Thursday, 11 December 2014

Inquest into death of Michael Mason

I do not normally comment upon cases in which I am involved but this one is exceptional and I shall confine myself to (relatively) neutral observation upon evidence given in a Court open to the public.

Mr Mason was run down from behind by a Nissan car as he rode his bike North up Regent Street, \north of \Oxford Circus and near its junction (on the other side of the road) with Little Portland Street.  The collision occurred at around 6.20 pm on 25th February.  Sadly Mr Mason died of his injuries on 14th March.

At the outset the Coroner (to his considerable credit) asked his officer to read out a moving tribute to Michael Mason written by his daughter Anna Tatton-Brown.  The tribute is set out here on Ross Lydall's blog

The Coroner then asked Mr Mason's daughter to give some evidence about his long experience riding bicycles.

Witness evidence and CCTV evidence was less than entirely clear but left no doubt that no witness aside from the Nissan driver failed to see Mr Mason on his bicycle.  The evidence was quite clear that he had the required lights including a brightly flashing rear light fixed above a red reflector which would reflect back light from car headlights.  The evidence was also clear that the area (as one might expect) was well lit by street lights.  The CCTV footage did not cover the immediate location of the collision.

The scene in daylight and in different traffic conditions is shown on google thus

The fatal collision occurred just south and west of the traffic island in the photograph.  you are looking North and you have to imagine the yellow line is not there.  The bus stop has apparently moved as it was further North alongside the pedestrian island at the time of the collision.

Although some witnesses queried and offered explanations as to why Mr Mason was riding towards the centre of the road, the police investigator had no difficulty in agreeing that Mr Mason had every right to be there for any number of reasons and there is no possible criticism of his position in the road.

The collision investigator also gave evidence that the physical evidence on the car and the bicycle made it clear that this was a 'linear' collision with the bicycle and the car pointing in the same direction at the moment of impact. This ruled out any swerving immediately before the collision.Further the rear tyre left a mark and dent mid way between the centre line of the car and its offside.  That is to say right in front of the position where the driver was seated.

The driver was commuting home in Hertfordshire from her work at a hairdresser's salon in central London.  She was driving a 'motability' car owned by a disabled friend.  She gave evidence consistent with her accounts to the police that she did not see Mr Mason or his bicycle at any time before the collision.  She was travelling at somewhere between 20 and 30 mph and did not brake before impact.  She carried on and parked 30 metres up the road before returning to the realisation she had hit a cyclist.  In answer to a question which she was warned that she need not answer she accepted that if the cyclist was there (which from the physical evidence he unquestionably was) she should have seen him.

The driver was asked questions about her eye-sight.  She passed the police's vision test (reading a numberplate) at the scene at night using her distance vision spectacles.  She kept about her person a further pair of spectacles for reading and was adamant that at the time of the collision she was wearing the distance vision spectacles used to demonstrate acceptable vision to the police.

A detective from the Serious Collisions Investigation Unit confirmed to the Coroner that there were no criminal proceedings taken against the driver and that decision had been taken by the Metropolitan Police without reference to the CPS.

The Coroner returned a finding of accidental death and declined an invitation to consider a Prevention of Future Death Report relating to a default 20 mph speed limit.  He observed that when the Met Police collision investigator was invited to consider whether a 20 mph speed limit would save lives he regarded such a notion as speculative.  He commented that Mr Mason had not been wearing hi-viz or a helmet but did not go so far as to suggest that either would have made any difference.  (Indeed he could not have suggested any causal relevance as there was absolutely no evidence of such).

I have only included reference to that which came out in Court and have not covered everything but this should be sufficient to give a reasonable impression of the evidence and the decisions taken.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Suspension of my twitter account

To let you all know my twitter account has been suspended at the request of @dragonducatis.
I have asked twitter to reinstate it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

When is a law not a law? When no-one troubles to bring it into force.

