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.

Note: I am happy to report that the Coalition Government finally listened to concerns expressed by me and many others over this and section 137 came into force in March 2015 as one of that Government's final actions.

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.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Thames Velo 30th Anniversary Top Results



1 Tom Neale
2 Danny Axford
3 Benjamin Luckwell
4 Steve Golla
5 James Notley
6 James Fox
7 Roy Chamberlain
8 Lee Smith
9 Martin Ford
10 Grant Bayton
11 Billy Osmond
12 Justin Belcher

3/4 Race
1 James Waters
2 Michael Burke
3 Philip Pearson
4 Sean Dines
5 James Leach
6 Adam Moore
7 James Archibald
8 Richard Stanton
9 Tim Butt
10 David Kingsbury

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Team Townend Challenge - My report

Yesterday I took part for the second year running in the Team Townend Challenge held in Cumbria to commemorate the lives of the two brothers, Christian and Niggy Townend who were so tragically killed in December 2010 when they were run down from behind by a coach driver who successfully claimed the winter sun as a defence at his subsequent trial.

The event is fantastically organised by the family and friends of Christian and Niggy with all proceeds going to Roadpeace, a charity which supports victims of road traffic collisions and campaigns for much needed improvements in our criminal justice system.

Far too many further recent examples exist of failures to prosecute and of unsatisfactorily run court cases and inquests.  Much needs to be done.

My ride: sponsorship welcomed:

Strava Details.  10,000 ft climbing.

Unlike many sportives a leisurely start is possible which is just as well as the morning was wet and the afternoon glorious sunshine.  I rolled off from Loweswater Village Hall just after 1000 into a light drizzle and headed to the first pass, Whinlatter, a reasonably gentle climb but today into a easterly headwind.  Over the other side at Braithwaite I started the anticlockwise loop up Newlands Pass, still in the rain.  This pass starts gently (by Cumbria standards!) but steepens at the top.  During my final lunge for the summit my rear wheel spun round uselessly with my right foot going down so fast my first thought was that I had snapped the chain.  I was stationery for an instant whilst I sat down and forced the left foot down weaving to the top precariously from the saddle.  The previous day my new rear wheel (to replace my crash damaged one) had arrived but I had not had time to sort it out and found an old training wheel with a much needed 29 sprocket but with a rather cheap tyre.  Fortunately I still had my good front wheel with a good tyre on it so at least I had good grip going down the other side.  I paid for that good grip later though (see below).

Next up Honister pass from west to east into that headwind, even steeper at the top but luckily it had stopped raining and the sun had come out by the time I got there.  I found it hard (potential sponsors please note - I was seriously challenged).  With the roads still wet I was worried, though I was able to do it out of the saddle with only minor slippage.  With my speed dipping below 4 mph I felt seriously unstable and my lung and shoulder decided to remind me they had been traumatised a few months ago.  It was a massive relief to get to the top.  then there was a good 'easy' section along the west shore of Derwentwater and back over Whinlatter this time with a welcome tailwind back to Loweswater.

Tea sandwiches and cakes were all laid on by hard working volunteers and I partook greedily before setting off to do it again but this time taking the Honister/Newlands loop in the opposite anticlockwise direction.  The sun was shining and the roads were drying so I wanted to get a full day's ride in - besides one circuit for each of the brothers seemed appropriate.  So back over Whinlatter, then the left turn to the west shore of Derwentwater via small roads strewn with flints.  I soon learnt that good grip = poor puncture resistance as my front wheel got its first flat of the day.  After replacing the tube I managed an act of cycling stupidity surely worthy of the back page of Cycling Weekly when I failed to zip up the saddle bag.  When I punctured again within a few miles I realised my tyre levers had fallen out and I had to retrace my steps regular reinflating the wheel until I found them strewn across the road.  Now with no spare tube left I pressed on thinking the roads would improve and if worst came to worst I had a little pack of self-adhesive patches.  This time up Honister I had a tailwind but I really struggled to make it up the lower steep section of the climb even though the now dry roads left me with no friction problems.  Equally the last part of Newlands (back into a headwind) seemed very touch and go.  After that though it was relatively plain sailing back past the now quiet Loweswater Village Hall to my B&B.

Supper was in the Kirkstile Inn.  After rehydrating on a few pints of Loweswater Gold Ale, I decided to cycle the 2 miles back to my accommodation.  I was somewhat conscious of the fact that had any motorist charged around a blind bend on the narrow road into me then any subsequent inquiry and inquest would almost certainly not be interested in going beyond recording that I was 'over the limit' and not wearing a helmet or high-viz.  Fortunately though my luck held out and the worst that happened was puncture number 3 of the day just as I was reaching my destination.

