentenced to 80 hoursí unpaid work. She was also banned from driving for a year, and ordered to take an extended test. Was she right to admit to dangerous driving? This is not a crime that is reserved by the desperados you describe in your question, so letís compare dangerous with careless driving.
To be guilty of careless driving, a court would have to conclude that your driving fell below what would be expected of a careful and competent driver. Dangerous driving is established if your driving fell far below what would be expected of that careful and competent driver. The distinction between driving that falls below the expected standard and far below that standard is clearly dependent on the circumstances of the case, but the courts have decided in various cases over the years that dangerous driving can include not only serious cases of racing on the roads and aggressive driving, but also what might be thought of as lesser degrees of culpability, such as talking to and looking at a passenger where the driver was avoidably and dangerously distracted by that, and where the driver has some impairment or disability, such as an arm or leg in plaster or impaired eyesight, or driving a vehicle that has a dangerous defect.
These instances of dangerous driving do not have to be continuous; they can be temporary, so driving while blinded by the sun could amount to dangerous driving, depending on how far you travelled while not being able to see properly, how busy the road was, and so on.
By analogy, falling asleep while driving would come into a similar category. Whether or not the driving was dangerous does not concern the intentions of the motorist, but whether viewed objectively the nature of the driving would be considered dangerous. There was little doubt in the Judgeís mind when passing sentencing in the Cumbria case, when he told the defendant ìYou could so easily have crossed the road into the path of oncoming cars, and the consequences could have been horrendous ñ not just for you personally, but for any occupants of the car that collided with you.î
The law expects you to stop and rest if you start to feel sleepy and the fact that the motorist in the recent case did not do so warranted the dangerous driving conviction.
Designed by solicitors, tested by barristers and available around the clock, Road Traffic Representation is an online legal system that allows people accused of a motoring offence to get free advice on how the law will be applied in their case, and referral to a telephone helpline and representation by a barrister in court if required. Practising solicitor Martin Langan spent two years designing the system and creating the data repository which allows the software to analyse road traffic offences with the same authority as a solicitor.