• In the case of Attorney General’s Reference (No. 2 of 1992) [1994] Q.B. 91, it was held that the defence of automatism requires a total loss of control. This is not satisfied where the defendant claims to be ‘driving without awareness,’ or any other description that only indicates reduced impaired, or partial loss of control.

Facts of the Case

  • D was a HGV driver. On 16th April 1991, he started to drive at 11am and was on the motorway all day aside from regular breaks.
  • After a 45-minute break, D set off from a service station at 10.30pm. D, seemingly on purpose, drove into the hard shoulder where a white van with its hazard lights flashing and a recovery van were parked.
  • D steered in a straight line, but only started to break at the moment of impact. The lorry hit the cars and killed 2 people.
  • At this point D had been driving for over 6 hours, covering 343 miles, and he had taken adequate breaks according to regulation.
  • D was charged with causing deaths by reckless driving. An expert witness gave evidence that D was suffering from ‘driving without awareness,’ a condition in which his ability to avoid collisions ceased to exist.
  • D raised the defence of non-insane automatism. This question was left to the jury and D was acquitted.


  • Could ‘driving without awareness’ satisfy the defence of automatism?

Held by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)

  • Finding for C, that driving without awareness could not amount to automatism. This required a total loss of voluntary control, not just impaired or reduced control. The expert evidence indicated that D still retained some voluntary control, such as being able to street straight and react to strong stimuli. The question of automatism should not have been directed to the jury.

Lord Taylor C.J.

  • The expert witness stated that ‘driving without awareness’ is not a scientific term but a provisional one. There are two essential components to the act of driving: collision avoidance and steering within highway lines. In a state of driving without awareness, the driver’s capacity to collision ceases to exist.
  • This condition can occur without the driver being aware of this happening, but they would ‘snap out’ of the condition in response to major stimuli appearing in front of them. The expert witness was unable to say why this had not occurred in the present case when D had seen the lights a quarter mile before.
  • The expert witness agreed that D would still be controlling the vehicle and the state of unawareness was not total.
  • “Mr. Jones submits that automatism as a defence in a driving case arises only where there is such total destruction of voluntary control that the defendant cannot be said to be driving at all. He cited Hill v Baxter [1958] 1 Q.B. 277 in which Lord Goddard C.J. said:
  • ‘I agree that there may be cases where the circumstances are such that the accused could not really be said to be driving at all. Suppose he had a stroke or an epileptic fit, both instances of what may properly be called acts of God; he might well be in the driver’s seat even with his hands on the wheel, but in such a state of unconsciousness that he could not be said to be driving’” [102E].
  • Examples of situations where automatism could apply were where a driver at the wheel suffers an epileptic fit, a coma, a blow on the head from a stone thrown up from the highway and an attack by a swarm of bees.
  • As such, the proper evidential foundation was not laid by the expert evidence of driving without awareness. All authorities show that the defence of automatism requires total destruction of voluntary control on D’s part. The expert witness agreed that D would retain enough control to steer and react when confronted by significant stimuli, which would normally return him to full awareness. Therefore, the question of automatism should not have been directed to the jury.