In July 2006, Kelly Woodward, died when the car in which she was travelling as a rear seat passenger was driven into a tree.  The driver, Andrew Burrell, was convicted of causing her death by dangerous driving and of driving over the alcohol limit.  He was sentenced so leniently that the Court of Appeal intervened imposing a 4 1/2 year prison sentence and a 5 year driving ban.
Kelly's family were nonetheless dismayed to discover that much of the ban would pass whilst Burrell was behind bars and they campaigned tirelessly for a change in the law so that a driving ban would start when an offender was released from any prison sentence imposed in respect of the same offence.  She handed in a petition to Downing Street (then occupied by Tony Blair) and enlisted the support of Jack Straw (then Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary).
I understand that Kelly's family were invited to the House of Commons Gallery to watch the passage through Parliament of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 which received royal assent on 12th November 2009.
Section 137 of that Act provides that Schedule 16 makes provision about the extension of disqualification from driving in certain circumstances.  Schedule 16 in turn amends The Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 by introducing a new "s35A Extension of disqualification where custodial sentence also imposed" which in rather convoluted language provides for the period of disqualification to be increased by (broadly) half the prison term which I take to be the period of imprisonment that the offender could be anticipated to actually serve in prison.  (Quite why it does not provide more simply for the period of disqualification to commence on the day of release I do not know but I am not a parliamentary draughtsman, nor even a criminal lawyer).
HOWEVER section 182 of the same Act provides that certain sections come into force when the Act is passed; that certain other provisions come into force 2 months after the passing of the Act; that more other provisions come into force on 1st January 2010; that yet further provisions come into force on such day that the Lord Chancellor may by order appoint and the remaining provisions (including section 137 as it has not been specified elsewhere) come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint.
A general election intervened in May 2010 when the Secretary of State had still not appointed a date bringing section 137 into force.
Incidentally the term 'the Secretary of State' under the Interpretation Act 1978 means any one of 'Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State' so in practical terms means the Government.
Now five years on, it seems fairly clear that the Government is not going to appoint a date for the coming into force of section 137.  This is not self-evidently a party political matter.  More likely it is simply a personality matter.  Jack Straw backed this law but his influence with government ended in May 2010 and he perhaps had other things on his mind in the dying weeks of the Brown administration.
It does though appear at best unfortunate that a change in the law, hard fought for by Kelly's family, has come to nothing for the want of a Secretary of State's signature on a commencement order.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Further Court Update: R v Robert Palmer


Yesterday, just days after the Wojcicki case, came the sentencing of Robert Palmer, a lorry driver who had earlier pleaded guilty to causing the deaths by dangerous driving of Andrew McMenigall and Toby Wallace, cyclists who were just 40 miles into their Lands End to John O'Groats ride in support of charity.  Palmer ran into them on the A30 near Newquay in Cornwall on 2nd July 2013.  Palmer was also sentenced for dangerous driving on a separate occasion when he was on bail for the fatal offences and drove into the back of another HGV.

There are similarities and differences with the Wojcicki case (which formed the subject of my last blog post).

Palmer had the advantage of representation from a barrister of some 40 years experience.  He (Palmer) realistically appreciated he had no Defence and pleaded Guilty to all 3 charges.  He did not seek to blame Mr McMenigall or Mr Wallace who were (like Owain James) completely blameless.  Palmer expressed, through his barrister, remorse at what he had done.

However the mitigation essentially ended there.  Palmer had a cynical disregard of road traffic law.  He was driving an HGV without the required rest periods and had only had 3 hours rest the previous night.  Furthermore he was such a prolific texter at the wheel that “The prosecution observes simply the absence of the phone activity in the period immediately up to the collision as an indication of his fatigue because prior to this collision his phone activity was very persistent.”  It is likely he fell asleep at the wheel.

The scene is similar.  This picture from Google earth appears to be fairly representative of the A30 road at the scene of the impact:
There is a rumble strip set around a metre or so from the grass on the nearside and an eye witness indicated that “the lorry had not moved out of the inside lane at all and stuck very close to the rumble strips."


The sentence was 7 1/2 years on each fatal charge to be served concurrently and a further year on the non-fatal charge to be served consecutively.  Palmer was banned from driving for 10 years.

Once again the sentence is significantly greater, particularly the driving ban, than sentences we have seen in the past and once again the prosecution were not deflected from bringing the correct (dangerous driving) charge.

