An Open Letter to The British Judicial System

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Dear British Judicial System,

I write to you as a cyclist, a motorist and a pedestrian. As someone’s son and as someone’s father. As someone who seeks to go about his daily business in reasonable safety, and as someone who has no greater or lesser claim to that desire than any other in this land over which you preside, nor any greater or lesser right to it.

You fail me.

You fail me, and you fail others, because you are not there to protect us. This is your primary purpose: a duty of care, a memorandum of understanding that affords safety and equality to us.

Specifically, you fail us on the road. Here, there is no memorandum of understanding. There is no affordance of safety. And, most palpably of all, there is no equality.

This week you have provided three stark examples of your failure.

Firstly, there is the prominent case of Mary Bowers.

Ms Bowers was waiting in an advanced stop area when a lorry driven by Petre Beiu set off. Beiu had failed to observe the cycle lane and had failed to observe Ms Bowers despite her being visible through his windscreen for at least 10 seconds. He was using a telephone at the time, and was using it to give directions to a colleague who was also driving. He drove his lorry over Ms Bowers, had to be alerted by others to the fact, and failed to stop his vehicle properly. Upon being questioned by the police, he lied to try to cover his own back, denying his use of the telephone. He has admitted other offences.

The punishment for this is a £2700 fine and an 8 month ban.

I should point out, my dear Judicial System, that were I to be so abhorrently incompetent as to have committed that offence, such a sentence would have little impact on my life. The fine is not a punitive amount. The ban, whilst clearly an issue for a professional driver, would be inconsequential to me. I have a wife who can drive, and I can buy train tickets.

Therefore the message that you send to me, and millions of others in similar positions, is that I can destroy someone’s life, a life saved only by the country’s exceptional medical care, and I can destroy the lives of all who are close to them, with entirely negligible consequences to myself.

Of course, had Ms Bowers died, you would have been empowered to do a little more. But you chose to conduct sentencing while she exists in some appalling limbo. And you, the British Judicial System, make a huge distinction between someone whose actions result in death, and someone whose actions result in someone being in a long-term coma with no quality of life and surely a desperate prognosis; a state that some, indeed apparently Ms Bowers’ own father, might be inclined to argue as a state worse than death.

The difference is but a few critical moments around the arrival of paramedics. The difference is not in the actions, the stupidity, the incompetence, the flouting of the law, the deception of the investigating officers, the sheer danger presented to others. You choose not to differentiate so much on these criteria as you do on the actions of the medical staff, out of the hands of both the offender and the victim.

Let us, then, consider your second example of the week.

Yesterday, Wlodzimierz Umaniec was jailed for two years for defacing a Mark Rothko painting. The cost of repairing the damage is estimated at £200,000.

Now, British Judicial System, it should be noted that the damage done here is repairable. Expensive it may be, but it is repairable.

Moreover, it is damage to property, specifically a piece of modern art. There are four consequences: firstly the repair cost, secondly the inconvenience to the public of the work being removed during the repair, thirdly a potential loss of value of the original work, and fourthly some potential upset caused to some people. I would contend, especially given that a common purpose of modern art is to challenge and offend, that the non-financial aspects of this action are inconsequential in comparison to those suffered by Ms Bowers and her friends and family. Leaving us with financial implications only.

It seems strange that the action which has such devastating and irreparable physical and emotional consequences is punished by a derisory fine, whilst that with purely financial consequences is punished by a custodial sentence almost reminiscent of that issued to Pussy Riot earlier in the year.

Yet, my dear System, if this stark disparity in justice was not a sufficiently damning illustration of your lack of fitness for purpose, there is more.

The third example of the week is the case of Sam Harding, who was proceeding in a cycle lane when Kenan Aydogdu, having parked his car, opened his door directly into his path. Mr Harding was flung onto the road, then to be run over by the bus which was following him. He died.

You allowed Aydogdu to walk free. His actions were without legal consequence. This is, depressingly, nothing less than we would expect of you. Had someone accidentally dropped a piano from a bridge into the path of a car, my God, we would expect you to have acted decisively. But in this case, the driver is the party making the mistake, not the one suffering the consequences.

Yet, all of the above merely brings me to the point of my letter to you.

The point of my letter is that you overlook the nature of your role. Your role is to provide security, safety and protection. Even were you capable of acting in an egalitarian manner, your powers cannot provide any security for vulnerable road users.

