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What is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 16, 2024

Vehicular manslaughter is a charge which can be used to prosecute someone who kills someone with a motor vehicle as a result of negligent or illegal driving. In regions where there are specific laws which cover vehicular manslaughter, people can still be eligible for other types of charges, such as murder, depending on the circumstances of the case. Prosecutors may pursue this charge as a felony or misdemeanor offense once they have evaluated the circumstances of the case and the applicable laws.

The idea behind vehicular manslaughter laws is that they are designed to hold people accountable for actions which cause the death of someone else, and to distinguish between genuine accidents and cases in which someone died because a driver was being reckless. Drivers are expected to exercise due caution behind the wheel and to behave responsibly while driving, and if it can be demonstrated that a driver was reckless, negligent, or violating the law at the time of a death, it can be charged as vehicular manslaughter. On the other hand, someone may be eligible for murder charges if it is clear that she or he used the car as a weapon and intended to kill.

For example, if someone blows through a stoplight without stopping and collides with another vehicle, killing the passengers inside, this may be treated as vehicular manslaughter, because the driver was violating the law. Likewise, if a driver failed to observe a safe rate of speed in dangerous driving conditions and this caused an accident, this would be considered negligence, and grounds for a vehicular manslaughter charge.

When someone drives drunk or under the influence of drugs and causes an accident, this may be treated as vehicular manslaughter, or it may be prosecuted under a separate charge of intoxication manslaughter. Not all regions offer intoxication manslaughter as an option to prosecutors. The driver can also face other charges, such as a charge for driving under the influence, and may be sentenced to jail time and damages.

Charges of negligent manslaughter, of which vehicular manslaughter is an example, can be brought in any situation which results in death. This includes the death of friends or family members involved in an accident caused by someone's negligent behavior. People are not exempt from criminal liability when they cause the deaths of people they know and they can also incur civil liability. For example, if a reckless driver kills a friend, the friend's family may sue the driver for damages.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By tolleranza — On Sep 08, 2011

I knew a girl in high school that received a DUI according to the DUI laws in our state, and what was worse was that two people were killed.

This wasn't a open and shut story; however, the story was that she was drinking all night and was responsible and stayed the night at the party and drove home in the morning.

The thought was that it was still too early for her to drive, and she was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. He vehicular manslaughter punishment was a little jail time, a year or two of house arrest, and then probation following that.

From what I have been told of the situation following all of the punishment, was that the worst punishment of them all still remains - having to live with knowing that drunk or not, her driving killed two people.

By Bhutan — On Sep 08, 2011

@Brickback- What do you think about people that fall asleep while driving and then kill somebody? While watching the news the other day I learned about this lady that was driving over fourteen hours having been awake the twelve hours prior. She fell asleep while driving and when she caught herself she swerved so quickly that her car went over a median into oncoming traffic and landed on the hood of another car instantly killing the driver.

She was charged with involuntary manslaughter because although she did kill someone the act was not intentional. I wonder in this case would the lady be charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter because it was an accident? Is the fact that she was trying to stay up for a full twenty four hours not seen as problematic as driving while drunk?

I wonder at what point does lack of sleep comes in to play in a case like this. I know with drunk driving there is a legal definition of intoxication, but I wonder what the legal definition for impairment is for lack of sleep. I know that truck drivers have very strict regulations regarding the number of hours that they can drive for this very reason.

By BrickBack — On Sep 08, 2011

@Cafe41 -I was reading about a vehicular homicide case in which this television actress was driving completely intoxicated and was pulled over for erratic driving. The police officer gave her a warning instead of arresting her.

It was unbelievable. She continued to drive and then kills a woman a few blocks from her home as a result of her intoxication. I don’t understand how a police officer could not have arrested his lady from the beginning.

I imagine that it was the fact that the actress was a celebrity which should not matter. Celebrities should be treated like everyone else and in this case if the first cop would have done his job, the lady that was killed would be still be alive today. There is really no reason to drive in this condition because you can call a cab or a car service to pick you up.

By cafe41 — On Sep 07, 2011

I think that there should be stricter vehicular manslaughter penalties for those convicted. In many of these vehicular manslaughter cases the defendant seems to get a slap on the wrist. I feel that serving a few years in prison for taking someone’s life is not a just punishment especially if there was alcohol involved which everyone knows that it impairs your driving ability.

I was reading that in states like Iowa and Nevada if you get convicted of vehicular manslaughter the sentencing is a minimum of twenty-five years in prison. I think that this is fair especially if the person was driving drunk. The person that decided to drink and drive knew that they were taking a chance when doing this and they still decided to drive.

They should have to pay dearly for what they did because a poor person’s life was cut short because of their irresponsibility. I think that anything short of twenty-five years is a travesty.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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