What is Careless Driving?
One of the most common road traffic offences is driving without due care and attention contrary to section 3 of the Road Traffic Act (“RTA”) 1988. The offence is often referred to simply as “careless driving” and applies where driving takes place on a road or other public place. Where proved, the offence carries the potential for an unlimited fine and possible disqualification. However, it is often not immediately clear to an accused driver what exactly it means to drive carelessly so this short blog looks to try and explain “careless driving” in simple terms.
In short, a driver is guilty of careless driving if the way in which they drive falls below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver. In a criminal trial, it is for the prosecution to satisfy the court so that it is “sure” the driver fell below that standard. In considering this test, a court can consider anything that was (or should have been) known at the time to the driver. It is a question of fact not law for a court to decide on a case by case basis. The legal texts suggest, however, that only where a court considers that the driver has or must have failed to exercise the degree of care and attention which a reasonable, prudent and competent driver would have exercised, should they then be convicted of careless driving.
 Blackstone’s Criminal Practice 2022 at C6.4
In England and Wales, offences of careless driving are prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”) which has published its own guidance giving examples of driving which they suggest may amount to driving without due care and attention and include the following:
(a) overtaking on the inside;
(b) driving inappropriately close to another vehicle;
(c) inadvertently driving through a red light;
(d) emerging from a side road into the path of another vehicle;
(e) tuning a car radio;
(f) using a hand-held mobile phone or other hand-held electronic equipment where the driver was avoidably distracted by that use; and
(g) selecting and lighting a cigarette or similar where the driver was avoidably distracted by that use.
The CPS guidance is not binding on the courts. Likewise, a departure from the standard of driving required by the Highway Code does not automatically mean that a driver has driven carelessly although it may provide a strong indication to a court that they have. Equally, where a driver can show they have adhered to the Highway Code that may suggest innocence.
As well as guidance, the courts may also consider previous cases decided in the higher courts for assistance although, in the writer’s experience, it is rare for any two cases to be exactly the same on the facts and courts will be aware that even a very slight variation on what happened can make a significant difference to outcome (e.g. visibility, speed, volume of traffic). The caselaw does suggest, however, that some examples of driving will be careless unless they can be explained as otherwise by the driver. This includes instances of mounting the verge and hitting a pole 3ft from the edge of the road, signalling to turn right but then turning left without taking any precautions, failing to stop at a “T” junction and crossing a road’s central dividing line. In recent years, the Court of Appeal has determined that filming events or taking photographs whilst driving (with a mobile phone or otherwise) or making any other use of a mobile while driving may be strong evidence of careless driving.
Importantly, there is no need for the CPS to prove any injury or property damage resulted (or even might have) from the driving for it to be careless but, where those end results apply, then any penalty is likely to be more severe. Where another person’s death is caused by the driving then the more serious offence of causing death by careless driving will be charged.
In summary then, what a court decides is careless driving in one case will not automatically amount to the same in another. Courts will consider relevant guidance and caselaw they are referred to reinforcing the need for drivers facing prosecutions for careless driving to take early specialist legal advice.
Christopher Hopkins is a specialist regulatory barrister at No5 Chambers in Birmingham with many years’ experience of both defending and prosecuting organisations and individuals for H&S offences in the criminal courts. He also regularly represents organisations and individuals at Coroner’s Inquests.
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