Following the verdicts and sentences in the Sam Harding and Mary Bowers cases I wanted to write a post about it, just as many people did however those many people said much of what I wanted to say better than I could. Yet, I must write, because I am angry and downhearted, how can I possibly advocate cycling in a country where a person’s life is valued so poorly the moment they sit on a bicycle? Something needs to change. As I considered what had happened I wished I could grab hold of the jury, the judges, the CPS and the government and shake them and shout in their faces, “Look what you’ve done and what you allow to continue!” I thought of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, a lone voice of reason and justice amongst the bigots and care-noughts. I wished I could have been in the jury rooms and explained to the other jurors the real cyclist’s side of things. Maybe one day I will and when that happens I will be ready, but maybe one day other men and women will pass judgment about my death under the wheels of a bus, and who shall speak for me then? The always brilliant Cycling Silk tells me that although the statement that follows could not be presented to the court before a verdict is given, there is a chance it could be read as part of a victim impact statement prior to sentencing. I’m giving a copy of it to my family with instructions on how to use it should they need to. A bit morbid I know but then I’m still young enough that the statistically most likely cause of my sudden death is an RTA.
Your honour, members of the jury, mum, dad, E******, L*****. If you are listening to these words I have been killed or incapacitated and I have written this letter to represent me where I cannot represent myself. I write this following the appalling treatment of the death of Sam Harding and the disablement of Mary Bowers, at the hands of the justice system. Sam was killed when he was thrown underneath a bus by a driver who opened a car door without looking. We can only suppose what led Sam to ride in the door zone, perhaps the bus following him, so close that it could not stop in time to prevent crushing him after he was doored, made him nervous and he moved over to get out of its way. The bus driver following him so fatally closely had ‘no case to answer’. The driver whose blacked out windows and negligence caused the crash was charged with manslaughter and walked free from court, the judicial system effectively legalised causing death by dooring.
Mary Bowers positioned herself in an advanced stop zone ahead of an HGV, the driver had a clear view of her but was too engrossed in a telephone call to notice her, a phone call he later lied about to the police. The lights changed, he turned left across Mary, horrifically crushing her under the wheels of the vehicle, upon hearing blood curdling screams the driver jumped out of the cab without applying the handbrake, allowing the vehicle to continue to roll over Mary. Mary has never regained consciousness and it seems is unlikely to.
The driver who crushed Mary walked free from court with an 8 month driving ban and a £2,700 fine. Later her father suggested that it would have been better if she had died that day, she would no longer suffer, her family would come to terms with their loss and the driver could have been charged with causing death by dangerous driving and received a more appropriate sentence. Mary is alive because of modern medicine and for this reason alone the driver could not be charged with causing death by careless driving, but the much lesser charge of careless driving even though his actions and thought process were the same whether she had lived or died. It is for this same reason that attempted murder carries the same maximum penalty as murder, when it comes to murder we do not distinguish between the outcomes, it is the act and the thought that matters not whether or not a doctor can save the victim. The justice system does not afford the same care to the victims of road collisions. To make appropriate convictions and appropriate sentencing more likely victims may be better served by having one charge along the lines of “Inappropriate operation of a vehicle” that can carry a penalty from 3 points and a fine to whatever is deemed suitable for the most serious crimes.
In all likelihood I am not in court today due to the carelessness, negligence or simple deliberate act of a driver, I can say this confidently for two reasons, firstly it is well documented that drivers are responsible for most of the accidents involving cyclists, while cyclists are responsible for less than 10% of them; secondly, I am a good cyclist, I am very experienced, I do not takes risks, run red lights or jump up and down off kerbs and I make myself visible through the use of lights, reflectors and hiviz items. Yet, almost every time I turn a wheel on a bicycle I am harassed and intimidated by people with the power to kill me. They do not see a man going to the shops or commuting to work, they see something else, I cannot know what but it angers them and they either do not care or do not want for me to travel in safety. Riding a bicycle makes me an ‘other’ a member of an outgroup, something not easily understood or to be sympathised with. I expect most, if not all, members of the jury are motorists but it is unlikely any of you are regular cyclists, or perhaps you have thought about trying but decided it was too dangerous. In so many cases of drivers killing cyclists or other vulnerable road users juries do not make a conviction on the higher charge even when it seems the only sensible decision. I believe this is because jurors, as representatives of the general population, find it all too easy to empathise with a driver. I have been a driver, I know how easy it is to speed or lose attention for a few moments, change the channel on the radio, pull out of a junction without looking quite as well as you should and faced with a defendant who has done the same and ended up in an accident it is so easy to say they were unlucky, we’ve all done it but 99.9% of the time no harm comes of it, “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. Members of the jury, it is not luck, there are no accidents on the road, there are people who care enough to pay attention and drive safely and courteously, and there are people who are negligent and careless and carelessness in a motor vehicle equals dangerous. I hope the jury has been able to look beyond the empathy they share with the defendant just because they share a mode of transport and also empathise with me, my family and friends and every cyclist trying to live their life in peace but all too frequently living in fear.
