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What is Vehicular Manslaughter? Sentencing, Laws and Penalties

Donald Singleton
February 1, 2023

Have you ever committed an act of road rage? If so, then you may be surprised to learn how often that other drivers do the same. Statistics show that about 82% of surveyed drivers self-reported committing an act of road rage within the past year of the survey.

So, why is that such a problem? What you and other drivers may not know is that over two-thirds (66%) of traffic fatalities are directly caused by aggressive driving and road rage incidents.

When a traffic fatality occurs as a result of such an action, then it won’t be considered a mere ‘mistake’ or ‘accident’. Instead, it could be legally defined as vehicular manslaughter, which is a criminal offense.

Since vehicular manslaughter is considered a crime, getting charged is no small matter. If convicted, then you could face jail time, court fines and fees, and other consequences. Get more details about the laws, penalties, and common sentencing guidelines associated with this serious offense.

Note: Singleton Law Firm, LLC doesn’t provide criminal defense lawyer services! We help people being subject of road rage!

What is Vehicular Manslaughter?

In a nutshell, this term describes a criminal offense that occurs when one person’s negligent or unlawful operation of a motor vehicle causes the loss of life. Another term that’s often used interchangeably with manslaughter is vehicular homicide.

When drivers get behind the wheel, they automatically assume a legal duty to provide for the care of every other motorist or pedestrian on the road. A failure to uphold this duty could result in a host of problems from a civil lawsuit to potential criminal charges.

Different states have different statutes and laws that define the exact penalties, sentencing guidelines, and details surrounding this charge. In most states, this type of offense is a wobbler, which means it could be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony offense depending on the circumstances surrounding the accident.

A vehicular homicide charge can happen when a fatality happens to a passenger, an occupant in another car, a pedestrian, a bicyclist, or a motorcyclist. You can be charged regardless of the intent behind the reckless, negligent, or unlawful driving behavior, unlike other types of homicide where it matters whether the death was premeditated or not.

Driving that Results in Charges of Vehicular Homicide

As you’d imagine, there is a very fine line between a case of vehicular homicide and a tragic fatal car accident. It’s extremely hard to make a distinction between the two, and it often comes down to the type of driving behavior that was noted prior to the crash. Learn more about the different types of driving behaviors and how they might impact the classification of a crash below.

Negligent Driving

The first, and probably most complicated, type of driving we will discuss is negligent driving. Negligence is a legal doctrine that’s established based on the legal of duty of care drivers assume when they get behind the wheel of a car. All drivers are legally expected to uphold a reasonable duty of care towards every other motorist or pedestrian on the road. Negligence describes any driving behavior that constitutes a breach in that duty of care such as:

  • Texting while driving
  • Eating or drinking
  • Taking your eyes off the road for any reason
  • Speaking on the phone 
  • Failing to adhere to traffic rules

In some states, simple negligence alone is enough to support a vehicular homicide charge. In other states, the driver must have been driving negligently while also having committed a driving infraction. In other states, ordinary negligence isn’t enough to support a criminal charge.

Criminal Negligence, Culpable or Gross Negligence, Reckless Driving

In states that have a higher threshold for vehicular homicide charges, they often require that the behavior of the driver meet the standard for ‘criminal’ negligence. Criminal (or gross) negligence describes behaviors that far exceed typical negligence. Rather than breaching their duty to provide for other motorist’s safety, a grossly negligence driver has complete disregard for other people’s safety. Here are a few examples of behaviors that would be considered grossly negligent:

  • Excessive speeding
  • Intoxicated driving (especially with a history of past DUIs)
  • Intentionally bucking traffic laws (speeding through red lights)
  • Road rage or intentional aggressive driving

A criminal negligence threshold helps ensure that drivers don’t get charged with vehicular homicide when they’ve clearly just made a human error or mistake. The loss of life is still tragic, but this higher threshold does help juries and judges consider the intent behind the negligent driving or illegal driving.

Driving While Intoxicated

Above, we specifically mentioned how driving while intoxicated could amount to criminal negligence. One reason for this is because driving while under the influence of alcohol or influence of drugs is a criminal offense in every state. Another reason for this is because getting behind the wheel while intoxicated is a very reckless behavior that shows a disregard for the safety of other people on the road. There are a few factors that might influence a judge or jury to consider driving while intoxicated overly reckless. Here are a few:

  • You’ve been charged with a DUI in the past
  • You’ve caused motor vehicle accidents in the past
  • You had an extremely high BAC
  • You were intoxicated by highly controlled substances like heroin, cocaine, or meth

In some states, driving while intoxicated must be proven through a BAC test. The suspect’s BAC level must exceed the state’s threshold for intoxication. In other states, a driver can be charged with a DWI when they’re under the influence of other drugs including prescription medicine.

