by Mark Alker
December 17, 2012
First published on www.stewartpratt.com
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.