Observation 1: rumble strip

It occurred to me as I typed this that I am yet again describing a scene where impact occurred in the vicinity of a rumble strip.  I do wonder at the thought process that goes through a Highway designer's mind to the effect that inattentive dozy drivers require assistance to remain on the road and that a rumble strip is sufficient to deal with that hazard.  Plainly it is not if a cyclist is present.

Observation 2: prevention

With such a spectacular disdain for the law it seems a very great tragedy that Palmer's repeated offending was not caught and dealt with before he ended the lives of two good and blameless people.

Observation 3: driving bans

Prompted by a tweet, I have discovered to my surprise that the provision in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 providing that a driving ban starts to take effect on release from any prison sentence (rather than on the day of sentence) has still not been brought into force.  I will look further into that when I return from holiday and draw it to the attention to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Road Justice.  That provision would and should have applied to both Wojcicki and Palmer.

Families' Statement

Finally I think the dignified statement of both families issued yesterday merits repetition and dissemination:

“There are no words to describe the devastation and loss that we, and both families, feel following the deaths of our husbands. They were exceptional and giant men in every sense of the word,” they said.

“It is a tragedy that so many other families are also mourning loved ones who have been killed on Britain’s roads, particularly when many of these deaths were completely avoidable.

“So many of these families do not ever see a sentence brought against the person who has killed their husband, their child, their brother, their father.

“UK transport laws are lenient, charges are difficult and onerous to attain, and less and less resource is being dedicated to road traffic collisions.

“Toby and Andrew loved cycling. We believe that the rise in the popularity of the sport must be met by those with the responsibility to improve our transport infrastructure and improve education for drivers.

“We would like to thank everyone who has supported us and been involved in getting us this far.”

Read more:

Friday, 29 August 2014

Case Update: R v Wojcicki. Turning a corner?

The evidence (taken from the reports of WalesOnline who have covered this story in detail)
At around 8pm Mr Wojcicki drove his 3 ton minibus into the rear of Owain James, who was on his bicycle, causing him fatal injuries.
The collision occurred on the west bound carriageway of the A472, a dual carriageway road subject to the national speed limit (70 mph for a light vehicle, 60 mph for a mini-bus), near Newbridge in South Wales.  So far as I can tell this is fairly representative of the location. 

Google earth suggests that each lane is around 3.75 metres wide.  The width of Wojcicki’s Mercedes minibus is 2.25 metres wide.  That debris strewn strip by the grass looks to be about 1 metre wide.
The prosecution opened the case on the basis that Mr James was riding inside the white rumble strip. 
One independent witness driving a Landrover in the same direction gave evidence that “The minibus did not alter its course at all and no brake lights came on.  The minibus ploughed into the cyclist”.  Another independent witness also travelling West said he saw a cyclist in the area between the grass verge and the rumble strip and thought the driver of the mini-bus “must have been distracted by something because the minibus was drifting from the lane to the rumble strip back and forth.”
Wojcicki did not stop his minibus for a distance of 125 metres.  When he did get out of his van he was seen taking photographs of Mr James with his ‘phone.  Whether because of this or (as one would like to think) they would have done it anyway the police examined Wojcicki’s ‘phone and found that a short while earlier he had taken photographs of a vintage car at a set of traffic lights.  The last traffic lights passed by Wojcicki were a couple of miles back on the opposite (North) side of Newbridge and I surmise it was here that the photographs were taken.
Wojcicki’s accounts following the collision were contradictory.  He told witnesses at the scene that he had not seen Mr James prior to the impact.  The following day interviewed by police he claimed that he saw Mr James from a distance of 20-30 metres away [My note: the forensic evidence if any has not been reported but lines of sight were obviously far better than that and no explanation appears to have been given as to why he saw him so late –at a closing speed of approximately 35 mph this would have given less than 2 seconds to react].  He claimed he had been happy with his driving and comfortable to stay in his lane where he was doing 55 mph.  He added “I did not cross the white line” [My note: I cannot tell if he means the rumble strip or the line dividing the westbound lanes – the evidence of the first independent witness that he did not alter course at all suggests perhaps he did not cross either but the second independent witness gave evidence of drifting to the rumble strip].  He then claimed that Mr James swerved into his path.
When giving evidence Wojcicki accepted that he had taken a photograph when stopped at traffic lights and maintained that he had seen Mr James on ‘the hard shoulder’ but ‘I could see no hazard and was happy to stay in my lane and overtake’.  He apparently mentioned that in Poland it is considered acceptable to overtake a cyclist with 1 metre’s clearance.  He accepted that he was constantly adjusting his position on the road because his van had a tendency to move to the right ‘but I did not get close to the white line’ [meaning I think the rumble strip].

