Fatal Traffic Accidents: Are Drivers Always Punished?
Thanks to the proliferation of in-car video cameras and websites such as Roads.SG sharing videos of misbehaving drivers, traffic accidents have captured the public’s attention in recent months. While motorists know that a police report has to be made and the insurance company has to be notified when a traffic accident occurs, most are unaware of what happens when a fatal traffic accident occurs.
This article seeks to shed some light on the current legislation punishing motorists for causing fatal traffic accidents.
Motorists responsible for a fatal traffic accident may be charged under one of the following:
- Causing death by reckless or dangerous driving, under section 66(1) of the Road Traffic Act; or
- Causing death by rash or negligent act, under section 304A(a) or (b) of the Penal Code.
Causing death by reckless or dangerous driving
Motorists responsible for the fatal traffic accident will be held liable under section 66(1) of the Road Traffic Act if he:
- Drove a motor vehicle recklessly; or
- Drove at a speed/in a manner which is dangerous to the public.
The court, in determining whether the motorist had driven recklessly or dangerously will consider factors such as:
- Nature/condition/use of the road; and
- Amount of traffic on the road at the time of the accident/reasonably expected to be so at the time.
What is driving recklessly?
A motorist will be deemed to have driven recklessly when he was conscious of the risk of an accident happening or that the risk was so obvious that the motorist, as a reasonable person, ought to have known that his driving in the particular manner would result in the death of a person.
An example of this would be when a motorist causes a fatal accident by beating the red light and crashing into a motorcyclist traveling from another direction. The risk of an accident occurring when the motorist continues to drive when the light is red is so obvious that the motorist should have known about it. By beating the red light and running the risk of crashing into oncoming motorists, he is deemed to have driven in a reckless manner.
Defences against the charge of reckless driving
In cases where the risk is so obvious that the motorist should have known of the risk, the motorist can raise a defence to his actions if he is able to prove that there are exceptional circumstances that caused him to drive in that particular manner which resulted in the death of another person. Such circumstances include:
- Motorist acted under some understandable and excusable mistake;
- Motorist’s capacity to appreciate risks were adversely affected by some condition not involving fault on his part; or
- The motorist acted the way he did in a sudden dilemma created by action of others.
An example of this would be of a motorist having to swerve right urgently to avoid colliding with an oncoming vehicle and as a result of the evasive action, ends up colliding with another oncoming vehicle. In this case, the motorist may be said to have only acted the way he did in a sudden dilemma caused by others.
What is driving in a manner which is dangerous to the public?
Driving in a manner that is dangerous to the public could be driving against traffic or moving in and out of traffic or disregarding traffic light signals.
Punishment under Section 66(1) of the Road Traffic Act
Motorist liable under section 66(1) of the Road Traffic Act is liable for imprisonment for a period of time not exceeding 5 years.
The court also has the power to disqualify the motorist from holding or obtaining a driving license for life or for such period the court considers it to be fair to do so.
For more information on the penalties for the offence of dangerous driving in Singapore, see here.
Causing death by rash or negligent act: What is the difference?
A motorist will be deemed to have performed a rash act if he had driven conscious that mischievous and illegal consequences would follow but had done so with the hope that it will not happen.
For example, the motorist is aware that he needs to check for pedestrians and oncoming vehicles before turning into a traffic junction. However, he fails to check because he hopes that nothing untoward would happen. If an accident does happen, he might be found liable for his act.
Conversely, a motorist will be deemed to have performed a negligent act if he had driven, without being conscious that mischievous and illegal consequences would follow and without exercising caution in the particular manner he drove.
The difference between a rash or negligent act lies in the consciousness of the illegal consequence(s) that would follow performing the act. Put in another way, a motorist is said to have acted rashly when he is conscious of the risk of his act but still chose to act upon it. On the other hand, a motorist is said to be negligent if he is unaware of the risk but failed to exercise caution in his act.
Punishment under Section 304A of the Penal Code
Motorist deemed liable under section 304A(a), causing death performing a rash act, may be punished with imprisonment for no longer than 5 years, or with a fine or with both.
Motorist deemed liable under section 304A(b), causing death performing a negligent act may be punished with imprisonment for no longer than 2 years, or with a fine or with both.
The court also has the power to disqualify the motorist from holding or obtaining a driving license for life or for a period the court considers it to be fair to do so.
Is the motorist still liable if the pedestrian contributed to the accident?
In cases where the pedestrians have contributed to the accident, the motorist can raise the defence of contributory negligence as a mitigating factor when the motorist is charged by the state. This would mean arguing that the motorist is less culpable and should consequently be given a lighter sentence. The court will consider the alleged contributory negligence of the pedestrian with other mitigating factors to consider if the motorist’s culpability should be discounted proportionately with the extent of the pedestrian’s contributory negligence. For cases where the motorist has been charged for causing death by a negligent act, the motorist can argue that the accident had occurred due to the negligence of the pedestrian (eg. suddenly dashing onto the road) and any reasonable driver would not have been able to avoid the fatal accident. If it can be shown that any reasonable driver will not be able to avoid the accident, the motorist may be acquitted from having caused death by driving negligently.
Although seemingly unfair to the motorist, the rationale behind this is that motorists are in a position to cause harm with their vehicles, unlike pedestrians. As the motorist has been trained to handle a dangerous machine that can cause harm, the motorist will be held to a higher standard of care to prevent the occurrence of an accident. Onus is thus always on the motorist to take due care and attention in the usage of the roads in Singapore.
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