You see, you miss things.

You miss the fact that a haulage company appears to be comfortable with their drivers operating telephones whilst driving, of drivers giving and receiving directions instead of stopping to consult a map or program a satnav.

You miss the fact that a court saw fit to – apparently unflinchingly – allow the statement that “there was nothing the driver of the 153 bus could have done to avoid running over Mr Harding“, when quite clearly there was: he could have left sufficient distance to stop. What should be expected of a bus if a cat runs into a cyclist’s path? (I should add that this happened to me only last week and quite clearly I was fortunate not to have a bus immediately behind me.) The implication is that it is quite acceptable to drive straight over them.

We all know that when one car crashes into the back of another, the insurance battle will not be drawn-out: in almost all cases it is the rearmost vehicle’s fault; they had been required to leave sufficient space.

Yet you allow this not to apply to cyclists. You fail to see bicycles as vehicles and protect the people using them to the same degree that those in motorised vehicles are protected. You fail to apply the rules of the road to others around them.

Whilst society and the media berate cyclists en masse because of a minority who irresponsibly fail to adhere to some rules, both are markedly unfazed by drivers of motorised vehicles who do the same.

You display this same hypocrisy – and you display it repeatedly and predictably, even with persistent offenders – and this is not becoming of an entity which should stand for protection and equality.

You have, apparently, no powers – and certainly no appetite – for addressing the real issues here.

There is no corporate manslaughter charge offered against a haulage company whose drivers exceed regulated shift times and use telephones in the cab.

There is no investigation into a bus company whose drivers roll over the vehicle in front.

There is barely a potent consequence for any driver, professional or otherwise, whose driving is littered with carelessness and lack of diligence and responsibility. Many thousands of drivers continue to talk on phones whilst driving, many thousands fail to adhere to all sorts of standards which should be expected of them, and you can do nothing. Even when the same drivers appear in court time and again for serious offences, you can do nothing.

Need I remind you that last year, when Peter Stubbs was killed by Charlie Willbourne, you gave no verdict. The driver protested that she was blinded by the sun, yet you deemed that wilfully driving into invisible space was entirely acceptable. You sent the message that driving a car into someone and causing their death was not something to which you would respond.

This year you went further. When Elizabeth Brown was killed by Daniel Mackay, you saw fit not only to absolve him of blame, but to actually make his incompetence his defence. The case, as far as could be gleaned from the reports, hinged around the fact that “another van had suddenly swerved in front of him, blocking his view until it was too late”. In other words, it was the fact that he was driving too closely to the vehicle in front that allowed the jury to excuse him for not having seen Miss Brown.

There are numerous other examples, my dear System. You have the records.

Basic standards of care and diligence on the road are pandemically absent from the driving population.

The public tolerates this. The media ignores it. Professions institutionalise it. And you, in the most literal sense, legitimise it.

I therefore ask you to take on this challenge. Start addressing this cancer of dangerous driving – and let’s make no mistake, legalese aside, carelessness is dangerous when you’re in charge of a ton or more of metal.

I hope you can change to address these stark shortcomings. I believe I won’t be the last to make this request.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/article3626604.ece

Comments

Tonight’s post, which is not about bicycling at first, though I try to make up for it later « BikingInLA says:

[...] a £2,700 fine and eight months suspended license. An open letter urges the British Judiciary to give a damn about the lives of cyclists in response, while a London blogger struggles to understand. Cambridge police crack down on [...]

Robbie craig says:

Well written piece that neatly summarises the failures of our legal system to protect citizens. Most abhorrent in the case of the “dooring” was the short time the jury took to clear the man that caused the death of the cyclist – who are these people and what is wrong with them? Can this be appealed?

Maybe juries in these cases of death on the road, should only be there to find fault with sentencing left to judge who has clear guidelines about what he must do? (Like in the Moran case)

Ander Broadman says:

As a driver of occasional carelessness, I applaud most of your argument.

Domestique says:

Something has to change, although I have been saying this for the last 30 years.
Friday started with elation, as a cyclist the greatest cycling show is coming to town. The Tour de France back in the UK.
Then news from the courts came through on the social media. That elation I had felt gave way to sadness and then to anger.
I am not sure how much longer I want to use my bicycle in the UK when there is clearly a system that gives no protection to me whilst I am on the road.

