Friday, 14 March 2008

When Will Cars Be Considered the Weapons They Are?

Driving through one English region recently I was struck by the range of sentences handed down for similar crimes. These were:

Wife attempting to murder her husband using anti-freeze leading him to be disabled but to survive: Attempted Murder - 30 years

Man punched and kicked a man to death in a fight: Manslaughter - 14 years

Woman killed a cyclist by running him over in her car while texting someone on her mobile phone: Death By Dangerous Driving - 4 years

On these grounds it is actually more risky in terms of a prison sentence not to kill someone with anti-freeze than it is to murder them with a car. While researching this posting I came across similar comments from the late 1990s about people getting light sentences for being convicted for the offence of Death By Dangerous Driving:

Ian Kitching points out that if this offence which carried a sentence of 6 months to 2 years in those days, though in theory it has been raised to 14 years so in line with Manslaughter (though I yet to hear of a case in which a dangerous driver gets 14 years and guidance to courts is generally 2-5 years). Kitching shows cases in which drivers who have killed one or more people were getting sentences as short as 6 months. You can get 5 years for Actual Bodily Harm and Greivous Bodily Harm sentences can be 5 years to life and in these cases the person attacked is still alive; in addition aggravation such as a racial motive adds typically 2 years to the sentence. So for beating up someone on racial grounds you could get 7 years in prison but if you ran them down with a car you could get away with 6 months to a maximum of 4 years it seems.

Why is it in the UK that the car is not considered to be a weapon? I think partly it stems from the people who are judges. In 2004 16% of judges were women; judges earn £96,500-£129,900 (€128,35-€172,235; US$194,930-U$261,590) which is four to six times the national average salary so they are all very rich people. Though I accept that there are aggressive female drivers the bulk of the aggression on the roads is caused by men. The number of incidents of drivers following others home to attack or berate them has increased sharply even in the past two years (this happened to me and is very frightening, the motives for why they are offended by you are usually obscure). Thus, I believe that judges who rarely walk around outside or find themselves fighting in pub car parks are more sympathetic to accused who harm people using a big car like they drive. They can easily see themselves mowing down some defenceless pedestrian or cyclist without noticing, so they are lenient on the people like themselves, careless, rich men in many cases. It also explains why sentences for rapists are so lenient too and why attempted murder by women of their husbands conversely receives such strong punishment as the judges want to send a warning to their own spouses.

Until the sentences for causing death using a car come in line with sentences for using a knife or a gun or your fists (or ironically tools from a car like the jack) to commit violence then people are going to continue to drive around recklessly fast, using hand-held equipment and know that they are going to get off lightly.

I always warn the six-year old who lives in this house that he is far more likely to be killed by a driver than any other weapon. In 1997 following the Hungerford and Dunblaine attacks most handguns in the UK were banned and deaths from shootings in England, Scotland and Wales combined were only 58 in 2005/06 and 67 in 2006/07 (down from a peak of 102 in 2001/02). In 2005, 3,201 people were killed by or in cars; 48% of these were people not using the cars themselves, which suggests that 1,537 people were killed through a car inadvertently or intentionally used as a weapon. Hence you are 22 times more likely to be killed by a car than by a gun in England, Scotland and Wales (in fact the chance is far greater in Scotland where gun deaths have been in single figures through the 2000s). In 2004 in England and Wales, 282 murders were committed using a sharp implement, predominantly knives so it suggests that in England and Wales you are approximately five times more likely to be killed by a car than a knife.

Why then do courts and sentences see cars for what they really are? Commonly available lethal weapons given to people who would often be refused any firearm or even a knife? A kitchen knife, like a car, is a mundane object, but that does not stop people for recognising it for the lethal object it can become. A car is many kilogrammes of metal able to travel fast enough to smear people across a road and kill them instantly. Even at 30mph (56 kph) someone hit is 10% likely to be killed, this rises to 90% by 40mph. Cars drive down my residential road at 60mph (the speed limit is 30mph but is uneforced by speed cameras) guaranteeing anyone who steps or is on their bicycle and is hit by a car will die. Pro-speeding organisations like SafeSpeed contest the government's figures for road deaths, but to me 827 pedestrians killed by cars in 2001 plus 39,470 injured is far too high and exceeds by many times the deaths from shootings or stabbings for which people receive far, far longer sentences. Speeding in Britain is seen like gun ownership in the USA as some kind of God-given right and one that to these arrogant, usually prosperous men (who resent that the rest of society comes anywhere near their perceived 'level' of course in fact none of us want to go down to their caveman behaviour) is far more important than life itself. The death of even one person from a car is excessive and the sense that there are 'tolerable' levels such as the 107 child pedestrians killed by cars in 2001, is sickening, to seek to do as SafeSpeed does to put the blame on pedestrians for daring to get in the way of their speeding cars, is akin to a gunman saying it was the dead person's fault for not moving out of the way of the bullet that was being fired at them.

It is simple:

Cars are weapons. Reckless drivers are armed murderers. Murderers should be sentenced in line with the law on murder.

P.P. After posting this, another thought came to my mind in regards to sentencing of criminals. In setting down the sentence the judge will often consider how much there is a risk that the criminal will offend again. This is why sometimes people who have murdered their partner or family members get quite light sentences on the assumption that they do not have such a close relationship with the bulk of the population and so are not a hazard to people they are not related to. The things about killer drivers is that they are highly likely to offend again and they are a threat to anyone in society. In the large majority of cases they have no idea who they actually killed, often they have not even seen them when they run them down, and as SafeSpeed makes clear, these kind of people blame the victim for the collision not themselves. Thus, they are actually far more dangerous to the population as they do not believe they did anything wrong and also because their victims are totally random. Even someone running round a US town with a rifle tends to target people he knows or knows of whereas a killer driver in the UK is a risk to all of us. Thus, on this basis their sentences should be higher rather than lower than those people who have a restricted pool of targets. I fear that the issue comes round premeditation and that killer drivers are seen as 'accidental' killers. That is generally true but they have taken a premeditated decision to drive too fast and dangerously and so are effect setting themselves up to kill even if they have not yet selected their target. This is playing Russian Roulette with other people's lives and they should be sentenced in the way you would sentence someone who runs through a city centre blindfolded and firing a pistol and kills someone, they are as dangerous as that. The judges cannot apparently see that, as they are so similar to these criminals in their own behaviour.

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