The result
The charge was causing death by dangerous driving.  The prosecution case was that Wojcicki was looking at his recently taken photographs and therefore did not see Mr James and that explained why he did not avoid him and why it took so long for him to stop after the collision.  The jury convicted.  The Judge made clear when sentencing that he was sure the prosecution case was right.  On the evidence I have seen reported I might, as a juror, have felt unpersuaded to the criminal standard (beyond a reasonable doubt) that Wojcicki was looking at his photographs immediately before impact.  However I would have convicted nonetheless because, for whatever reason, he cannot have been paying attention to the road ahead if he did not see Mr James until he was 20 to 30 metres away and worse because of the appalling dangerous complacency that led him not to trouble to move out before passing a cyclist.  At the very best, and on Wojcicki’s own evidence this was a close pass gone tragically wrong.  I can think of sinister explanations other than looking at photographs to explain taking a while, before deciding to stop.
The positive things are that, unlike other recent cases there is no record of distraction over whether or not the cyclist had traversed the rumble strip or whether the cyclist should have been on that road at all.  The rumble strip is intended to mark the limit of the useable carriageway and anybody who is ‘comfortable’ passing a cyclist close to the rumble strip is driving dangerously (contrast R v Dove).  Equally Mr James had every right to cycle on that road (contrast the discussions about alternative routes in R v Petterson) and the concomitant right to expect other roadusers to exercise care when passing him.

Perhaps even more encouragingly there was no reported debate about high-vis or helmets.  Maybe this is because it was so obvious that a helmet would have made no difference and because the final defence decided upon was that he DID see him albeit very late rather than the more conventional ‘didn’t see’ Defence.

It is also refreshing that the charge brought was the appropriate dangerous driving charge not careless contrast these recent cases

Wojcicki is now beginning a 5 year sentence of imprisonment.  Unusually in such cases, he has been disqualified for a long period, 10 years.  It would be good to think that the tide in these cases is turning.   CTC’s Road Justice campaign has been energetically targeting this area.  Likewise a valuable report last month from the Transport Select Committee highlighted the need to encourage motorists to share the roads responsibly with bicycles and calling for an amendment to the Highway Code which would emphasise the rights of cyclists to share the roads with drivers.  The mainstream body of people who cycle will I am sure, want to get behind that call.
I only hope that if this case gets before the Court of Appeal they back the Judge on the sentence and particularly on the 10 year driving ban; contrast these cases.

I have followed this case with particular interest because the close pass (often from a white van on a dual carriageway) is for me the most terrifying aspect of my commute.  I have on occasions been literally inches from sharing the fate of Mr James.  I am sure it must put a lot of people off cycling altogether.  Whilst statistically most collisions happen at junctions, it is usually somewhat easier to guard against the idiocy of the road user failing to accord you your right of way than it is to deal with the peculiarly unnerving conduct of a vehicle that comes up fast and close from behind.  Always allow yourself plenty of room to your nearside to swerve into if you need it.

A further postscript
I did not mention above the controversy that arose between Judge and Defendant solicitor described here.  This was raised by the Judge only after the trial had concluded for the very sound and proper reason that it should not be permitted to prejudice the trial.  I do not think anybody doubts Alan Blacker's entitlement to represent clients in the Crown Court, presumably how he dresses is regulated by the Law Society.  Equally I would very much like to believe that the nationality of the Defendant had no bearing on the jury's decision.  A conviction in not wholly dissimilar circumstances was secured against Ms Katie Hart an English woman in the hands of an English jury.  What I suspect is more likely to have made a difference is that the involvement of a mobile telephone probably removed the ever present risk of under charging (with careless rather than dangerous driving).  For the reasons I have set out I consider that the charge and the verdict in this case were both plainly right and I trust that neither the nationality of the Defendant nor the identity of his lawyer made a scrap of difference.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Disqualifications for bad driving