James Jones says:

Bad driving is a cancer on society. As long as drivers believe they are immune to prosecution, or, at most, receive a, metaphorical, slap-on-the-wrist, it will persist. The law IS there, it is relatively clear, it just needs some-one with the balls to apply it.

Ian Franklin says:

I applaud you. Put very eloquently. But will anyone take note? I would like to think so but am doubtful

Adele Simpson says:

Cyclists should be treated as equals on the road and those car drivers who are impatient and cause accidents and death to cyclists should be punished harder to let the people of Britain understand that it’s not ok to bully cyclists on the road.
If someone driving ran over a child they would get punished yet cyclists are fair game. This needs to stop.

Andrew Heywood says:

Yesterday a range rover driver narrowly missed me on my bike when pulling away from lights. When I shouted a warning he stopped alongside me, wound down his window and yelled abuse, with a mobile phone in his hand. Every day it seems a car pulls out in front of me or drives dangerously close, more often than not while using a mobile phone. When the hell are the authorities going to do something to stop the lunatics?

Olivier Grandjean says:

Thank you for writing this

Spook says:

A well written article with some good points but, what are the plans for it now? Will it just sit here hoping that someone of influence reads it or will it get actively sent to them?
How about starting with the MPs, campaigns@britishcycling.org.uk and Boris the Bike himself? Why not throw in Keir Starmer?

I’m sorry to say it but, if it never finds itself off this website it becomes no more than a rant. Please tell me it’s more than that.

Ste Buck says:

Good well thought out.

Sadly the response will be “we don’t comment on individual cases” – its their way of dodging letters/complaints such as this. Wrote to my MP a few years ago in a similarly constructed letter and received a fob off back.
They dont care. The only way this will change is if a cyclist, or someone who has been a victim of the law, gets in to power and forces these changes through.

Ian Macsporran says:

Excellent!

Andy Pickering says:

Beautifully written. Ironically if Ms. Bowers had been one of the idiot cyclists who run red lights, she might well have escaped demolition. In our crowded streets we all need to show care and consideration to everyone else on the road with the most vulnerable at the top of the list. If the government continue to fail us, then at least letters like this might raise public awareness and make a few drivers think more carefully behind the wheel.

Robwiz says:

You’re right to raise concerns about the three court cases.

However, in the two cycling trials, the verdicts were determined by the jury – 12 members of the public. It’s pretty unlikely that none of them is a cyclist and probable that most have driving licences. It’s easy to see that they reached their verdict through the filter of being motorists.

I wonder what more the tipper driver could have done for his actions to be viewed as ‘dangerous driving’.

In the Aydogdu case, maybe the wrong man was on trial – it was after all the bus driver who ran over the cyclist. As you point out, drivers are responsible for keeping a safe distance behind the vehicle in front and should be able to stop within the distance they can see.

Tony Jay says:

I have said for several years now that I would not ride on the roads as the traffic is dense and lethal. I would now only ride on cycle paths and footpaths: the law preventing cycling on footpaths was made in another era. There are now millions more cars and trucks with drivers of questionable skill on old narrow roads with, as you say, mobile phones and other distractions.

Ride the footpath and take the above facts to court as a defence when charged with a crime. The law must be changed and wherever possible cyclepaths must be available. There is no realistic way to ensure safety for cyclists on modern roads: too many variables, too much traffic, too many poor drivers.

Hit as many politicians as possible with petitions to change the law that is the simplest and quickest method.

The Bike Hound says:

Well thought out piece as usual Stuart, worryingly though as Robwiz says a jury returns a not guilty verdict based on the “that could have been me making that motoring mistake” rather than “that could have been me knocked off my bike”. Unfortunately I’m not sure what the answer is to that, can judges give more direction?

Douglas Carnall says:

I have long sympathised with your position: http://www.carnall.demon.co.uk/civility.htm

Here in France, it is my impression that the motorists are on the whole better behaved towards cyclists. This may in part be due to the “Loi Badinter” (Loi n° 85-677) http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loi_Badinter_du_5_juillet_1985. My understanding of it is that, for insurance purposes, the driver is considered always at fault in the event of a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, with only very few, narrowly-drawn exceptions of great negligence (or suicidal intent) on the part of the victim.
Maybe there should be such a law in the UK?

Mark Hanley says:

An excellent summary, Stuart.

