For many in this country, driving is a rite of passage for all adults and is of vital importance as a tool for independence. This is particularly pronounced outside of the cities, given the lack of regular local buses in many parts of the country. Many require the use of a car to get to work or take children to school and it is understandable that people find it difficult to lose the independence that driving gives them. My father recently had to give up his driving licence due to the progression of his Alzheimer's disease and he has found the loss of liberty deeply unsettling.
As so many rely so heavily on the use of a car, perhaps driving should be treated as a right rather than a privilege, to be included alongside the right to life and freedom from torture in the Human Rights Act (or Theresa May's preferred British Bill of Rights). Most motorists drive responsibly, and treating driving as a right is not normally an issue. The problems arise with how we treat drivers who show a complete lack of regard for other road users. If the dangerous are permitted to drive then that affects the safety of us all.
Last July, James Gilbey was run down on a pedestrian crossing by Majid Malik and Kaiz Mahmood as they raced their cars at twice the speed limit. The drivers were given eight-year jail terms for death by dangerous driving (with parole after 4 years). Major Richard Gilbey, the father of James, has asked why those who kill with a vehicle are treated so leniently. "Why does it have to be death by dangerous driving? If I was to shoot someone, the charge wouldn’t be death by dangerous use of a gun, it would be manslaughter, or worse."
Others questioning the penalties given to motorists are the family of Lee Martin, a cyclist who was killed by Christopher Gard last August. Gard was this week convicted of driving whilst texting and was sentenced to nine years in prison. It was not the first time the driver had been caught driving whilst using his phone. It was the ninth.
The family expressed great disappointment at the leniency of the court in dealing with the driver's prior offences, saying:
"Had the legal system and the magistrates treated the defendant’s previous persistent offences seriously then our family would have been saved this horrible outcome…The law needs to be changed, and sentencing for these offences needs to changed, to help prevent it happening to someone else’s family."
In spite of the extensive convictions for driving offences, and having been found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving, the killers of James Gilbey and Lee Martin were not banned from driving for life. Gard was banned from driving for 14.5 years and Malik and Mahmood could be driving again in 10 years.
Dennis Putz is one of a tiny number of drivers who have received a lifetime ban. He killed 39 year old cyclist Catriona Patel in June 2009 whilst driving a lorry whilst over the drink drive limit and talking on a mobile phone. Putz already had three convictions for drink driving and three for reckless driving as well as twenty convictions for driving while disqualified. Despite the flagrant disregard for other road users he was still permitted to drive an HGV around central London. It was only after the death of Catriona Patel that Putz was given a lifetime driving ban.
It seems that driving is treated by the law as a virtually inalienable right, and motorists are permitted to use the road despite being dangerous on any reasonable measure. Whilst this is allowed to continue, vulnerable road users will keep paying the price for the right of the dangerous to drive. The message to the victims and families of those maimed and killed by dangerous drivers is that travelling in safety is a qualified privilege which comes second to the right to drive.