Lord Ahmed, the Labour peer serving 12 weeks for dangerous driving, will now be freed, after the Court of Appeal suspended his sentence. Ahmed was texting as he drove down the M1 on Christmas Day 2007, minutes before being involved in a fatal crash. The crash wasn't Ahmed's fault; it appears to have been a pure accident, entirely unrelated to the texting.
Of course, if the texting had been the actual cause of the crash, he could have been charged with one of two crimes: causing death by dangerous driving, or causing death by careless driving.
The latter offence is a relatively new one, introduced by the Road Safety Act 2006. Before the 2006 Act, the only "death by" motoring offence was death by dangerous driving. This led to problems when the defendant's driving was just careless, rather than dangerous. People whose loved ones died in those sorts of accidents felt that their loss wasn't recognised at all by the criminal justice system, which is why "death by careless" has now been introduced.
Much as I feel for people who lose family and friends in car accidents, I can't see a principled legal reason behind either of the "death by" offences. The crimes that they're based on (straightforward dangerous driving and careless driving) are so-called conduct crimes: that means that you don't have to do any actual damage to be guilty of them. Lord Ahmed's case is a good example - his texting didn't cause any harm, but he was guilty of driving dangerously all the same.
A crime like murder, on the other hand, is a result crime: to be guilty, you have to bring about a particular result, ie. someone's death.
The two "death by" driving offences are neither: they take a pure conduct crime like dangerous driving, and then tack a piece of result crime onto the end of it, which is a hopeless mishmash.
I would argue that it's wrong, in principle, to jail someone for bringing about a particular result unless they have some element of mental guilt related to that result. In other words, to be convicted of a crime that includes the words "causing death", you must either intend someone to die, or you must deliberately run the risk of someone dying.
We need to look at the reason why a person is culpable. If they're culpable simply because of the poor standard of their driving, then we should consider their level of car control, and nothing else. If they're culpable because of the result that they brought about, we need to look for intention or recklessness as to that result.
It's technically possible to charge four-wheeled killers with manslaughter - a proper result crime with a proper element of mental fault - but it only happens rarely. That's because juries are reluctant to convict bad drivers of such a serious-sounding crime, even if they're guilty on paper. The CPS almost invariably prefer to use the specific driving offences.
I've come to feel that there are two main reasons behind the "death by" offences: making it easier to convict people, and making the families of victims feel better. The first strikes me as downright unacceptable; the second, whilst it's important, is surely no excuse to cut corners with our principles. I'm sure this will go down like a lead balloon with car crash families, but I'd cheerfully abolish the two "death by" offences.
Just as an aside: why are we giving jail sentences to dangerous drivers, anyway? I wouldn't be scared to meet Lord Ahmed outside a pub on a Saturday night; what's the sense in locking him away at the taxpayer's expense? Surely a long-term driving ban, coupled with some community service (perhaps in a hospital A&E department) would be far more appropriate!