Bez: No Further Action

by Bez 14

At around 7:30am on New Year’s Day 2015, James Stephenson was killed on the A3 near Bramshott in Hampshire. One man was arrested on suspicion of causing death by careless driving, but Hampshire Police took no further action. Naturally, I wondered why. I finally managed to track down a report of the inquest, published in the Haslemere Herald in May 2015, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—it doesn’t really resolve that question.

The location

The incident occurred on the A3 southbound near Bramshott. Although the precise location of the initial collision is unclear, it was on a stretch of dual carriageway near the Hampshire/Surrey border (Surrey Police initially attended the scene before handing over to Hampshire Police); specifically, within the ~1.3 mile section between the Bramshott Common and Liphook junctions.

It is of note that there is a pavement marked as a cycleway alongside the first half of this section of the southbound carriageway, as shown below. It terminates abruptly, forcing cyclists into the 70mph carriageway. I do not know whether Stephenson used the cycle path, and unless the collision occurred as he left the cycle path, it seems somewhat impertinent to the actual events.

a3-southbound-grayshott
The two lanes of the southbound carriageway

The conditions

The collision occurred at around 07:30 on 1 January; on that day, sunrise in London was 07:48. This implies that there may have been a little light in the sky; however, conditions were of “slight drizzle” and so the sky was likely overcast. The ambient light level was, therefore, quite possibly not noticeably different from full night time. There is no street lighting on this section of carriageway.

The events

Stephenson had been cycling from his workplace in Grayshott to his home in Liphook. According to Hampshire Police collision investigator Sergeant Darren Ord,

“He had cycled to work because he knew he would be drinking and felt on his bicycle he would be safer to the public than driving his car.”

He was indeed found to have been above the drink-driving limit; I do not know by what margin, but the coroner remarked that “he was not roaring drunk”. (Note that specific alcohol limits do not apply when riding a bicycle: the relevant offence is to be “under the influence of drink or a drug to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the cycle”, as defined by the Road Traffic Act 1988.)

Stephenson’s journey would have been about 6 miles in length, and he would have completed around 4 miles by the time of the collision.

Ord says,

“When [James] was struck he had been cycling in the middle of the nearside of the dual carriageway.”

He was initially struck by a Ford Fiesta van driven by Luke Harris, who had been working a night shift in Slough. It is very likely that he is the Waterlooville man who was arrested following the collision, but I have seen no explicit statement of this.

Harris was driving at 70mph with dipped headlights, and the van was fitted with a tracker and seemingly a speed limiter (though this is not explicitly stated).

Harris said,

“Then [after checking my mirror and speed] I looked and the man was in front of me. I realised it was a cyclist but I didn’t see any light. I swerved to avoid him but my vehicle hit him. I pulled over as soon as I could and put on my hazard lights but I had trouble opening my car door. When I did get out I called the police and ambulance before walking back, but before I could get to him a car ran over him.”

That car was a Skoda driven by Geoffrey New. He had also been working a night shift, in Raynes Park. After seeing “a van with hazard lights parked on the near side”, New “pulled over to the other lane, then swerved to go round something lying in the road”. He said,

“Unfortunately I hit it. At first I had no idea what I had hit. As I got closer I saw it was someone I had hit and I am so deeply sorry for my involvement in this.”

Under questioning, New said that he had had 11 hours’ sleep prior to his night shift, and that he had been driving on this section of the A3 for 10 years and knew it well. (As it happens, I have used the same road for a very similar period; most of us will be familiar with the cognitive complacency that can easily set in when one drives on a two-lane dual carriageway on a regular basis. I do not mean to imply that New was suffering this, but that someone’s familiarity with a road should certainly not be taken to mean that they are more competent when driving on it.)

It is unclear as to whether other vehicles were involved. It seems unlikely that they were, as one would think that Harris and New would both have seen them, but Ord says that Stephenson had been run over “an unquantifiable number of times”.

Investigation officer Pc Emma Clifford stated that “there was no evidence that Mr Stephenson had been cycling in a bad manner” and that his bicycle had been too damaged to fully assess for defects. She noted that it had only a rear light.

The media report implies that she said that Stephenson “would only have been illuminated by the oncoming lights of cars” (which seems a little curious given the presence of the rear light), and explicitly quotes her as saying,

There would have been no time to avoid the collision.

The verdict

Coroner Andrew Bradley recorded a verdict of accidental death. He remarked,

After his birthday and the New Year party, James had been wise and taken his bike, but we don’t know how much the light on his bike was illuminated. “He is going along the open carriageway while he is affected by his alcohol intake and the effect was that it was possible James, while cycling on the road, had been confused. “He could have experienced some form of disorientation, but he was not roaring drunk and as a result of the accident he suffered catastrophic injuries.

Comment

Naturally, any comments made on the basis of a media report of an inquest are, to some unknown extent, speculative.

