Common Tread

Is life in prison a fair punishment for distracted drivers?

Oct 23, 2017

Is life in prison a fair sentence for a driver who runs over and kills a motorcyclist?

That’s the maximum sentence for distracted drivers who cause death under new legislation in the UK. The law passed after the largest public consultation ever held by the Ministry of Justice, in which 70 percent of the 9,000 submissions supported a life penalty for lethal distracted drivers.

Life in prison is the toughest penalty anywhere in the world for at-fault parties in distracted driving accidents, and supporters of the new law hope to see a decrease in accidental road fatalities as drivers respect the new consequences. Life in prison means a sentence equal in severity to manslaughter.

Previously,  the maximum sentence was 14 years. The new legislation also ups the penalty for deaths caused by other kinds of dangerous behavior, such as street racing and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Detractors of the new law fear the fierce penalty won’t stop drivers from taking their eyes from the road. Some feel the punishment is too extreme, or too costly to fund. Life in prison happens to be enormously expensive. Alternative suggestions include increased police visibility, public education campaigns, and longer revoked license periods for repeat offenders.

Could a similar law get passed here in the United States? Would large numbers of people support it, as they did in the UK? In the United States, distracted driving laws are handled at the state level, rather than the federal level, so penalties vary.

The American Motorcyclist Association has long supported increasing penalties to match the seriousness of the crime. In their position statement, they write:

“The AMA supports legislation that includes enhanced penalty options to be determined by the courts. Examples of penalties include the following, but are not limited to enhanced fines, operator’s license suspension, points assessed on an operator’s record, community service, and imprisonment.... The AMA has adopted this position statement on distracted and inattentive motor vehicle operation because roadway users such as motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians pay a disproportionately higher price for motor vehicle operator distraction and inattention.”

Should that broad range of options include life in prison?  The UK consultation revealed that many people favor an extreme penalty. Could a change like the UK’s recent law ever happen in the United States? More importantly, should it? Would it help? Tell us what you think in the comments section.