Dangerous Driving Causing Death: A Case Study

In our last article we discussed ‘dangerous driving’ and how it is defined in Queensland. In particular, we explained the differences between ‘dangerous driving’, and the much less serious offence of ‘reckless driving’. That article was prompted by the terrible tragedy that occurred in the Hunter Valley region in New South Wales on 11 June 2013, where at least 10 people died and 15 people were hospitalized when a bus returning from a wedding overturned while proceeding through a roundabout.

Tragically, another case involving dangerous driving resulting in the deaths of three people occurred on the Bruce Highway in the Sunshine Coast on 21 July 2023. As a result of that incident a man has been charged with three counts of murder – an extremely rare thing to occur arising from the operation of a motor vehicle.

Even extreme cases of dangerous driving usually only result in a conviction for manslaughter so the police must have discovered evidence which gives them some confidence that a murder conviction is possible. In that case, the facts that have been reported is that a 25 year old Yandina man, Rafferty Raymond Rolfe, stole an Isuzu SUV at knifepoint and then rammed a Nissan ute which contained Mr Rolfe’s girlfriend and another person who had been attempting to assist her. As a result, the Nissan crashed head on to a third car. As this matter progresses we’ll keep our readers updated.

A tragic loss of life – the facts

A number of years ago our office acted in a tragic matter in Lismore that involved a man being charged with dangerous driving causing death, being the deaths of his wife and his wife’s mother (his mother in law), as well as the grievous bodily harm of his 14 year old son.

The man was a senior nurse from Hong Kong who had been visiting Australia with his family. He was a very fit man, frequently running marathons and hiking mountains, and had no criminal history whatsoever. He loved his family dearly.

They were staying on the Gold Coast and decided to travel to Byron Bay to visit for the day. At about 3.00pm, after having lunch, he drove his family back to the Gold Coast. He was in the driver’s seat, his son was in the front passenger seat, and his wife and her mother were in the rear seats.

At sometime shortly after 3.20pm as he was on the highway he started to become dizzy. The sun shone directly into his eyes and as a consequence he momentarily blacked out while driving. The hire car that he was driving then crossed into the grass strip dividing the two directions of travel and then corrected itself so that it was back on the road. The vehicle then crossed into the grass strip again. The highway became an overpass over a small creek and so because he had crossed into the grass strip his vehicle headed directly over an embankment, crashing on the other side and completely crumpling the back of the vehicle. It was a terrible tragedy and his wife and mother in law died instantly. His son suffered very serious injuries also.

The evidence

As a result of an extremely thorough police investigation the man was charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death (the deaths of his wife and his mother in law) and a count of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm (the injury to his son). If he were convicted of these offences he would have to serve a period of imprisonment.

There were multiple bodies of evidence against him but the major one was that there was evidence that the vehicle was being maneuvered at the time that our client says he had blacked out.

The hire car was fitted with a special device which recorded all of the inputs and movements of the vehicle – much like a ‘black box’ that is fitted into an airplane. This device was able to determine that shortly before the crash, while the vehicle was on the grass strip, the vehicle’s steering wheel was moved from side to side and the gears were shifted up and down. The prosecution argued that because the vehicle was being maneuvered, this demonstrated that our client had some degree of control over the vehicle and therefore did not black out as he had claimed.

The arguments

We were prepared with arguments for this. Firstly, when looking at the gear shifting it was clear that the shifting was occurring in a random pattern – up and down rapidly and randomly – rather than, say, up, up, up, down, down, down. This supported the theory that it was being operated on without any human consciousness and more likely to have been caused by accidental shifting. Secondly, in relation to the steering wheel, when photos of the grass strip were viewed carefully it was clear that the ground was not flat. It was in fact very bumpy, with grooves and thick bushes lining this strip. The theory was therefore that the very uneven surface of this strip would’ve caused the vehicle to steer from side to side on its own, without any human input whatsoever.

We had submitted to the prosecution at the lower court stage that our client would be prepared to plead to the much lesser charges of reckless driving causing death but this was rejected by the prosecution. The matter was then listed for trial in the Lismore District Court and on the eve of the trial the prosecution, obtaining consent from the Director of Public Prosecutions in Sydney, accepted our submission. Our client was sentenced to a good behaviour bond and thus bringing this terrible tragedy to an end.

This matter highlighted the very subtle difference between dangerous driving and reckless driving and also the massive difference in penalty that each will carry.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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