In this lesson, we’ll define vehicular homicide, examine how criminal sentences can vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another, and look at some national vehicular homicide statistics.
Vehicular Homicide Defined
Danny Driver is driving down Main Street when he hears a familiar beep coming from his cellphone. Knowing that he just received a text message from his girlfriend, Danny picks up the phone and begins typing a reply. In his distracted state, Danny runs a red light and hits Paul Pedestrian in the crosswalk. Paul tragically dies from his injuries.
Danny didn’t mean to kill Paul, but his careless behavior caused Paul’s death. What should Danny’s punishment be? Should he be punished at all?
Vehicular homicide is a crime that involves the death of an individual caused by the negligent or dangerous operation of a vehicle by another. In many jurisdictions, death caused by negligent driving is called vehicular manslaughter.
All states (with the exception of Alaska, Arizona, and Montana) have vehicular homicide laws on the books. These laws vary from state to state, but most states classify a dangerously-operated vehicle as a deadly weapon.
In a vehicular homicide prosecution, the government must typically prove that the defendant committed the wrongful act of dangerously or negligently operating a vehicle, which resulted in the death of the victim. Other factors, such as if the defendant was under the influence at the time of the collision, will be considered in determining the appropriate punishment (or sentence). The sentence for a vehicular homicide conviction depends on two elements: the jurisdiction in which the case is prosecuted and the circumstances surrounding the incident.
Jurisdictions like California recognize multiple degrees of vehicular homicide, each with varying levels of punishment. Murder charges are generally reserved for the most egregious vehicular homicides. A defendant charged with murder could receive anywhere from twenty years in prison to a life sentence.
Minnesota vehicular homicide falls under a broad set of laws concerning criminal vehicular operation. Louisiana, on the other hand, has a very narrow vehicular homicide law. Under the Louisiana law, the prosecution must prove that the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol when the victim was killed. The minimum sentence for vehicular homicide in Louisiana is five years in prison and a $2000 fine with the maximum sentence reaching thirty years.
Georgia law recognizes two degrees of vehicular homicide: first degree and second degree. First-degree vehicular homicide encompasses deaths caused by reckless driving, driving under the influence, fleeing law enforcement officers, failure to yield to a school bus, and deaths caused by repeat offenders. Sentences for first-degree vehicular homicide in Georgia range from three to fifteen years in prison. Second degree vehicular homicide encompasses any other death caused by the operation of a vehicle with sentences of up to one year in prison.
Certain factors will increase the severity of the sentence in a vehicular homicide prosecution. Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol is one factor that often results in harsher punishments than the simple negligent operation of a vehicle. Other traffic violations leading to a victim’s death, such as the failure to yield to a school bus, are also often subject to severe punishment. In addition, habitual offenders (defendants who have been convicted of multiple reckless driving offenses) will likely face serious prison sentences.
In part, the variation in the laws can be attributed to the regional attitudes towards the prevalence of traffic-related deaths. For a better understanding of vehicular homicide, let’s consider some statistics.
Vehicular Homicide Statistics
According to the Nation Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) there are approximately 300 million registered vehicles on the road in the United States, driving somewhere close to a staggering 3 trillion miles per year. Based on these statistics, it really isn’t surprising that there are plenty of accidents on the roads. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that of the accidents that occur each year, approximately 230 are vehicular homicide deaths. NHTSA reports that in total, 30,000 deaths can be attributed to the use of motor vehicles. This brings the American vehicle deaths to 15 per 100,000 licensed drivers, or 1 fatality for every 100 million miles traveled.
Vehicular homicide refers to the criminal act of causing the death of another by the dangerous or negligent operation of a motor vehicle. Nearly every state in the country has a vehicular homicide law, though the elements of the crime and the corresponding sentence vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.