Violating a Safety or Other Statute

Another common type of driving behavior that often results in fatal car accidents is violating a safety or other statute. All drivers are expected to follow traffic laws when they drive like adhering to the speed limit and taking heed of red lights or stop signs. Intentionally and willfully violating these statutes is considered negligence under the law.

States consider not only safety statutes but other important traffic laws, too. For instance, some states require that drivers keep their windshields clear. If a fatality occurs after an accident that was caused by an obscured windshield, then that could lead to a vehicular homicide charge.

Falling Asleep or Driving While Sleepy

You’ve heard about intoxicated driving, but did you know that driving while fatigued could be equally as dangerous? Surprisingly, fatigued driving is a phenomenon that’s increasing in frequency and severity. That’s not too surprising considering how stressed out and anxious the general population has been for the past several years.

Despite all that, fatigued driving might be considered negligent behavior depending on the circumstances surrounding the behavior. For instance, if you get into a crash due to fatigued driving because you were driving home from a vacation, then that might be considered negligence. If you caused a crash due to fatigued driving because you’ve been at work for a double shift and you were on your way home, then that might not be considered negligent.

Vehicular Manslaughter Charge: Does the Other Driver’s Actions Play a Role?

So far, we’ve discussed how one person’s negligent driving behavior could result in a vehicular homicide charge. Most accidents, however, are not caused by one singular action or behavior. They’re usually much more complicated than that. So, does the other driver’s actions play a role or make a difference when a fatality has occurred?

In short, it depends on the state you reside in and the actions of the other driver.

If your state abides by a contributory negligence standard, then the other driver’s behaviors will make a difference when it comes to any potential lawsuit. One person’s degree of responsibility for the accident could decrease based on the other driver’s behavior. For instance, if both cars were participating in illegal street racing and speeding, then both parties might be considered equally responsible for the accident, fatality, and losses. In the context of a lawsuit, the percentage of fault attributed to each party will dictate how much compensation is awarded.

In the context of criminal vehicular homicide charges, however, the other driver’s actions are rarely considered. For instance, if the fatally injured driver was drinking but the other driver’s reckless aggressive driving move pushed that driver off the road, then a judge or jury may not consider the fatally injured driver’s BAC at all when levying vehicular homicide charges.

Does Vehicular Manslaughter Apply to Non-Drivers?

In general, it only makes sense to charge someone with vehicular homicide when they were in fact the driver in control of the vehicle that caused the collision. There are a few rare circumstances, however, where someone can face these types of allegations despite never getting behind the wheel.

For instance, if a teenage driver on a restricted license is driving alone when they should be accompanied by an adult, then the parent of that teenager might be held responsible for the teen’s actions. Another rare circumstance might be when the owner of a vehicle loans out their car knowingly and negligently to someone who cannot drive well, has caused crashes in the past, or does not have a driver’s license. In these cases, it’s possible to charge the owner of the vehicle with the crime.

Another very rare circumstance is when a pedestrian fatality occurs, and an investigation reveals that the pedestrians caused the accident by attempting to cross the road in a negligent, unsafe way.

What are the Penalties and Sentences Associated with Vehicular Manslaughter?

When a traffic fatality occurs, it’s very complicated to determine whether criminal charges should be levied against a driver. To add to the complication, determining the penalty or sentence you could potentially face is tricky, too. For one, all states have different laws and regulations that define vehicular homicide, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide. They also have different sentencing guidelines.

For instance, a person convicted of vehicular homicide in Tennessee could face up to 30 years in prison. A person convicted of the same crime could face up to 5 years in prison in Alabama. In Alabama, however, some drivers get charged with second-degree murder rather than vehicular homicide.

Since things are confusing, it’s important to inquire about what your specific charges are if you do get arrested after a traffic fatality. The specific wording matters and will impact your potential sentence. This is especially true if you notice words like “aggravated” or “criminal” alongside the vehicular homicide terminology. In almost every case, these words mean your charges are more serious.

What are the Possible Defenses to Vehicular Manslaughter?

One of the greatest tenants of the US justice system is that the accused are considered innocent until proven guilty. With that in mind, there are always potential defense strategies that you can use to your advantage when you’ve been charged with a crime.

