Can you get away with motoring offences in a life or death situation?

The majority of us always try to abide by the law in our day to day lives but sometimes extraordinary circumstances can make us alter our usual behaviour. Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were in a life or death situation and you felt like you needed to break the law? Would you do it? Would it be OK if you did? What consequences could you face?

I received an email recently with posing this exact question and hopefully this post will go some way to providing answers.

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Dear Neil

I have been wondering for a while about this so I would be very grateful if you could answer it for me!

We all know that the law can be very rigid and we should all try and stick to it but we are also told that the courts will take into account “all factors”. But what if you were drink driving or speeding to get someone to the hospital who was bleeding to death in the back of your car? Would you get away with it then? 

Thanks

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The circumstances described in this question could relate to what we call “special reasons”. The law is there to protect us all and help ensure that we live in a civilised society but at the same time, the powers-that-be do not want it to be so rigid that it becomes detrimental or counterproductive to the overall good.

This is where special reasons can become relevant.

In relation to speeding, officers have discretion in whether or not to bring charges when they stop a motorist and I think we all know someone who has been stopped but not given any formal penalty/let off with a warning. Motorists can also be offered the speed awareness course as an alternative to prosecution depending upon the circumstances. The officer must make a call at the time on how best to proceed and one of the factors to be considered is the danger posed to other road users. However, speeding cases are less serious than drink driving so I think it would be more interesting to look at how special reasons could be applied to that offence.

Drink Driving

In English law, it is an offence to:

  1. Drive a motor vehicle on a public road;
  2. Or in a public place;
  3. Whilst over the prescribed limit

Penalties for this offence can be severe and range from a disqualification from driving to a custodial penalty of up to six months depending on the seriousness of the allegation. Regardless of what impact the ban would have (i.e. loss of job, home etc), to an extent the court’s hands are tied as the law stipulates that a disqualification is mandatory in all drink driving cases. The same also applies to drug driving and failing to provide a specimen for analysis. There are several ways that cases can be defended, and that is exactly what we specialise in however sometimes, an alternative approach can be taken if a special reason exists.

What Are Special Reasons?

A special reason is a unique circumstance that is relevant to a case, directly relates to the commission of the offence but does not amount to a defence. Basically, it needs to be a relevant circumstance that led to you committing the offence in question. If a special reason exists then a defendant would still plead guilty but it is a plea of guilt with special reasons. You are saying to the court: “Yes, I am guilty of the offence but only because of this particular circumstance(s) which you should consider”.

If the court agrees that special reasons apply, it means that they can deviate from the usual rules for sentencing and it allows them to circumvent the mandatory disqualification and impose an alternative penalty. It may be a shorter disqualification or, in the best possible cases, no disqualification at all. Whilst this is clearly beneficial, a defendant who successfully argues special reasons does not avoid all consequences as the licence would still be endorsed with the conviction and this may have subsequent insurance implications.

To avoid the special reasons provisions being abused, the criteria for circumstances to be considered as a special reason are strict and they are as follows:

  1. The reason must be a mitigating or extenuating circumstance;
  2. It must not amount to a defence to the allegation;
  3. It must be directly connected to the offence itself; and
  4. It must be something that the court should properly consider when imposing punishment.

The most common Special Reasons arguments are:

  1. An emergency situation;
  2. Shortness of distance driven;
  3. Spiked/Laced drinks with regards to drink driving cases.

Difficulties with Special Reasons

The courts must adopt a strict stance on special reasons arguments and apply a high standard before they will find that special reasons apply. This is to ensure that the special reason is genuine and not somebody trying to “pull a fast one” to avoid conviction.

The court will subject any special reasons to intense scrutiny in an effort to find any possible alternative course of action other than that which led to the commission of the offence. If the only solution was for you to break the law, then the special reason would be accepted. For example, if the special reasons argument focuses on an emergency situation, the court will want to know the following:

  1. The nature of the emergency;
  2. The seriousness of the emergency;
  3. Why emergency services could not have been called as opposed to committing an offence;
  4. Why somebody (or anybody!) else could not have driven at the time;
  5. Whether the commission of the offence was actually beneficial or assisted in some way;
  6. The risk presented to other road users; and
  7. The distance driven.

This list is not exhaustive but is intended to help you understand the approach the court’s take. In the example given above, (i.e. if someone was bleeding to death), there are various questions the court will want answers to such as:

  1. Was the person really “bleeding to death”? Was it that serious an injury?
  2. Could an ambulance have been called? The ambulance service is there to respond to incidents such as this so why was it more appropriate for a person to drink drive that person to hospital and thus break the law?
  3. Was it in fact increasing the potential degree of harm by driving whilst under the influence of alcohol?
  4. What was the distance driven?

I suspect in this example (or any example involving alcohol) a court would be unwilling to find that it was safer for someone to drive a car whilst over the limit in order to get someone who is already wounded to hospital. It is difficult for a person to think their options through carefully before acting (particularly after consuming alcohol) as their actions are often fuelled by panic/concern.

That said, if you are ever faced with an emergency situation, you should always try to consider contacting someone for help you as opposed to breaking the law as unfortunately, arguing that you had no other choice would be a difficult task.

I have sometimes found it difficult to understand when I have heard about cases where the court has not found that special reasons exist, even in seemingly impossible circumstances. If a motorist IS faced with an emergency situation and tries to do the right thing by driving five minutes to a hospital which ultimately saves a person’s life, should they really be punished for doing so?  Who can say that an ambulance would have made it in time? Most motorists I have dealt with have actually weighed up the alternatives and performed a quick risk assessment before  deciding that the best thing to do (often to save time which could be crucial) is to drive and I am not sure I could say I would react any differently when panic takes over.

This is a very human response to the situation and I sympathise with people who find themselves in that awful position.  That said, a line must be drawn somewhere and the law has the luxury of not being bound by human emotions. The courts however have the very difficult task of applying that law and possibly telling a person that their good intentions have landed them with a criminal conviction and hefty ban.

 

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