Can death caused by careless driving be considered manslaughter?

In a forum letter to the Straits Times published on the 12th of July 2019, a reader proposed that causing death by careless driving should be considered ‘manslaughter’ and have the same harsh penalties to reflect the gravity of harm caused to the victim.

The writer also made reference to the latest changes to the Road Traffic Act, whereby the two classes of irresponsible driving offences of Dangerous Driving and Careless Driving, under Section 64 and 65 of the Road Traffic Act (Cap 276) respectively, will be amended, amongst others. You can view our explanation on this new amendment here.

The letter writer did not agree with this amendment, claiming that the punishment “does not sufficiently reflect the gravity of the transgression and the loss that is felt by the victim’s loved ones”. Instead, he proposed that this particular offence be considered ‘manslaughter’, because it would “commensurate with the gravity of the loss of life and carries a heavier sentence.”

However, the writer’s point that the charges should correctly reflect the seriousness of the offence has already been taken into consideration by the authorities and is appropriately reflected for the enhanced penalties for the two classes, especially Dangerous Driving. 

Dangerous Driving includes driving against the flow of traffic, weaving in and out of traffic, and disobeying traffic signs. An offender guilty of such an offence is more culpable than one who has driven carelessly, because he/she is fully aware that what he/she is doing is dangerous and may injure those around him/her. Hence, it deserves the higher maximum punishment of 8 years’ imprisonment and a minimum 2- year imprisonment term, when death is caused.

‘Manslaughter’ refers to the killing of another person without the relevant intention. 

Singapore does not have the specific offence of ‘vehicular manslaughter’ unlike the United States where in certain states in the country, the offence refers to cases where vehicles are used as a deadly weapon. In these cases, the punishment is similar to that of murder

In Singapore,  we have the offences of culpable homicide and murder, governed by Sections 299 and 300 of the Penal Code (Cap 224) respectively. All murders are culpable homicides, but, subject to 7 exceptions or special defences, one may instead be guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

What about careless driving and culpable homicide?

A reason why they cannot be equated is because of the definition of culpable homicide:

[W]hoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide’. 

Careless Driving does not involve any of this. The element of ‘carelessness’ denotes the lack of care of the offender that should have been taken by him/her, as would a reasonable person in the same circumstances.

Causing death by a negligent act

Causing death by Careless Driving roughly corresponds to the offence of causing death by a negligent act under Section 304A(b) of the Penal Code. This is because of the lack of intent to cause death, and the focus is on the lack of care and awareness from the offender when he/she should have been aware and careful. Additionally, the new punishment for Careless Driving is already more severe than one for causing death by a negligent act, which imposes a maximum imprisonment term of 2 years, a fine, or both.

What is the difference between careless driving and manslaughter?

The difference between the two classes can be distinguished through the manner of driving.

  • Was the motorist driving when he/she was unfit to drive safely? Was he/she feeling unwell or intoxicated?
  • Did the circumstances warrant the motorist to exercise extra care but he/she did not? Was there an oil spill on the road? Did he/she slow down?

The classes will then be further broken into four different tiers according to the extent of harm caused.

  • Death
  • Grievous Hurt
  • Hurt
  • Endangers Life (I.e. no hurt or injury caused).

What are the penalties?

In relation to the new proposed offence of Careless Driving, the maximum penalty for a first time offender who has caused death is a maximum term of 3 years’ imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine. A repeat offender can expect double the punishment. The offender will most likely be disqualified from driving and have his/her license revoked.

In any case, what is an appropriate punishment for Careless Driving may differ from person to person. After much research and discussion, the authorities have deemed the enhanced penalties appropriate for the current times in deterring people from committing this offence. 

Nonetheless, no punishment or retribution will truly be solace enough for the untimely death of a loved one.

Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu of Amarjit Sidhu Law Practice has represented numerous clients in a wide variety of matters over the years. With a vast knowledge of Singapore’s laws and a wealth of experience, Mr Amarjit Singh Sidhu will be able to provide valuable and timely advice for your situation. For more information, feel free to contact us for a consultation.

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