Since vehicular homicide is a very serious charge, you should take your defense equally as serious. Your first chance to defend yourself will happen during the initial investigation and your arrest. Remember that it’s always best to remain silent when it comes to police questions. That doesn’t mean that you should be uncooperative, but you should speak with an attorney before you answer specific questions that could potentially incriminate you. Your next step to defend yourself will be at your bail hearing, where you’ll have the opportunity to either plead guilty or not guilty. In general, it’s best to plead not guilty until you’ve had a chance to talk to a lawyer.

Below, we’ll go over some of the top defense strategies that are often successful against vehicular homicide charges.

Present an Alibi

If you know for a fact that you’ve been unreasonably accused of vehicular homicide, then one common (and quick) way to defend yourself is to prove that you were somewhere else when the alleged incident occurred. For instance, if witnesses falsely identify you as the alleged driver, but you and your vehicle were actually at a restaurant at the time of the crash, then you might be able to prove your innocence. To do so, you could use the restaurant receipts or surveillance camera footage to show that you could not have possibly been involved in the alleged crime.

Challenge the Evidence

Another common defense strategy to consider is to challenge the evidence that Prosecutors have against you. First, you’ll need to know what evidence Prosecutors have. For instance, if they took a breathalyzer test at the scene of the accident, then you could challenge the validity of the result. Breathalyzers are not as accurate as police would like you to believe. Often, they give out false results, so it’s worth your time to investigate whether or not you can challenge the validity of the breathalyzer.

If police point to a field sobriety test, then you could argue that you were just injured from the crash and not actually impaired as police suggest from the test results. If police plan on using eyewitness testimony against you, then you could try to challenge that testimony. For instance, if the witness only saw the tail end of the crash, then they may have missed a crucial part of the accident that was not a result of your negligence.

Present Your Own Evidence

One of the best ways to challenge inaccurate or misleading evidence is to present your own! Consider looking for evidence that will support your side of the story. For instance, you could ask nearby businesses if they caught the crash on camera.

Lack of Negligence or Gross Negligence

If you can prove that no negligence took place, then Prosecutors will lack the foundation needed to get a conviction against you. Without negligence present, the traffic fatality will likely be ruled an accident.

Plea Deals or Arranging a Lighter Sentence

If you know you did the crime and you expect a guilty verdict, then it might be best to hedge your bets and make a deal with Prosecutors. Plea deals are beneficial for both parties. The accused will likely get a lighter sentence or even have their charges reduced, while Prosecutors do not have to put in tons of work to get justice.

How Do You Know What Defense Strategy is Best for Your Case?

With so many defense strategies available, how do you decide which one will work best in your situation? The answer to that question is highly specific to your situation. To determine the best defense strategy, you’ll need to consider the circumstances surrounding your arrest, the evidence against you, the behavior of you and the other driver, and possibly the behavior of the police, too. On top of all that, you’ll need to understand the specific charges you’re facing and any other legal nuances that might help your case.

Considering the complexity of the situation, it’s best to consult with an attorney before you pick a defense strategy and run with it. After all, you will only get one chance to defend yourself in court.

Are Criminal Charges the Least of Your Worries?

If you get convicted of a vehicular homicide charge, then that’s not the end of your worries. Not only will you have to endure the penalties and sentences associated with the charge, but you may also be open to civil liability as well. A wrongful death civil lawsuit seeks to help financially restore the loved ones or family of the fatally injured person. These individuals may have suffered significant financial losses as a result of losing their loved one. In response, they may seek out a lawsuit against you and collect compensation in the form of:

  • Any medical bills prior to the passing
  • Any burial or funeral costs
  • A loss of spousal or parental support 
  • Pain and suffering

If you get convicted in criminal court, then that increases the likelihood that you’ll get held civilly liable for the incident, too.


Clearly, vehicular manslaughter is an extremely serious criminal charge. If you take the life of another person, then you have to expect severe scrutiny regardless of whether the incident was a complete accident or not. Unfortunately, if you’re the one who caused the crash, then you’ll have to deal with not only the potential criminal consequences of your actions but also the moral implications, too.

If you or your loved one were injured in a accident involving drunk driving, contact our Atlanta DUI accident attorney immediately to help you! If you were the intoxicated driver, unfortunately, we are not able to help as we don’t have criminal defense attorney on board.

Donald Singleton

Donald Singleton


A Georgia native, Don founded Singleton Law Firm in 1999 as a continuation of his lifetime commitment to serving his state and community. He has concentrated his trial practice to representing victims of serious injury and wrongful death arising out of trucking, car, bus and motorcycle accidents, premises liability and a wide variety of other causes.

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