Friday, 14 December 2012

My heart and my mind are both struggling to understand how the law and the court system have today so completely failed two young Londoners who happened to be on bicycles.

This lorry driver chats away quite happily
on his mobile phone. Rush hour on cycle
super highway 7 last week
Last year, Sam Harding was killed as he cycled his bike in Holloway. He was riding in Holloway Road when Kenan Aydodgu opened his car door. Sam fell into the road and was crushed to death by the bus that was behind him.

Mr Aydogdu, says the BBC "had the windows of his car coated with a dark plastic film which reduced visibility in and out of the car to 17%". I understand that it is not legal to apply this sort of window tinting to your car.

Today, Aydodgu was found 'not guilty of manslaughter'.

To me, that suggests I can go and cover my car in tinted black plastic. That, as a driver, I can throw away my responsibilities to other road users and get away with it if anything goes wrong.

If you think that's shocking enough, wait until you read about today's other London court case.

And this case relates to Mary Bowers. Mary Bowers is a journalist at The Times. Mary was knocked from her bike by an HGV in Wapping last year. She has since been in a coma.

Her colleagues have pursued an unwaveringly diligent campaign to change the way Britain thinks about cycling. All of us who take to two-wheels, all of us who would take to two-wheels if we felt safe enough - we all owe the journalists of The Times (and in particular its editor until this week, James Harding) a debt of gratitude.

We should also be grateful to Ross Lydall, a columnist at the Evening Standard, who has been in court this week covering the Mary Bowers case with sensitivity and compassion. You should read Ross's excellent piece in this evening's edition as he describes how, in his words "12 jurors backed the lorry driver - to the judge's obvious dismay". 

The lorry driver, who came to the UK a year ago and "has previously admitted a series of tachograph offences, including driving a lorry for 20 hours in one day when the maximum is 9 hours" was "engrossed" on his hands-free mobile phone at the time of the collision.

"The court had been told that Ms Bowers placed herself alongside another cyclist in an advanced cyclists' box in front of the lorry as they waited at traffic lights in Dock Street.

Beiu was giving directions on a hands-free phone to a colleague and failed to spot Ms Bowers despite her being "in direct sight" through his windscreen for at least 10 seconds before pulling away and turning left across her path.

He jumped from his cab after hearing "bloodcurdling" screams but forgot to apply the handbrake allowing the lorry to continue rolling over Ms Bowers. He even failed to realise there was a cycle lane on his near side, the court was told. Beiu also lied to the police by claiming he had not been on the phone at the time of the collision."

A jury decided this afternoon to convict the lorry driver of "careless" driving.As Ross Lydall points out on twitter: "Jury never saw pictures of Mary Bowers or heard her family's victim statement. Case centred on lorry driver not Mary's appalling injuries".

As British Cycling points out, many people feel there has been a downgrading of charges around careless and dangerous driving. It has called for a review of the law. This is why: The concept of  causing death by "careless driving" was introduced in 2008. In 2008, only six people were charged with causing death by 'careless driving' and 715 of causing death by 'dangerous driving'.  The numbers of people being charged with ‘causing death by careless driving’ have since risen dramatically, despite the numbers of people killed on the road decreasing, and the numbers of people charged with ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ have dropped in that time as well. As British Cycling points out, this suggests there is confusion over the appropriate charges and ‘causing death by careless driving’ is being used far more than was originally intended.

British Cycling struck exactly the right note this afternoon: "There was no other sensible conclusion than that [the lorry driver's] driving was dangerous, not careless. These failures send completely the wrong message about how we expect people to behave on our roads."

Mary Bowers has been locked in a coma for 13 months. As her father told the Evening Standard this evening "Mary is in effect dead. If it's possible to be worse than dead then she is."

Regardless of the technicalities around the law and around the decision taken by the jury, my heart and my mind are both saying the same thing: It is clear to me, when I look at these two sentences, that the court system has failed utterly to apply sentences that match the circumstances that caused the deaths of Sam Harding and Mary Bowers. The man who tinted his car windows and opened his door, resulting in the death of Sam Harding, will be back on the road tonight (in the same car perhaps?). The man who drove into and then subsequently allowed his lorry to run over Mary Bowers could, if he chose, be behind the wheel of an HGV again by next September.

The reality is that in both cases the verdicts may indeed be the correct verdicts given the law and the court system as they are today. But the question is whether the law and the court system are correct. In my view, when it comes to cycling, they are not.


  1. Excelent post. Don't know much about law, but if he was charged and prosecuted under "dangeours driving", why did the jury decide it was "careless" instead of "dangeous"? I was on jury duty last year on a sexual assault case, and we were not allowed to change the charge. How come, do you know?

    1. I think, Vivian, there can be alternative charges in some cases. In this one, it sounds like there was a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, with the alternative option that it was merely careless.

  2. I think the Standard article has had the line about the judge's "dismay" edited out

  3. If you want to kill someone and get away with, just do it with a car.

    As good as the Times campaign is, (I would actually prefer if it was "cities fit for people"), the time for being gentle about trying to get changes made is over.

    Now is time to shut down major junctions, to get so in the face of politicians that they cannot carry out their daily work, to cause as much disruption as possible. People are getting killed on our streets in preventable situations, the people causing those deaths are getting away with it and those who have power to change the infrastructure of our roads, increase the investment in cleaner transport modes and reverse the culture of scapegoating dead cyclists, sit idly by with pithy excuses.

    It's time to reclaim the streets.

