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Assume a person is driving down a posted 40mph road, but doing considerably over the speed limit, say 60-70mph. A person on the pavement trips and falls in front of the speeding car, is hit, and dies. Although there is potentially the argument that if the car was doing the speed limit, the pedestrian may have survived, the cause of the collision was no fault of the driver so it is an accident. Could the motorist be guilty of vehicular manslaughter, or is he just charged with a speeding offence and the death considered an accident?

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    – feetwet
    Commented Jun 13 at 19:15

6 Answers 6

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This development is rather recent, let's say the last decade or two: depending on circumstances, if the speeding was so reckless that it can only be seen as acceptance to eventually kill someone, that the court finds it fulfilling the murder attribute of "Heimtücke", it can even be ruled to be murder, even if the defendant and the victim never knew each other or any intention to kill this specific person can be proven.

The defense was already going for involuntary manslaughter in that case.

For example someone losing control of their car after speeding at 100 km/h in a 40 km/h zone:

https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/panorama/kriminalitaet/urteil-mord-raser-unfall-100.html

Whether going over the speed limit is especially reckless given the circumstances of the specific case is probably for a court to decide based on the facts of the case. "Just" going a little over the speed limit does not qualify; whether 30 mph over qualifies as "just" is not for me to say - it can be based on many variables other than pure speed. Going 30 mph too fast in front of a kindergarden at daytime is different from going 30 mph too fast on a three lane highway at night. Your needle over the line on the speedometer is not automatically reckless in itself, but it can be depending on the facts of the specific case.

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    the hurdle from accident to the other two is, that the speeding was Grob Fahrlässig (gross negligent) and the death of another in case of accident was willentlich inkaufgennommen (~acceped willingly) - the formation of the latter came in that particular case when the driver almost hit a pedestrian some minutes before the crash with fatality and he continued to speed.
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 12 at 5:48
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    That is true, all those cases have an element where the judge found the driver to be extremely reckless... not just speeding a little and hitting a pedestrian that made a mistake, but speeding to a point where they accepted the chance to kill people who had not even done anything wrong.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Jun 12 at 8:50
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    The final BGH decision about one of the races detailed the murder qualifications: Treachery ("Heimtücke"), because the victims were caught entirely unaware; and base motives ("niedrige Beweggründe") because the perpetrators just wanted to win a race at any price -- that is selfish and reckless; risking other people's lives is hence particular despicable. The sentence raised some eyebrows. Commented Jun 12 at 13:45
  • I assume the argument is similar to depraved-heart murder in some common law jurisdictions?
    – xngtng
    Commented Jun 13 at 13:41
  • "mp/h" seems to read "miles per per hour". I would have suggested an edit but I can't make sense of what a sensible abbreviation would be. (Wikipedia didn't help either, sigh)
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Jun 14 at 9:24
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Specifics vary by state, but yes, excessive speeding/reckless driving could lead to vehicular manslaughter

In the United States the answer varies by state, as most things do. According to the Wikipedia article for Vehicular homicide, every state except Alaska, Arizona, and Montana have some form of vehicular homicide statute. These laws are in addition to more general murder and manslaughter laws and serve the purpose of making it easier to convict a person who has committed those crimes using an automobile.

Going to the specifics of your question, excessive speeding could definitely constitute reckless driving and fall under one of the manslaughter charges of your state. Depending on the jurisdiction there may be graduations of the crime from involuntary vehicular manslaughter through vehicular homicide. Their relationship to more general homicide laws varies as well. Vehicular homicide laws may be parallel to the general laws and charged instead of them, charged in addition to them, or in some cases offer a less severe alternative than them.

There are other reckless driving factors that are frequently specified in these laws as well. Drug or alcohol use is very common, again with the intent to make a conviction in such cases easier - the state only needs to prove that a person was intoxicated and driving to demonstrate the criminal negligence aspect of the crime. Causing a death while fleeing from the police or causing a death while passing a stopped school bus are other factors that multiple states share.

Of course, even in states where there is no specific vehicular manslaughter statute you could, and likely would, still be charged with having violated a more general manslaughter or murder law. It is almost certain that there is enough case law in those states that trying to fight something like excessive speeding being considered criminally negligent would be futile.

