A just punishment?

Recent proposals for the introduction of stricter punishments for road accidents are the usual – and justifiable – response to a horrific road accident which results in many deaths. This does not mean, however, that they are based on a study of what caused the accident. The current trend for harsher punishments ignores thinking that calls for a more preventative approach in the future, and the argument that tougher punishments may be excessive for careless offenders, however deplorable their negligence may have been. When numbed by the pain of losing so many schoolchildren at Tempe, it is natural we should forget that seven years in jail is no small price to pay for an action which was, in fact, unintentional. In such a case, we cannot maintain that the charge of murder «with possible malice aforethought» is appropriate and valid. A wrong turn of the wheel, loading a truck badly, or exceeding the speed limit – mistakes which sometimes cause dozens of deaths – usually occur due to stress, fatigue, indifference or lack of discipline. Jailing someone for 15 years for such errors is a very dubious way of ensuring they do not happen again. The focus should be, rather, on a better enforcement of the legislation whose violation generally leads to such accidents, better policing, and – in certain circumstances – financial penalties and short jail sentences (which cannot be bought off).