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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Coroners and Cyclists - do they mix?

I have had cause on these pages to comment upon a number of Inquests investigating the death of cyclists in Road Traffic Collisions and have also appeared in, but not commented directly upon, Inquests at which I have held a brief for a bereaved family.  More often than not the inquest is an unhappy experience for the families involved.  The question needs to be asked as to whether it is a useful process and whether it can be further improved.

The strength of the Inquest system is that it may be the only investigation into a death.  If a police investigation reveals insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution of any individual for causing the death, and if too there is no civil claim for compensation, then the Inquest may represent the only opportunity to hear evidence of what has happened.  Further the prospect of an impending inquest may help incentivise those responsible for investigating the death (in RTC cases the police) to ensure they have done a thorough job which will stand up to public scrutiny.  Finally, and importantly, the Coroner has the power to issue a PFD (Prevention of Future Deaths) Report to any person whom she believes has the power to take action to prevent future deaths.

The foremost weakness of the current system is that its scope is somewhat limited.  Historically the Coroner's Court used to have the power to point the finger and, indeed, commit a named person to the Criminal Court to stand trial.  However this was thought to lead to problems and has been changed.  In particular the Coroner's Court is circumscribed by The Coroners and Criminal Justice Act 2009 which provides that:

"5 Matters to be ascertained

(1)The purpose of an investigation under this Part into a person's death is to ascertain—
(a)who the deceased was;
(b)how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death;
(c)the particulars (if any) required by the 1953 Act to be registered concerning the death.
(3)Neither the senior coroner conducting an investigation under this Part into a person's death nor the jury (if there is one) may express any opinion on any matter other than—
(a)the questions mentioned in subsection (1)(a) and (b)..;
(b)the particulars mentioned in subsection (1)(c).This is subject to paragraph 7 of Schedule 5 [which deals with PFD Reports]."

Most of this is rather mundane.  It cannot possibly be supposed that the panoply of a Court system is required to record who the deceased was or when and where the deceased came by his death.  The real question is 'how' which is a question that may be interpreted as widely, or narrowly, as the Coroner thinks fit.  The prohibition on the expression of opinion on other matters provides a broad limitation of the scope of the Inquiry and furthermore the Act goes on to provide that:

"10 Determinations and findings to be made

(1)After hearing the evidence at an inquest into a death, the senior coroner (if there is no jury) or the jury (if there is one) must—
(a)make a determination as to the questions mentioned in section 5(1)(a) and (b) .., and
(b)if particulars are required by the 1953 Act to be registered concerning the death, make a finding as to those particulars.
(2)A determination under subsection (1)(a) may not be framed in such a way as to appear to determine any question of—
(a)criminal liability on the part of a named person, or
(b)civil liability."

The trouble then is that following a RTC the Coroner will inevitably rely very heavily on the evidence of the police (who have investigated a collision with a view to finding if there is evidence of a criminal offence).  A report will be admitted which may well conclude (say) that the collision occurred as a consequence of the deceased running a red light and no fault has been disclosed on the part of any other person.  The Coroner then, mindful of section 5 and 10, will say something like "I find the deceased died as a consequence of running a red traffic light but I must stress that I am not attributing any kind of blame to him".  Which is, of course, doublespeak.

Further trouble arises if the deceased's family want to test the evidence of the police investigator that the deceased went through a red traffic light.  Maybe there is good reason to doubt the veracity of an account given to the police by a motorist, who ran down the deceased from a conflicting direction, that he (the motorist) went through a green light.  Maybe parts of the motorist's account are demonstrably wrong but the police had not picked that up.  Maybe the motorist claims always to comply with traffic lights but CCTV shows him going through a red light two minutes earlier.  There might even be real grounds to question whether the motorist is a witness of truth.  If he is not challenged at the Inquest he will probably never be challenged and quite often, if not usually, the Coroner will come to the end of his questioning of the witness without making an effective challenge himself.

Usually the family will not have a lawyer (another weakness of the system because the motorist will invariably have a lawyer funded by his insurers).  If they do have a lawyer, then (certainly if a barrister) she will have a duty fearlessly to protect her client's interests and strive to displace the conclusion that the deceased was solely to blame.  She may then be metaphorically kicked around the Court by the Coroner who says nothing may be asked implying that the motorist is to blame and who sabotages the line of questioning.  This is not a problem for the lawyer but it is a terrible spectacle to inflict upon the family.

