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I welcome clause 22, which deals with the use of hand-held mobile phones. Most of us see that totally unacceptable practice being engaged in all too frequently by drivers trying to steer through traffic. It can cause them to hit another car, or a pedestrian or cyclist. Such accidents are unavoidable, and they must not be allowed to happen. The same applies to accidents and near-misses at night involving cars and bikes without lights. It seems to me that too many cyclists nowadays do not display lights at night. They are putting themselves at needless risk, yet it remains the motorist's responsibility to avoid them. Any programme to improve road safety must include a relentless policy of zero tolerance by the police of cyclists who ride without lights at night.
In the context of road safety generally and the Bill in particular, let me stress the need for ever greater education and training, especially for young people. The encouragement of personal responsibility among primary school-age children as pedestrians, cyclists and
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passengers will contribute to a generational shift in attitudes to road safety as those children grow up and become car drivers themselves.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Should not young motor cyclists be given much more training? Sadly, in the last 12 months many young people have died on our roads in Cornwall. Training of young motor cyclists, and the checking of that training, are very important.
A few years ago, a road safety initiative by Bournemouth university graduates, called the junior citizens programme, demonstrated that children who received the training that I have described retained more knowledge than those who did not. That led to the establishment in Wallisdown, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), of the Streetwise safety centre, sponsored by local authorities and the Dorset police. It is a life-sized indoor village where people of all ages can discuss how to stay safe and what to do in an emergency. They can learn about accident prevention in the home, at work and on the roads, and much else besides.
The centre is working directly to meet the target set by the Government's road safety strategy to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads by 2010. More than 65,000 people have visited the centre since it opened in January 1999. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West is a trustee of its partnership. I pay tribute to his personal interest in it, and especially to the excellent work of its manager, Alison Curtis. That unique centre is undertaking valuable pioneering work in education and training in road safety, which can only support and complement the Bill. I have no hesitation in drawing it to the attention of the House, and commending it as an example of best practice to be emulated by local and police authorities throughout the country.
Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate. Let me state at the outset that I not only welcome the Bill; I believe it to be vital.
We live in a society, and an age, in love with the car. We all know how powerful the road lobby is. It can bring the country to a standstill over the price of petrol; it can fill our postbags with letters of disgust whenever someone is caught breaking the law speeding. I do not say that by way of an attack on the motoristI am onebut in simple recognition of the way in which most of us live today. In rural areas, the car is often the only effective means of transport. For many in urban areas, it remains absolutely essential to our work. In some ways, perhaps, the car is even a badge of personal freedom. For many of our youngest drivers, for example, the car marks their coming of agean outward sign of their adulthood. The first driving lesson might be a cherished present from mum and dad; for some, their first car might even be the reward for getting through the test. For them, the car is literally and metaphorically a rite of passage.
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But along with that comes a big responsibility. A car, however beautifully designed, is not a comfortable air-conditioned extension of one's front room. For all of us, the car is a potentially lethal weapon that not only can kill but does kill. It killed my teenage cousin. It kills 10 people in this country every day, and 3,500 every year. The Bill will help to reduce that number, thereby saving lives and reducing grief. That is why I welcome it todayas we all shouldand warmly.
However, I do not welcome the Bill unconditionally. Although it is good, it can be improved in several ways, one of which I wish to discuss. We need to rewrite the law concerning cases in which bad driving causes death. At the moment, a wide range of charges are available to deal with those who drive below the standard that the criminal law requires, yet at the heart of that law there is a yawning gap: the complete absence of the offence of causing death by careless or negligent driving when not under the influence of drink or drugs.
The extent of that gap is readily apparent from the sentences available for the various offences for which charges are most usually brought. For dangerous driving, the maximum penalty is two years in prison. For causing death by dangerous driving, the maximum penalty rises to 14 years in prisona 12-year difference, to mark the gravity of life being lost. For careless driving, the maximum penalty is a fine and points on the licence. For causing death by careless driving when under the influence, the maximum penalty rises to 10 years in prison.
But what about causing death by careless driving when not under the influence of drink or drugs? That is not even an offence known to English law. The maximum penalty is exactly the same as for any other case of careless driving in which no life is lostjust a fine and points on the licence. I find that absolutely bewildering. The law has created two offencesdangerous driving and causing death by dangerous drivingwith markedly different potential penalties. The reason for that can only be that the law generally regards cases where driving of the same unlawful standard causes loss of life as more serious than cases where such driving causes just a dent or a scratch to a vehicle.
