When an accident, which results in either loss of life, or property damage happens, the police often charge the driver they deem to be “at fault” or to have caused the accident.
However, causing an accident or being at fault does not necessarily mean that the driver will be found guilty of careless driving, dangerous driving or reckless driving. There are many cases were drivers have caused significant accidents resulting in death or extensive damage yet have been found not guilty of a driving offence. It is important to understand the differences between the different driving offences in order to help determine whether a driver might have a defense to a charge.
It’s easiest to think of driving offences on a continuum. At the low end you have careless driving. This offence is also sometimes referred to as a driving without due care and attention. Careless driving is a provincial offence, which means if you are found guilty of it you won’t have a criminal record although it will be added to your driving abstract.
Also, in Alberta, for example, you lose six demerits when found guilty of this offence. Usually for first time offenders there is a high fine (up to $2,000) and the Judge has the discretion whether to suspend your licence for up to three months.
The legal test a Court uses to determine whether this offence has been committed is: “Whether it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt …that a driver failed to use the care and attention … that a driver of ordinary care would have used in the circumstances.”
In one case for example, a pedestrian was struck on the driver’s side of the vehicle as the pedestrian attempted to cross the road. The accident took place between two crosswalks shortly after the accused cleared an intersection on a green light.
There was no evidence of speeding, the accident happened at dusk and there was no room for the accused to take evasive action. The judge found the accused not guilty of careless driving causing death because the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the accused was driving outside the standards of a normal driver. The judge made the following important comment in his judgment: “It is to be remembered that the Court must focus upon the manner of driving and not the tragic consequences in deciding this case.” (R. v. Vachon  A.J No. 1062).
Dangerous driving is a criminal offence. If you are found guilty you will automatically lose your licence for a year and depending on the circumstances of the case will either receive a high fine or jail. Note the maximum jail term for dangerous driving causing death is 14 years. Also, like careless driving, expect your insurance premiums to increase if you are found guilty of this offence.
The legal test used to determine if dangerous driving has been committed is whether the driving is so negligent as to constitute a marked departure from the standard of a reasonable person. The Court asks itself not whether the driving is negligent but rather if it is very negligent considering all the circumstances, driving conditions, amount of traffic etc. In one Alberta Case R. v. Rockwell  A.J. No. 440 the accused’s vehicle struck another vehicle resulting in a death.
The accused had been speeding, it was a clear day and the deceased’s turn signal was operating properly. The accused testified that he glanced away only momentarily and did not feel sleepy or fatigued. However, a sleep expert testified that he suffered from a sleep disorder and was probably asleep for a few seconds just prior to the accident.
The court held that although driving did amount to dangerous driving, because the driver was unaware he had a sleep disorder it would be improper to convict him and he was found not guilty. If he had known about his sleep disorder at the time of the accident and had not taken the necessary steps to correct the problem he would have been found guilty.
Criminal negligence or criminal negligence causing death
At the highest end of the spectrum is criminal negligence causing death. The maximum penalty for this offence is life imprisonment.
The test used to determine whether this offence has been committed is whether the type of driving shows a wanton or reckless disregard for the lives and safety of other persons. A driving prohibition will also follow if you are found guilty of this offence.
The facts of every case determine the outcome of any given charge. If you or anyone you know has been charged with a driving offence, don’t assume guilt.
Let your case be reviewed by a legal professional.
– Rory Ziv is a lawyer practising law in Alberta. He can be reached at 780-686-7948 or 780-459-1284. Or snail mail him at: #108 – 50 St., Thomas Street, St Albert, Alberta T8N 6Z8.