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    If the accident occurs in a reduced speed zone like for school or road construction, they will most likely throw every charge they can at you for not reducing speed.
    – rtaft
    Commented Jun 12 at 14:06
  • Another factor here is road conditions. Even if you are driving under the speed limit in a blizzard, downpour, or ice storm, that can be considered reckless as well. There are also those yellow 'max safe speed' signs on curves. I think in most states, exceeding that speed even in normal conditions can be considered reckless.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Jun 12 at 17:05
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    @JimmyJames 100% true. When I was a teenager and the world was black and white, I said something without thinking along the lines of, "I think that everyone who kills someone should get the death penalty," to a friend while we were working on statistics in class. My teacher immediately said, "Like my husband?" and the room got reeeeaaally quiet. He was driving the speed limit in bad weather, hit a frozen over bridge, and crashed into an oncoming car. 1980's, nobody wearing seat belts let alone airbags, they all died. He was in prison at the time for involuntary vehicular homicide. Commented Jun 13 at 3:47
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Manslaughter is rarely brought for vehicle deaths

The only circumstances where murder or manslaughter charges would be considered is where the vehicle was being used intentionally as a weapon. Murder where you killed a person you were trying to hit, manslaughter where you killed someone else.

The normal charge is Dangerous Driving Occasioning Death under s52(a) of the Crimes Act 1900. The prosecution must prove that you were driving the vehicle and that the impact caused the death as well as one of the following:

  • that you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol,
  • that you were driving at a dangeous speed, or
  • that you were driving in a dangerous manner.

there is a different offence under s117 of Negligent Driving Occasioning Death which requires only negligence, not dangerousness. Note that exceeding the speed limit is not automatically a dangerous speed, nor is being within the speed limit automatically not dangerous.

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The offence of causing death by dangerous driving was first introduced by the Road Traffic Act 1956. One of the drivers behind this (no pun intended) was the observation that juries had been reluctant to convict drivers of manslaughter when death had been caused through the operation of a motor vehicle. So prior to this, yes, manslaughter would likely have been the charge preferred, though whether any individual case involving death and speeding would have been so prosecuted would have depended on the judgement of the investigators at the time.

Since then, additional offences have been created, including causing death by careless, or inconsiderate driving, and the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving has been raised to life imprisonment. Whether speeding at 20-30mph over the limit would count as dangerous or merely careless/inconsiderate driving, I cannot say; I suspect it would depend on all the factors applicable to a particular incident.

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Each jurisdiction has its own laws on the subject. But, generally, manslaughter statutes require a mens rea of either recklessness or criminal negligence.

Speeding, even if amounts to negligence for purposes of a civil personal injury lawsuit, does not automatically constitute criminal negligence or recklessness. But a sufficiently high rate of speed for particular road conditions could constitute criminal negligence or recklessness when viewed in light of all of the facts and circumstances.

There is no hard and fast line regarding what speed under what circumstances meets those standards. It has to be decided on a case by case basis.

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Code de la route L232-1

Lorsque la maladresse, l'imprudence, l'inattention, la négligence ou le manquement à une obligation législative ou réglementaire de prudence ou de sécurité est commis par le conducteur d'un véhicule terrestre à moteur, l'homicide involontaire est puni de cinq ans d'emprisonnement et de 75 000 euros d'amende.

When the clumsiness, carelessness, inattention, negligence or failure to comply with a legislative or regulatory obligation of prudence or safety is committed by the driver of a land motor vehicle, involuntary manslaughter is punishable by five years' imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros.

Translation DeepL

In France, this would be clearly involuntary homicide. Speeding would fall under "failure to comply with a legislative obligation", and would very much make it not an accident.

Aggravating circumstances will increase the maximum penalty, and these include "a manifestly deliberate breach of a particular obligation of care or safety". Going 1.5 times the speed limit may be argued as such, as might not leaving enough space when driving that fast near a pedestrian. Speeding by over 50km/h is explicitly mentioned as an aggravating circumstance as well.

You should know that the general theory in France is that a driver must be in control of their vehicle at all times, including when pedestrians suddenly come onto the road, and that pedestrians are assumed to be in the right by default. "The pedestrian suddenly crossed the road" isn't considered a sufficient excuse.

Hitting a pedestrian at all tends to show you weren't in control and driving too fast for the circumstances or drove too close to the pedestrian. Hitting a pedestrian while speeding puts you clearly at fault.

Pretty much the only exonerating circumstance is if the pedestrian deliberately threw themselves at the vehicle. Even then, since speed makes a collision more likely to both occur and be fatal, it might not exonerate a speeding driver.

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