It is open to a Coroner to interpret the scope of his Inquiry widely or narrowly.  If narrowly then there is no legitimate purpose to the calling of the police investigator and the finding will simply be death at a certain time and location due to a road traffic collision.  This though is something of a lost opportunity - cyclists should not be dying on our streets due to road traffic collisions and the cause of the collision should be investigated, as too should the quality of the police investigation.  An impartial investigation does not involve solely dwelling on the responsibility of the deceased but receiving evidence and allowing questions that go to the responsibility of others.  The law does not prevent this (as demonstrated at numerous high profile Inquests) what it requires is that the Coroner takes care in the framing of his determination and findings.

I speak generally and nothing should be taken to relate to any particular case or Coroner.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Recent cases

I have been a little quiet about the law on here recently.  Not just because something has to give whilst I regain full health/fitness but also because my increasing professional engagement in cases involving cyclists sometimes limits what I may properly say.
However, I am not a criminal lawyer, and can express my bewilderment at the jury decisions in the cases of R v Petterson and R v Dove.  Both were charged with causing death by careless driving.
Petterson drove his van into David Irving on Mountbatten Way, a dual carriageway near Southampton.  Details of the evidence given at his trial are available as a consequence of the work of the Southampton Cycling Campaign who took detailed notes.  From these it becomes reasonably clear why an apparently open and shut case of a motorist driving into the rear of a cyclist fell apart.
First on day 2, the prosecution expert witness, Mr Smith, suggested to the jury, in response to a question from the prosecution, that Mr Irving should not have been there and the Defence not surprisingly latched onto it:
"Prosecution: What road should Mr Irving have used?
Witness: the designated route would be Millbrook Rd East - Central Station Bridge – Southern Rd – West Quay Rd
Defence: the approved cycle route would take him directly to his place of work."

Then, on day 4, the Police expert collision investigator was called and crumpled in cross-examination by the Defence with:

"Defence: What was effect of sun? 
Witness:would have made cyclist virtually impossible to see."

Finally on Day 6, the Judge instructed the jury that:

"Highway Code guidance regarding sun glare (not law but could be used as evidence of without due care and attention, or could be ignored)"

So we are left with a prosecution case that a cyclist was where he should not be, was virtually impossible to see, and that advice in the Highway Code "If you are dazzled by bright sunlight, slow down and if necessary, stop." could be ignored.  Instead of wondering at how there could possibly be an acquittal you are left wondering why the prosecution was even brought.  Sadly the lack of understanding of cycling exhibited by police, experts and lawyers probably explains not only the failure of this prosecution but also why some prosecutions do not even happen.

Surely if those present understood cycling at all the trial would have run more as follows:
Day 2
"Prosecution: What roads could Mr Irving have used?
Witness: He was perfectly entitled to use Mountbatten Way.  There was also a designated cycle route  Millbrook Rd East - Central Station Bridge – Southern Rd – West Quay Rd.  Mountbatten Way was the fastest and most direct route to his destination.
Defence: the approved cycle route would take him directly to his place of work."

Day 4
"Defence: What was the effect of sun? Witness:The sun can make it harder to see but every driver should always be able to stop in the distance that they can see to be clear and should slow down or even stop if necessary.  No other driver failed to see Mr Irving and his long shadow.  Either the Defendant saw Mr Irving and gave insufficient room or he drove into a space without knowing what was there."

Day 6

"The Highway Code specifically recommends that if you are dazzled by strong sunlight you slow down and if necessary stop.  Failure to comply with this guidance is not, of itself, an offence but the Highway Code is essential reading for every road user and the law is clear that the guidance may be used as evidence of driving without due care and attention.  It is not determinative and you should weigh it with the other evidence in finding whether or not  the prosecution has proved its case".

Dove drove an HGV into the back of Christopher Griffiths on the A19, a dual carriageway near Billingham in Teeside.  He was defended by a QC at two trials at which juries twice failed to arrive at a verdict.  It seems reasonably clear from the reports that the Defence skillfully got everybody else involved to believe that the issue was whether Mr Griffiths was cycling to the left or right of a rumble strip at the side of the road.  Surely that was of no relevance, he should have not been run down even (maybe especially) if he was in the lane in front of the HGV (which is where I would have been incidentally).