Last night I was invited by Roadpeace to the inaugural meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Justice on our Roads chaired by Baroness (Jenny) Jones.  With the Queen's Speech being debated elsewhere, there were perhaps rival demands on many parliamentarians but a select few MPs and Lords (spiritual and temporal) attended to set up the group and to hear the moving evidence of 3 bereaved families whose husband, son and daughter (all I think pedestrians) had been killed by bad motoring and had all been dismayed at the sentences imposed on those responsible for the collisions which took their loved ones away.
Next week, in my capacity as an 'ambassador' for CTC I will be attending a debate on the same topic - sentencing.  Sentencing comes at the very end of a process where the police, prosecution, jury (if applicable) and whole machinery of criminal justice has combined effectively to ensure the guilty party is convicted of at least some offence.

One concern raised both last night and by CTC is over the length of disqualifications from driving that the Courts are handing down.  It is now nearly 5 years since I commented by reference to the Court of Appeal cases of Rice and of Hall that you are likely to get the same period of disqualification from driving if you killed somebody with your bicycle as with your car.  Very often minimum periods of disqualification as prescribed by Parliament were given on the basis that the offender would otherwise have difficulty working and rehabilitating.

The sentencing guidelines, set in 2008, do not give guidance as to the length of disqualification so this is very much down to the Court of Appeal.  It is striking how frequently the Court of Appeal reduces the periods of disqualification set by Judges.

In a pre-guidelines case, R v Cully (2005) which is still referred to and followed by the Court of Appeal, the Court said this when reducing the Defendant's disqualification from 5 years to 2:
“We consider that the purpose of a disqualification from driving is so far as possible to protect the public. Often it may be that drivers come before the sentencing court with an appalling driving record. In such cases an extended period of disqualification may be appropriate since the offence indicates the risk to the public in the individual continuing to drive. Where circumstances do not suggest that there is any such risk, a period of disqualification, though inevitable as it is in a case of dangerous driving, can, and should in our view, be kept to the minimum.”

There seems, to me, to be a rather unfortunate assumption that, appalling driving records aside, there is no real risk to the public and Judges should keep disqualifications to the statutory minimum.

In R v Crew (2010) the Court of Appeal dealt with a man who had flown over from San Francisco, got into a hire car and fallen asleep killing a motorist travelling in the opposite direction.  He was convicted of causing death by careless driving.  The Court of Appeal said this when acknowledging that the driving bordered on dangerous but reducing the disqualification from 5 years to 2 :
"We are however persuaded that the period of disqualification is manifestly excessive. The Definitive Guideline provides no guidance as to the length of disqualification and so it is important to bear in mind, first, the risk represented by the offender is reflected by the level of culpability which attaches to his driving, and secondly, the main purpose of disqualification is forward looking and preventive rather than backward looking. In that regard the applicant's previous unblemished driving record is clearly an important factor as is the absence of aggravating factors such as speed.

“As to the extended driving test, the court's powers to make such a direction are discretionary. But having regard to the extent of the applicant's culpability and to the fact that this offence bordered on an offence of causing death by dangerous driving, we are of the view that such a direction was entirely appropriate.
“We give leave to appeal the order of disqualification. We treat the hearing of the application as the hearing of the appeal. We quash the order of disqualification of 5 years and we substitute for it an order of disqualification for 2 years."

The approaches in R v Cully and in R v Crew have been followed many times since.  Essentially if you have not been caught driving badly on other occasions there is an assumption that whatever bad driving brought you before the Court was a one-off and that you do not pose a risk to the public.  There is a touching, but wholly misguided, faith that motorists are caught and convicted whenever they endanger anyone and not simply once they have killed or, at best, injured.  It does not take much time cycling around our cities to appreciate this assumption is completely unwarranted.  The lorry driver who never faced substantive justice after killing Eilidh Cairns went on to kill again and I find it hard to accept that those who have killed once (or have driven in such a way that it is is only a matter of good chance they did not kill) are not more likely to do so again.

A few more recent examples clearly indicate that the Court of Appeal is just not willing to back the few Judges who hand down sentences of disqualification significantly in excess of the minimum.

