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It is a nightmare scenario.
You’re making your way home late at night. It’s a long drive and your eyes are feeling heavy. You think that you should stop but you reason that you’re almost home and you really want to get home before midnight. You think that opening the window might help.

It doesn’t.

The next thing you know; you wake up in hospital. Police officers tell you that you veered into oncoming traffic and colliding head-on with another vehicle, killing the driver.

For just a split second you have fallen asleep and unfortunately that’s all it may take to cause potentially fatal accidents. We all hope to never be involved in such an accident but drivers take risks every day. 99% of the time there are no real consequences, but that 1% is all it may take to have disastrous consequences which may ruin lives.

It’s a scenario that prompts several questions about culpability given that there can be no mens rea (the criminal intent) when someone is asleep. But make no mistake, falling asleep at the wheel can have serious legal ramifications.

A recent email posed this exact question:

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Hi,

I have been wondering if you could get done for dangerous driving or something if you killed someone when you fell asleep at the wheel?

Are you always responsible for the vehicle?

Thank you.

Name withheld on request of the reader

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Dangerous Driving & Careless Driving 

Under UK legislation, a person is to be regarded as driving dangerously if ‘the standard of driving falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and it would be obvious to a competent and careful driver that driving in that way would be dangerous’ (s.2 Road Traffic Act 1988).  

The same test is applied to careless driving.

The standard of driving needs to become “careless” or “dangerous”. When you drive whilst tired, your standard of driving may be perfect right up until the point it is not and it is in that small window that accidents can happen. Falling asleep will no doubt result in your standard of deteriorating and, in some tragic cases, result in a fatality.

The first aspect of the case that the court must consider is whether it falls into the category of being “carless” or “dangerous”. Falling asleep is not sufficient alone to categorise it as dangerous as it is the standard of driving that results from falling asleep that is the important part. Just how bad did the standard get?

Once the court has decided which category the case falls into, they will treat the fact that the motorist fell asleep as an aggravating factor of the case and this will have an impact on the penalty.

It may come as a surprise to some of you, but death by careless driving (with sleep as an aggravating factor) can be dealt with in the magistrates’ court where they would likely impose a high level community order. Whilst that is a possibility, the reality is that the case would more than likely be sent up to the Crown Court as the fatality increases the seriousness of the offence enough to warrant greater powers of sentencing (the maximum the Magistrates’ Court can impose is 6 months in prison).

Dangerous driving can be dealt with in either court as well however most cases will be sent to the Crown Court which instantly increases the potential penalty due to that court’s greater powers of sentencing.

Aggravating Factors & Mitigation

The court will consider other aggravating features as well such as:

  1. Whether alcohol/drugs were involved
  2. Disregard of warnings from other road users
  3. Excessive speed
  4. Evidence of showing off and/or racing
  5. Driving irrespective of any medical conditions that you are aware of.

In some cases, (although probably not in those where falling asleep is involved) mitigating factors can be considered such as if there was a genuine emergency, the speed was not excessive, the offence being due to the inexperience of a driver rather than irresponsibility and these may help lower the penalty.

In the Crown Court, death by careless driving can result in a maximum of five years’ imprisonment whereas death by dangerous driving carries a maximum of 14 years.

In addition to the above penalties, a driver will be given a lengthy disqualification with an order to complete an extended retest before being able to drive again. That said, sentencing for these offences is extremely complicated and a huge range of factors need to be considered. If you are ever charged with an offence, we would highly recommend seeking legal advice immediately.

Professional drivers (HGV etc) have to adhere to very strict guidelines on how long they can drive without a rest to help avoid accidents and these guidelines should really try to be adopted into day-to-day life so far as driving is concerned. Falling asleep at the wheel can have serious consequences and steps should be taken to avoid this at all costs. Pushing yourself to finish a journey is simply not worth the risk and there have been many well-documented cases in the media of drivers being sentenced to high level penalties.

A motorist must always use their own judgement when deciding whether or not they are fit to drive but you should always err on the side of caution to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences.

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