In the past I have been baffled by perverse jury verdicts.  However the more information there is about the way these cases are run in Court, the clearer it becomes that it is not the juries' fault.  Nor of course is it the fault of Defence lawyers who are perfectly right, and indeed bound, to capitalise on the weaknesses of the prosecution.  It seems to me a pity that the prosecution do not engage the services of an expert in cycling to at least rectify some of the worst misconceptions.  Bikeability as part of the National Curriculum or at least part of the driving test would eventually mean that almost all lawyers, experts and even jurors would know something about the subject.

Maidenhead DCC 10 mile Time Trial 3rd April 2014: Etape prep.

My first competitive event of any description post-crash and my first time trial for 2 years.  I always used to do a 27:xx (I was never a good time triallist) and last night managed a 29:xx.  Two minutes may not seem very much but it represents only about two-thirds the power.  Interestingly my heart rate was just as high and the effort hurt at least as much.  My road to recovery and to reinvent myself has a long way to go!
It was a great night for Thames Velo though with a good turnout and 4 riders placing in the top 8, with some cracking times on 'ordinary' bikes.

Yesterday also saw SNCF taking train bookings for the summer.  I have tickets from Paris to Lyons for the Marmotte and the sleeper down to Pau for the etape all booked up for July at quite remarkable value.  Unfortunately Eurostar's policy towards the carriage of bicycles makes me feel compelled as last year to fly to Paris.  An absurd state of affairs that it is so much easier (and cheaper) to carry a bike on a plane than on a train.  I assuage my sense of guilt with the thought that I am at least limiting the distance that I fly.  As with cycling generally, it really ought to be made so much easier for people to do the right thing.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

My last race

I have been out of action lately and many have been kind enough to enquire after me.  It seems simplest to post an update here.
I was racing in the E/1/2/3 Imperial Winter Series event at Hillingdon on 4th January.  Something happened in the early laps and my next recollection is being in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington with a kindly Consultant Anaesthetist seeking my consent for the insertion of a spinal epidural.  It was necessary as I had a flail chest (multiple rib fractures including a few ribs fractured twice) so without good pain relief there would have been a risk of shallow breathing leading to chest infection.  My left lung was punctured and collapsed.  Against that the grade III separated shoulder, mangled elbow, battered hip and extensive road rash barely mattered.
The bang to the left side of the head, possibly coupled with copious quantities of morphine, leave me with no real clue what happened but mercifully no head injury.  I must have hit the tarmac hard and/or had my chest rode over when on the ground.  Apparently an air ambulance was called out but not used.
I got the greatest possible care, all on the NHS, in the Major Trauma Ward at St Mary's from an impressive range of consultants and nurses but I must have made a difficult patient for a week, frustrated at being tethered by numerous tubes and lines whilst the blood was being drained from my chest cavity.
On 11th I was finally out of hospital and immediately celebrated by taking the dog for a slow wheezy walk.
The following weekend I took my daughters for a slow wheezy bike ride in the park.
Yesterday (28th) I took myself for a solo spin in the park.
Tomorrow I start physiotherapy on my shoulder.
I have been back working full time for the past week or so.
My hospital review, by which time I very much hope to be pain free and back properly on the bike, is mid February.  I will be in Spain for a week at the end of February with clubmates to kick start getting back into riding.
Obviously I have had to recalibrate my plans.  I had hoped to get into a state to compete seriously in the Masters 50+ road race in the summer.  I now plan to get myself into a fit state for the Marmotte and the Etape du Tour in July.  I have taken the (for me very sad, for others hugely welcome) decision not to race again.  I enjoyed it but was not terribly good at it.  After many years of incident free racing I have now crashed twice in 15 months and cannot rule out slowing reactions or an increasing inability to bounce off tarmac as affecting my odds.  (After my last crash I decided to avoid 4th cats and bunch sprints but that did not suffice).  The decision as to whether or not to accept the risks of racing has to be a personal one and I would hate my experience to put anyone else off.  On balance and with ordinary luck racing is a good thing.  I may get into time-trialling both individual and team.
For the cyclists among you I had better add that my severely damaged bike is at Condor awaiting replacement frame, forks, bars, pedals, rear wheel, saddle and seatpost.  Helmet, clothing (save club kit which seems to be hardest) , chest strap and glasses all now replaced.  Really though none of that material stuff matters any thing like as much as good health.
To try and take a positive from it I have a heightened appreciation of many things in life and unlike so many passing through that hospital ward, I will be making a full recovery.
I will keep you posted on my preparations for the sportives.