I am not anti-car, since I was 8 years old I was a Formula 1 fan, Ayrton Senna was my hero, I owned expensive cars and fast cars, I could recall innumerable boring facts about motor cars. However having owned those cars I came to realise how pointless they were, the idea of them so much better than the reality. I also came to understand the liability that came along with them, the potential to kill and be killed, I effectively gave up driving because I came to see it as the abnormal activity it is and I felt it exposed me to a degree of liability and culpability I was not willing to accept, I would rather the risks of being a cyclist than the risks of killing somebody.
I may be the first person in British legal history to have foretold my own demise without knowing of any person with a motive to kill or maim me. This great feat of clairvoyance was achievable because it seems a simple numbers game to me, cycle long enough and eventually you will be killed by a motor vehicle. A cyclist can delay that day somewhat through cycling technique, but ultimately cyclists are at the mercy of drivers and no matter how good a cyclist you are you will one day meet a driver not paying sufficient attention or care and they will run you down, at which point your survival and injuries are simply a matter of luck and the skill of the medical profession. [To be read if I am alive and incapacitated]If I am alive today, stuck in a hospital bed somewhere, unable to be witness to this case, I am most likely there because of modern medicine, had my accident happened just a few years ago I would be dead and the defendant would be here on a charge of causing death. I am alive today not because the defendant chose not to hit me hard enough to kill me.[end] I can make this prediction because I have seen how cycling has been sidelined by governments of every colour, we are taught to share the road yet what sort of sharing can there be where if a cyclist makes a mistake the cyclist dies and if a driver makes a mistake the cyclist dies, this is the sort of equality that exists between the knife thrower and the damsel standing against the wall. I consider this to be the moral hazard of driving. The driver accumulates all the benefits of his driving without bearing any of the consequences. The last line of defence against this moral hazard is the courtroom where judges and juries must impose severe penalties on drivers who kill so that drivers realise they will be expected to bear the consequences of their actions, otherwise cases such as Sam’s and Mary’s and perhaps mine, will continue as drivers have no reason to consider themselves accountable for their actions.
[To be used if helmets are mentioned at all regarding the case]Frequently I see news reports of court proceedings in which it is seen fit to mention whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet and this if often framed in terms of the cyclist being a responsible person who wears a helmet or an irresponsible person who doesn’t. This is a false dichotomy, the wearing of a helmet is a purely personal choice, it is not a requirement, the efficacy of a helmet is highly disputed and there is good evidence to suggest cyclists wearing helmets are more likely to be involved in crashes. Furthermore the belief that cycling requires lots of special kit and associated costs is off-putting to many potential cyclists. I choose not to wear a helmet because I am a cycling advocate and by my appearance I want to show how simple and uncomplicated utility cycling should be. It is not a mark of irresponsibility, it is a mark of someone who loves cycling and wishes to encourage others to take it up, cycling has the potential to revolutionise the world for the second time in its short history, it is the most efficient form of locomotion known to man or earthbound creature and its simplicity will allow it to endure while other modes of transport rise and fall.[end]
Sometimes the cyclist is considered contributorily negligent due to not wearing a helmet or hiviz even though these are not legal requirements, particularly in civil cases, I would point you to the HSE’s hierarchy of risk controls¹ on which PPE is the last measure to be taken when others have failed. Ask yourself did the government and local authority do everything they could to prevent the accident? If not, then their negligence must be greater than mine and they should bear some of the loss, alternatively neither of us can be considered negligent.
The HSE and VOSA regulate professional driving standards in the workplace and public highway and it must be to them we look for best practice; regular retraining, daily checks of vehicles, segregation from vulnerable people, the standards for professionals are so much higher than for the ordinary road user, not because the ordinary road user is any better a driver or any less likely to kill, but simply for their convenience, innocent people die so that drivers are not inconvenienced with things such as training or checking their vehicle is safe to use. This is because driving is considered a normal activity rather than the abnormal, dangerous activity that it really is that kills 2-3000 people each year. No workplace is permitted to allow the use of such a dangerous machine with so few measures in place to ensure it doesn’t harm anyone. As this situation is unlikely to change the only solution is to properly segregate cyclists, pedestrians and drivers and to do so without inconveniencing cyclists. This will require a network of segregated, direct cycle paths built to Dutch standards, smooth and wide enough for Sunday morning sports cyclists and children cycling to school to share. It will not be cheap, but unlike roads it will pay for itself in reduced congestion, and improved health for the nation, it will make life better for everyone. £1.5bn of the transport budget must be turned over to provide this network, this is a fraction of the overall transport budget even without accounting for the externalities of motoring and it is the equivalent of the £25 per head the Dutch spend on their already fantastic network.
Your honour, members of the jury, in these sorts of cases the main witness for the prosecution is all too often dead or otherwise unable to attend, just as I am today, it is just another injustice borne by the vulnerable road user that the worse they are injured the better it may be for the defendant, for there may be nobody to speak against them and no witness to their offence. Following the injustice metered out in the cases of Sam and Mary I am not prepared to let that situation occur to my family. I have probably done everything in my power to prevent being in a collision, ask yourselves, did the defendant? Did they willfully attack me, did they choose to break traffic laws or did they just make one of the little lapses that are accepted as being just one of those things that happens for so many drivers? Rather than what it really is, the negligent operation of dangerous machinery. I cannot predict exactly why I am not here today, I cannot say what penalty the defendant deserves, or even that they are guilty, I merely ask that justice be done.