In R v Farwell (2013) it seems not even the prosecution felt like defending the Judge's imposition of a 2 year ban following the Defendant's conviction of causing death by careless driving:
“In R v Cully the court identified the purpose of disqualification as being the protection of the public. Extended periods of disqualification could be justified where there was an identified risk to the public. In the Crown's response to this appeal it is stated that given the appellant's previous good driving record, a two year disqualification could only be justified if the facts of the offence disclosed a risk to the public from the appellant being permitted to drive. In our view, no such facts are disclosed. Further, an inability to drive directly impacts upon the ability of the appellant to carry out his work. In the particular circumstances of this case any period of disqualification will have a punitive effect.  Accordingly, we quash the period of 24 months' disqualification and substitute for it a period of 12 months' disqualification.”

Similarly R v Bishop (2013) reducing the disqualification following conviction of causing death by careless driving from 7 years to 4:
"In view of the appellant's youth and the need for rehabilitation after release, we are of the view that the period of disqualification was too long in the circumstances; as was said by this court I R v Crew [2010] 2 Cr App R (S) 23, disqualification addresses two considerations: punishment reflecting culpability and the need to look to the period after release.

"We therefore propose to vary the sentence to one of disqualification for a period of 4 years.“
Note that it appears this was a case where it could not be said or at least was not said, even by the Court of Appeal, that the Defendant posed no risk to the public.

And finally in a case not involving death but nonetheless one of the worst pieces of dangerous driving the Court of Appeal had seen, R v Charvill (2013):
“ [Counsel] has referred us to a number of authorities on the appropriate length of disqualification in such cases, including R v Cully [2005] EWCA Crim 3483, R v Cook [2010] EWCA Crim 121 and R v O'Connor [2012] EWCA 785, which illustrate two principles applicable to such disqualification: first, that the purpose of the disqualification is so far as possible to protect the public against the risk posed by the offender continuing to drive; and secondly, that the disqualification should not normally be imposed for such a period as might have the effect of impeding rehabilitation after serving a sentence of imprisonment.In our judgment, this was one of the worst pieces of driving this court has seen .  The Recorder was entitled to pass a severe sentence to deter others from driving in this way. In our judgment, the sentence of 9 months' detention was neither wrong in principle nor manifestly excessive.However, as the applicant had no history of driving offences and appeared usually to have been a careful and competent driver, we are prepared to treat the driving on this occasion as a piece of impulsive stupidity and not that of someone who represents a continuing risk to the public. We also accept that it would assist him in getting or retaining employment on his release to be able to drive.” 

The CTC and Roadpeace are right to call for Sentencing Guidelines to be reviewed.  This is apparently awaiting possible changes to substantive law being considered by the Government.  In relation to disqualification, driving needs to be seen as a privilege not a right.  Those who cannot or will not drive carefully will have to get to work on the bus, train or bicycle like the thousands of other people who through an uninvited medical condition or through choice do not drive.

One concern raised last night was over drivers who simply ignore bans.  For these miscreants the law has to come down hard just as it does for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice or taking part in a riot.  Imprisonment has to be the norm for those who drive whilst disqualified with release perhaps conditional on wearing tracking or other devices to make it much harder for them to flout the law.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Tour of Wessex 25th May 2014

My first really challenging ride since my crash.  I find to my consternation that this is the 8th time in 9 years that I have done a day of the Tour of Wessex.  I am a full hour slower than at my peak in 2009 but actually not all that much slower than last year.  The real difference is that in earlier years I would have chatted to my riding companions in a relatively relaxed manner whereas this year I was hanging on for all my worth and only doing turns at the front (though quite long turns on occasion) when going up hill.  Strava can be a cruel tool as it shows my reduced form over virtually every segment.  Psychologically as well as physically I am struggling to ride in the wheels; I was either hanging off the back or in the front; my trust of fellow riders has taken a knock which will take some time to restore.  I think my performance indicates that for the etape this year I will at least survive and stay ahead of the broom wagon though without doing anything spectacular.

It is a fantastic ride through absolutely stunning countryside.  Every year there are more and more participants.  It is a truly great day out whether you are in top form or not.  Again I am in awe of those who do all three days.

116 miles in 6h41m with 7,054 feet of climbing.