However, there appears to be no evidence that James was responsible for the collision. He had a rear light and he was positioned quite legitimately in the carriageway.

Granted, it is not known with certainty whether his light was lit, but this is an extremely problematic line of thought. If a pedal cycle is struck by a motor vehicle (or indeed multiple such vehicles) travelling at 70mph, there is a very good chance that its light will be destroyed in the impact. It would be deeply concerning indeed if pedal cyclists were not given the benefit of any doubt as to whether a light damaged in a collision was working prior to it.

The consideration of the fact that James was to some extent intoxicated is also a source of concern. Some people will, of course, say that being on the road while drunk is “asking for trouble” and will pay no further attention to the case, but this would be rather short-sighted. In legal terms alone, it is not a specific offence to cycle while less than sober; it is only an offence to be incapable of adequately controlling the bicycle. There seems to be no evidence that James was in such a state.

The coroner alludes (albeit with a slightly curious turn of phrase) to the possibility of James not being fully alert: “it was possible James had been confused. He could have experienced some form of disorientation”. Yet the report does not mention any evidence of lack of control or unpredictable cycling; indeed the investigating Pc is quoted as saying that no such evidence exists.

The problem here is that, even if Stephenson were to have been riding slightly erratically, this could have been for any number of reasons. There may have been a pothole; an animal or bird may have run out from the verge, and so on. All of these are reasons why drivers are reminded to afford cyclists as much space as possible by moving into the right lane before passing.

That did not happen in this case: Harris saw Stephenson too late, and hit him. New, too, failed to see him and also hit him.

This is just one of many cases where people on foot or on pedal cycles in the carriageway (and legitimately so) are hit by drivers travelling at a speed which exceeds their ability to avoid a collision given the extent of their visibility.

Of course, the use of alcohol provides a neat distraction from the fact that two people failed to see – and – drove headlong into a legitimate road user. It means that a verdict of accidental death is less likely to attract scrutiny, but there seems to be no evidence that Stephenson’s death was in any way directly attributable to his own actions. It seems quite plain, however, that both drivers had chosen a speed at which they could not prevent their vehicles striking him.

From the little information available, this seems to be just one more in a long list of examples which, both in terms of outcome and comments made by multiple parties along the way, justify the choice to drive at a speed at which it becomes impossible to avoid a collision.

And if that is justified, then the killing of anyone not travelling at a similar speed is justified.

Comments (14)

  1. Regarding the rear light:
    “He had cycled to work because he knew he would be drinking and felt on his bicycle he would be safer to the public than driving his car.”
    A person with this approach to public responsibility is unlikely to neglect his own safety

  2. It’s tragic that someone has lost their life.

    However, and this will cause controversy, bikes and 70mph cars/ vans/ lorries don’t mix well. I’m amazed this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. Add in marginal light and weather conditions, and the risks outweigh the benefits for me. I fully appreciate we cyclists have a right to cycle on these roads, but it doesn’t make it sensible. Better cycling infrastructure is the answer, where we can be truly separated from cars in a safe manner that allows efficient travel.

    No mention of the victims speed at the time of the accident, but lets say the average cyclist is doing around 15mph. If a car was found to be doing 15mph on a 70mph road, then it would be fair to say it would be considered a hazard to other road users(ignoring the need for reduced speed in adverse conditions). If I’m not mistaken, the police could pull you for driving too slowly. It seems strange that we would consider a cyclist travelling at such a speed as perfectly ok.

    As I said at the start, a tragedy that a life has been lost but until we have better infrastructure, safety needs to be a serious consideration.

    Let the debate commence…

  3. It’s absolutely correct that these roads are completely unsuitable for shared use. It’s a major—though entirely predictable and normal—oversight of the coroner not to mention this (at least, I assume he didn’t; few do). The highway authority has to be called into question over collisions such as these.

    The problem with this type of road especially is that it comes with a heap of psychological baggage, largely revolving around the idea that you should be doing 70mph. In part, this is sort of correct: when the traffic all moves at pretty much the same speed, there is less need for interaction among it. The logically pure form of this design is the train: its carriages move at exactly the same speed, and so there’s no need for them to ever overtake each other. (Some people drive almost like trains, of course: I use this road daily and it’s normal to see four cars in the outside lane covered by a two-second gap from the first to the fourth.)

    Of course, even on a motorway slower vehicles exist (a large number are restricted to 60mph for a start) but on these roads the differential can be huge. These roads are basically motorways, though: pretty much everyone drives on them as if they were such.

    But whilst the infrastructure is utterly homicidal, there is still a need to focus on the ability to stop withing the distance that one can see to be clear. This is a much greater issue than this incident: there are many other cases, whether related to the dark or the light or visual obstructions, where people have been killed or injured. The Sheppey pile-up is a fine example of just how prevalent the attitude of assuming the road to be clear really is. It’s an attitude that kills people.