It seems obvious now that patiently lobbying those in power to get them to do something to change the way that cyclists are treated is never going to work. Too many of them have a vested interest in the marginalisation and persecution of cyclists either because they are occasional inattentive drivers themselves, or because to actively campaign for such an out group would lose them votes.

Perhaps coordinated peaceful action is our next step. If we simultaneously clog up enough major transport routes with bikes and bodies then the politicians may be forced to listen.

corinne grimley evans says:

this open letter expresses exactly what is wrong with society’s attitude to road crime. We now need a new campaign, before the Times publicity fades from national consciousness, to challenge our law-makers on their scandalous failure to protect vulnerable road users. Does anyone know a determined pro-cycling lawyer to take up the cause? There is evidence aplenty of the need for urgent reform.

Laurence Lustgarten says:

It is very important that a distinction is made between killing someone and injuring them badly. If it is not, we would be sending a lot more people to prison for long periods of time, and the UK already uses long-term sentences at a much higher rate than virtually any other country in Western Europe. This post makes some good points, particularly about the inadequate laws on corporate crime, but it is too much caught up in the punitive mentality that perverts criminal justice in this country

Stewart Pratt says:

Ok, that last one I have to respond to. If the post reads as being “caught up in a punitive mentality” then that is not how I intended it. Indeed, I have argued against a purely punitive mentality before:

http://www.stewartpratt.com/?p=556

You imply that a distinction based on a survival or non-survival outcome is required to avoid excessive use of custodial sentences, but there is no direct coupling between a more consistent approach to sentencing and a greater use of custodial sentences. I firmly support the former, and do not support the latter. I am not really a believer in custodial sentencing for acts such as these which are down to incompetence rather than malice.

What I believe in is sentencing which is proportionate and pertinent: increased use of bans, for instance. For more specific points it is worth reading the follow-up post to this one:

http://www.stewartpratt.com/?p=593

I do not believe that the severity of, and thus the punishment for, dangerous driving should differ significantly according to whether someone dies at the scene or is kept alive in a dreadful state with little or no hope of recovery. I have seen it and I’m reasonably certain that were it me I would have preferred to be killed instantly. Ms Bowers’ father himself said “Mary is in effect dead. If it’s possible to be worse than dead then she is.”

For any given misdemeanour to be treated so drastically differently based on such debatable differences in outcome is entirely absurd.

Worth Reading 87: Gettysburg | What You Can Get Away With - Nick Barlow's blog says:

[...] An open letter to the British judicial system – From a cyclist, pointing out the ridiculously small sentences handed out to motorists who’ve killed or injured cyclists. [...]

Bruce says:

I agree with you that there seems to be a leniency given to sentencing driving cases that does not apply to other court cases. One issue is that to many cyclists are automatically at fault; many drivers see the mindless few cyclists jumping red lights, riding on pavements and so on and make the assumption that all cyclists do the same. I’ve come across many cases over the years that seem to favour the motorist. One that springs to mind was the case of a cyclist killed by a lorry on Oxford Street in London. He was hit by the lorry turning left into a no-entry junction from a road where the lorry wasn’t allowed at that time of day. He got a small fine as I recall, certainly not much of a punishment for killing someone through incredibly poor driving.

I do have an issue with you over the case of Sam Harding. You could argue that he was as responsible as the bus driver and car driver for not allowing enough room while passing a parked car. Commuter cycling 101: always assume that the parked car’s door is about to open. That’s not to say that the bus driver/car driver were not at fault but that this particular case is not as clear-cut as presented.

Stewart Pratt says:

It’s true that any wise road user should anticipate dangers to themselves, but – as you say – that does nothing to excuse the other two parties for their errors in endangering someone else. I disagree that he should be held by the law to be partly responsible. (There are occasions when it is simply not possible to completely avoid the door zone: by your argument, someone dangerously opening a door in such a scenario would have a greater share of the blame than someone doing so where the cyclist had more space; which I would suggest makes no sense.)

Blaming someone for riding close to cars and then being mown down is somewhat like blaming women for drinking alcohol and then getting raped. Pure pragmatism says you might more likely avoid someone else’s malicious or dangerous actions if you adjust your own behaviour, but this makes no sense as a basis for legislation.

Safe roads should be tolerant of people with limited experience (hopefully this is obvious, as we all have to start somewhere), and the law should be there to afford everyone equal protection – even, to a point, if that doesn’t mean equal statute.

On my behalf | icycleliverpool says:

[...] 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 [...]