Moreover, there is a good policy reason for that differentiation. It underlines in law the simple fact that cars can kill, so all of us must be especially careful when we take to the road in them. Why, then, is the same principle not consistently applied to careless driving? Where is the sense in the law considering dangerous driving, but not careless driving, as much more serious when a life is lost? There is no sense. The law contains a gaping holethe absence of any offence of causing death by careless drivingand in one way or another it needs to be filled.
That gap needs to be filled not just for legal neatness, but to meet the concerns of those who suffer the grief of loved ones being killed by careless drivers. All Members will have recently received a letter from my constituents, Peter and Tracey Melnik, about the death last year of their daughter, Alexine. Alexine was returning home with her boyfriend and friends from a pop concert in Great Yarmouth, when the car in which she was a passenger was hit from behind and pushed into the path of oncoming traffic.
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Everybody else escaped the accident uninjured, but Alexine died. She was only 17 when she was killed by a careless driver. The driver was charged, and Peter and Tracey went to court, hoping for some semblance of justice and a sense of closure. The driver was found guilty and sentenced, but because he was charged only with careless rather than dangerous driving, and because he was neither drunk nor under the influence of drugs, the fact that he killed Alexine through his unlawful careless drivingin short, his criminal negligencesimply did not matter.
No offence of causing death by careless or negligent driving is known to English law, so that driver could be charged only with careless driving, for which offence he could only be fined and have points on his licence. In the end, for killing Mr. and Mrs. Melnik's daughter through his criminal negligence, the driver received just a £500 fine and nine penalty points. The total value placed on the life of their child was £500. Furthermore, because the driver pleaded guilty, there was no need to go through in detail the nature of the careless driving that caused her death. There was no forensic examination of the evidence, no detailed consideration of the circumstances leading to the loss of Alexine's life, and no questioning of why he failed to brake in time. There was just a plea and a £500 fine.
Little wonder that Peter and Tracey Melnik left the courtroom with no sense of closure, just a burning sense of injustice to add to their agonising grief. That is why they have written to all hon. Members to suggest that the Bill should be amended to prevent anyone else having to go through that again. I pay personal tribute to them for the courage and dignity of their campaign, and I agree with them. Like Peter and Tracey, I do not believe that the existing structure of the law can possibly be justified, and I believe that this Bill can be the legislative vehicle for making the improvement that needs to be made. It can easily be amended.
Perhaps surprisingly, an alternative method could be an amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. I am advised that either Bill could properly be amended to fill the gap. All we need is a simple amendment to create an additional offence of causing death by careless or negligent driving when not under the influence of drink and drugs. Then we need to legislate to create for that offence an appropriate maximum prison sentence, perhaps of seven years.
In so arguing, may I make it clear that I do not want all cases where careless driving causes death to result in custody? I am a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and spend much of my time arguing that fewer people should go to prison, not more. I believe, however, that it should be possible to sentence more seriously if the facts of any given case merit it. Legislating to create that opportunity would mean that the facts surrounding any road death caused by carelessness would have to be properly considered in court to ensure that the sentence passed was appropriate, matched the degree of carelessness, and reflected the fact that a death occurred. At the moment, as in Alexine's case, that simply does not happen. In the future, it must surely be possible.
On behalf of Alexine's parents, I ask my right hon. Friend to consider amending the Bill before it comes back to the House so that the gap in the law can be filled and what is becoming known in Wellingborough as "Alexine's law" can be enacted. If not, will my right
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hon. Friend prevail on the Home Secretary to amend the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill to identical effect? I am not alone in so asking, and I ask not just on behalf of Alexine's mum and dad and her immediate family, but on behalf of the overwhelming majority of my constituents.
Just a week ago, I asked my local newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, if it would run a story on Alexine and include a ballot paper asking people whether they supported a change in the law. We were inundated with responses: 650 replies in just four days. A further petition to similar effect was drawn up by Mr. Craig Coogana constituent of the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope)and it was signed by some 2,000 people. All but two of the respondents wanted the law changed. Why? Because, driven carelessly, vehicles are killers, because the criminal law has to reflect that reality consistently in respect of all types of unlawful driving, and because, quite simply, £500 is too low a value to put on the life of any child killed by criminal negligence.
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