  4. In my book “Death on the Streets: cars and the mythology of road safety”, which I wrote over twenty years ago, I said that when it came to sentencing “Heads the careless/dangerous motorist wins, tails their victim loses”.
    Nothing has really changed.
    I would note that asking for more than slight slap on the wrist for these people is not being vindictive, or avoiding other issues such as infrastructure. It is about asking for some basic accountability.
    It is also very relevant for pedestrians and anybody else endangered on the road by irresponsible, careless, dangerous, reckless, rule or law breaking driving. A more robust approach could have a deterrent effect, particularly if it is not restricted to waiting until someone has been badly hurt or killed.
    It is necessary if we are going to have any kind of civilised society.

    Dr. Robert Davis, Chair, Road Danger Reduction Forum

  5. In a way, though, both Mary Bowers and the driver are victims of a road system that expects cyclists and heavy goods vehicles to share road space - and relies on paint on the road to attempt to keep them apart - with the result that a moment's inattention, or stupidity, can kill. Enough ASLs. Enough narrow, painted cycle lanes. We know how to do better than this.

  6. It seems the law has let us down, again. However, today’s’ terrible events in the US, with perhaps as many as 27 teachers and children in an elementary school killed by a spree killing gunman, show us that law can’t totally protect us. In fact, Connecticut is not one of the states with a death penalty but even if it were, history shows us that the severest penalties and the highest certainties of retribution can’t entirely prevent bad people from doing bad things.

    The most effective way, by far, of protecting vulnerable road users, cyclists and pedestrians, is physical – separation of motor traffic from all other. If that is not now plain for Boris to see I can’t really imagine what will convince him.

    As for the workings of the law, I do have to admit that the jury decisions in the two cases strike me as perverse, but we cannot dispute them. That is the essence of the principle of trial by jury. We can’t challenge the principle of concealing prior “form” so that juries don’t reach verdicts based on preconceptions. And we can’t dispute the principle that the odds should be weighted against the prosecution. That way lies another Guildford Four or Bridgewater Three.

    The only way we will fix that is when several members of any jury are likely to be cyclists or other non-drivers. When attitudes to cycling are not formed from the two-tribes shitepile articulated by the Daily Hate and other tabloids.

    And the BBC has a great deal to answer for here. The “War on Britain’s Roads” can’t be blamed for the original incidents on trial, but I would hazard a guess that they informed the views of jurors in the last few days.

    A contempt of court action strikes me as quite appropriate.

  7. Astonishing and depressing at the same time. And to think that the man who wrote on the Rothko painting was sentenced to TWO YEARS in prison! So you can kill someone and get off pretty much scot free (that the lorry driver was disqualified for a pathetic 8 months is an absolute insult) yet if you deface a damne4d painting yo're imprisoned for two years. What a crazy world!

  8. Whilst I'm not necessarily in favour of jail for what are at the end of the day "accidents", I cannot for the life of me see why the driving bans are so short, 8 months in the case of the Mary Bowers case, not sure the Sam Harding driver even got a ban did he? People get longer bans for speeding offences where no one is injured so can't see the logic. It should be at lifetime bans, remember driving is a license, a privelege, not a human right. Bloke who disrupted the Boat race got 6 months jail and the guy who defaced a painting got 2 years, where on earth is the consistency here?

    1. Kenan Aydogdu was charged only with manslaughter. As the car was stationary and engine off at the time he could not be charged with a motoring offence which would have permitted a driving ban or some other lighter sentence as an alternative for the jury to choose.

      I wasn't there, but I would not be surprised if his defence brief pointed out that had the bus not been right behind Ben, his injuries would likely have been a lot less serious, they wodl have been definiteively the fault of Aydogdu, and a lesser charge of causing injury might have stuck.

      Some will ask why the bus driver was not also charged but that really does seem difficult. For example, of a child ran out from behind a parked car, and a driver ran him over, it might well be the case that the event was unavoidavle by the driver - even the best brakes have limits, and without reverting to the days of a man walking in front with a red flag it is difficult to see how all risks can be prevented. Again, I was not there - although CCTV from the bus apparently was - so it is difficult to say whether the bus driver should have positioned himself further out from the kerb. Could he have avoided Ben by being further back , or further out, so that braking or swerving would have saved the situation? Maintaining a safe distance from the car in front is certainly something we should always do but how far is safe?

      Is there a lesser, specific, charge of opening a door in the path of a cyclist, as there is a charge of using a handheld mobile while driving? If so, why was it not used?

      And what happend to his car? Accodring to the DfT website over-tinted windows can lead to penalty notice or court summons. The car is illegal to drive in that condition and as such its insurance will be invalidated.

      I do hope that Aydogdu is getting the book thrown at him on all these counts.

    2. Maintaining a safe distance from the car in front is certainly something we should always do but how far is safe?
      If you can't stop your vehicle without hitting the one in front stops (or gets stopped), you're too close.

      IMHO the bus driver should have been charged as well, and convicted.

  9. neilr in Edinburgh14 December 2012 at 21:29

    Part of the answer lies not in law but in attitude. There are better ways of getting cyclists on their bikes as here - Nordic Horizons "How did Copenhagen get to where it is in cycling" @ Scottish Parlliament 04th Dec, audio & PPT here
    The answer wasa long struggle and infrastructure - but first we have to get through to the thickets in power!

  10. You need to add a comma in the paragraph about the windows being tinted.

    I thought that Mr Aydogdu was claiming that the BBC had applied the tint to his windows, which was a bit weird.

  11. "He even failed to realise there was a cycle lane on his near side, the court was told."

    What does the road design look like, if even professional drivers can not recognize there is a cycle lane on the street? Painted lines that start and stop and do not make cycling safer?

    1. I think the word "professional" can only be used in the loosest possible sense to describe Mr Beiu.