A new law introducing prison terms for motorists who kill while using a mobile telephone at the wheel will come into force next week.
The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that the long-awaited new measures – designed to plug a hole in current legislation – will be brought in.
The new offence of causing death by careless driving will carry up to five years’ imprisonment.
It toughens the penalties for motorists who kill because they were ‘avoidably distracted’, which could include calling or texting on a mobile phone, drinking or eating, adjusting a satellite navigation system or car stereo, applying make-up or reading a map.
However, under guidance for judges published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council (SGC) last month, drivers convicted of the offence – even in the medium category of seriousness – could escape with a community sentence.
Another new offence will penalise uninsured, disqualified or unlicensed drivers who kill, carrying up to two years’ imprisonment.
The SGC said an offender convicted of causing death by careless driving should be given a community sentence if the offence involved ‘momentary inattention’.
Medium-level cases should be punished with a sentence ranging from a community order to two years’ imprisonment, and the most serious cases should always lead to jail, ranging from 36 weeks to three years, they added.
Under previous laws, the maximum punishment faced for similar crimes was a £5,000 fine and points on your licence.
The Ministry of Justice said it expected about 150 motorists a year to be jailed after being convicted of the ‘death by careless’ offence, and about five a year for the ‘uninsured’ offence.
Justice minister Maria Eagle said: ‘Drivers who kill through carelessness will no longer be able to walk away from court with just a fine. Neither should uninsured or unlicensed drivers who deliberately flout the law.
‘Driving requires full concentration at all times. A moment’s distraction can make the difference between life and death.’
The AA’s head of road safety Andrew Howard said: ‘Drivers need to remember that this does not just apply to ‘others’ – people they read about in the paper, who are careless – it could also apply to them.
‘While many will welcome killer drivers going to jail, we all have to remember that we are just one little slip of attention away from being there ourselves.
‘These new laws are the latest in the history of Britain’s attempt to handle the issue of people who kill other people while driving.
Many other systems have been welcomed, but not satisfied everyone. Only time will tell if we have got it right with this new law.’
Insurance company Direct Line called for an urgent review of penalties for uninsured drivers.
Maggie Game, head of car insurance at Direct Line, said: ‘With uninsured drivers costing British society around £500 million each year, the severity of penalties must act as a deterrent to those considering driving without insurance.
‘Uninsured drivers cause accidents which kill around 200 people each year and seriously injure hundreds more. The fact that the average penalty for driving uninsured is less than a quarter of the potential fine for not owning a TV licence is alarming.’
Road safety charity Brake last month described the SGC’s measures as ‘woefully lenient’.
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