The debate over the punishment of dangerous drivers who kill will flare up again this week when a young male motorist who had never held a driving licence is sentenced over the death of his girlfriend.
Andrew Lloyd Bennett, 20, failed to call an ambulance after his teenage girlfriend was thrown through the windscreen and seriously injured when his Subaru Impreza collided with a row of trees. It is almost certain he will be jailed.
The case comes amid fresh criticism that road casualty figures are under-estimated and that decreases announced by the government are questionable. This week, the government is expected to claim that the number of people killed or seriously injured a year on Britain's roads has fallen to 32,200, a reduction from 47,700 in the mid-1990s. However the Statistics Commission has voiced concern that the figures are based solely on police data, which may understate the scale. If hospital figures are used, the number of deaths has remained broadly the same.
It was reported yesterday that, under police figures, 54 people per 100,000 are killed or seriously injured on Britain's roads, down from 80 per 100,000 ten years ago. If hospital figures are used, the numbers remain stable at about 90 per 100,000. The higher figures would mean the government has missed its road safety target, which was to reduce the number of road deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent by 2010. It would also throw into doubt the effectiveness of measures such as speed cameras and traffic calming.
The Bennett case is likely to lead to fresh calls for action on dangerous and young drivers. Instead of dialling 999, Bennett arranged for the body of his girlfriend, Kirsty Cash, to be driven from the scene, on the outskirts of Sheffield, to his home and went on the run. Police said it was up to 40 minutes before the emergency services were called.
Officers believe that Cash would have had an 85 per cent chance of survival had she received immediate medical attention. 'All Bennett had to do was dial 999 and Kirsty would still be alive,' her father, Stanley, said. 'Our lives have just been ripped apart. All we do now is go to work, come home and visit her grave.'
Bennett, who was also charged with driving while disqualified, has admitted manslaughter and will be sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court this week, along with two associates and his mother, who are charged with conspiracy.
The case comes amid mounting calls for harsher penalties against dangerous drivers. Campaigners are demanding that the driving age be raised to 18, with a one-year minimum training period. Men aged 17 to 20 account for three per cent of drivers but make up a third of convictions for dangerous driving.
On Tuesday, the charity Roadpeace, which represents road crash victims, will meet officials from the Crown Prosecuting Service to discuss ways to ensure dangerous drivers who kill or seriously injure are punished condignly.
One of the topics under discussion is the CPS classification of 'nearest and dearest' cases, where families or close friends are involved in the crash. It is a distinction which safety campaigners claim allows dangerous motorists to escape harsh sentences, even though they have killed fellow passengers through reckless driving.
Current CPS advice recommends that prosecutors should, if there are no aggravating factors such as whether the driver has been drinking, give 'careful consideration... as to whether there is a need for any prosecution at all'.
This month, The Observer revealed that the CPS had ordered the 3,000 prosecutors in England and Wales to stop 'undercharging' dangerous drivers, amid concern that motorists who kill are escaping with lenient sentences. A Home Office spokesman said it 'shared the public's concerns about bad driving' and had included two new offences - causing death by careless driving and by driving while unlicensed - in the Road Safety Bill.