Vehicular homicide, also known as vehicular manslaughter, is the reckless or negligent killing of another through the use of a vehicle. Vehicular homicide statutes are a relatively new category of criminal statutes that arose from state concerns about how to deal with the prevalence of vehicle-related deaths. Prior to the passing of these statutes, drivers were typically charged with involuntary manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter charges are not limited to the death of a passenger, but can include the death of a pedestrian, bystander or other driver as well. Even where multiple drivers may be involved in an accident, vehicular homicide can still be charged if any driver has acted recklessly or negligently.
The exact actions by a driver that give rise of vehicular homicide vary by state. In some states ordinary negligence, which occurs when the driver fails to act with the same level of care that a reasonable person would under the circumstances, is sufficient to support a vehicular homicide charge. In other states, the negligence must be “criminal” or “gross” negligence, which is a higher standard than ordinary negligence. Gross negligence may include driving at excessively high speeds, driving on the wrong side of the road, or failing to obey traffic lights and signs.
In some states, drivers may also be charged with vehicular manslaughter for failing to abide by important safety statutes or other laws that states have determined are of particular importance. For instance, if a death results from a driver’s violation of a “no passing” sign, or a failure to keep his car in proper working order, this can result in a vehicular manslaughter charge. Likewise, many states explicitly include a failure of a driver to abide by rules related to school buses in their vehicular manslaughter statutes.
When we think of negligent or careless actions while driving, driving while intoxicated is one of the offenses that may quickly come to mind. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that nearly 28 people are killed every day as a result of alcohol-impaired driving and over one-fifth of drivers involved in fatal crashes were reported to have a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher. Driving under the influence (DUI) (also known as a driving while intoxicated [DWI] or operating while intoxicated [OWI]) constitutes a significant portion of vehicular homicide charges and is a problem more and more states are treating increasingly harshly. In some states, including California, convicted DUI offenders who repeatedly drive while intoxicated and cause a fatal collision may be charged with first-degree murder or second-degree murder.
Depending on the severity of the actiotn, and the nature of your state’s statute, vehicular manslaughter can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. Where the actions of the driver are less egregious, such as with ordinary negligence, the driver may only face a misdemeanor resulting in a maximum punishment of one year in jail or a fine. Where gross negligence is involved, or a driver violates an explicit state statute, some states will charge vehicular manslaughter as a felony, resulting in much more significant jail time. Most states treat fatalities resulting from drunk driving as felonies.