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.