    These roads

  4. Oh. That’s odd. Those last two words shouldn’t be there 🙂

  5. Is this in any way an argument for bike lights to meet a minimum standard? If there was one, and a cyclist was using a correct light, would this give less credence to them not being seen? Not that ‘being seen’ seems to be a consideration in collisions that have occurred in broad daylight…

  6. This is another reason that I’ll never do a time trial on a dual carriageway. That and the fact that I’m shit.

    honeybadgerx – there’s already a minimum standard for UK bike lights. Ironically it predates most of today’s LED retina-smashers and most manufacturers don’t bother with it. http://www.ctc.org.uk/cyclists-library/regulations/lighting-regulations

  7. Echoing above. Tragic as it is, cyclists should not be on roads like this. It’s irresponsible and creates a significant inevitably that this will occur. Further more (and Im not saying its a factor here), road cyclists have developed a fashion sense for being invisible in black which is ironic considering that mountain bikers are like an explosion in a paint factory at the mo. I mostly encounter roadies with inadequate ‘token’ lights and no reflectives. I hate to say this but roads are for cars. Anyone who has a differant attitude to that ought to ask who looses in a collison.
    Im a mountain biker. I do have a road bike to commute. You can see me from space Im that bright and lit up, using quiet lanes and getting to work as safely as possible. Its no Rapha fashion parade for me.
    This chap was drunk, knew he was drunk and there fore was impaired. There is a reason the drink drive limit is what it is (and its too high) . If you have ever been a student, you will know how hard it is to ride pi$$ed. The article quoting the relevant legislation is a bit short sighted of the fact. The wording is just that. Wording. Its the physical effect that matters. metabolism, fatigue, recent diet etc will all factor this. Ever felt drunk on two pints but on a differant occasion been 6 pints in and a bit sober? Chances are you might not have blown over on the two pints but you would after six.
    Another point is this. Anticipation. When you learn to drive and maybe do more advanced driving, you learn to look and think like the vehicles that surround you. Early in the morning, you have three major considerations, especially in winter and on New Years Day. 1) Drink drivers 2) Tired people going home/going to work and 3) Drivers whose windscreens have not cleared yet.
    Just because its called a road bike does not mean it belongs on all roads. Sadly alot of road riders hold a differant view and hence they keep dying causing considerable distress to their familes and the innocent motorist who never stood a chance of seeing them.

  8. That’s a pretty astonishing comment.

  9. No its not. Its reality and unfortunately, one that I have had first hand knowledge of. I dont come to this as an outside spectator.

  10. I have to agree with Bez, innocent motorist? If you are unable to see a whole human being on a bike whilst driving down a road then you’re either going too fast for the conditions or have unacceptable levels of concentration or too poor a level of vision. Possibly a combination of all 3.

    One persons right to live should not be trumped by another’s will to go from A to B without any sort of consideration for other road users.

  11. Hats off to Devoner for typing what a lot of people probably think, but have the basic humanity not to actually say.

  12. ” If you are unable to see a whole human being on a bike whilst driving down a road then you’re either going too fast for the conditions or have unacceptable levels of concentration or too poor a level of vision”

    In Glasgow (and I’m sure it’s not alone), the concepts of high vis, decent lights, or even lights at all are almost non-existant. In the dark of winter I would say with strong certainty that 80%+ of cyclists I see on the road are almost invisible due to dark clothing and very poor or no lights. Front lights especially seem to be absent and rear lights are typically very dim or obscured by mudguards and other paraphernalia.

    I commuted to work every day for years and I was lit up like a christmas tree whenever it was dark.

  13. “No its not.”

    I think it is. Let me explain.

    “Tragic as it is, cyclists should not be on roads like this. It’s irresponsible…”

    Agreed, except that where your accusation of irresponsibility is aimed at the person on the bike, I would aim it at the highway authority who specifically designed for cyclists to ride in this carriageway.

    “…and creates a significant inevitably that this will occur.”

    The inevitability is that an error will have serious consequences. The error *itself* is not necessarily inevitable. Granted, errors cannot be eliminated, but this collision is not an isolated example: in this case alone there were *two* people who failed to prevent their vehicles from hitting someone in the carriageway. There are *a lot* of similar cases. As mentioned above, Sheppey was a prime example of people who were simply driving in a manner that turned one error into a huge incident (albeit a thankfully less serious one than this: we return to the point of the inevitability being the *consequences* once an error occurs). This is really the point of the article: we have a culture—reinforced by the legal process—of driving at speeds where we cannot avoid collisions, and it is *this* which, whilst challenging to undo, is not inevitable.

    And, regardless of what you think about people on bikes, we should try to undo it: imagine if a petrol tanker had been ruptured in the Sheppey incident; have a browse of reports of pedestrians being killed on the roads at night. To focus on “cyclists” is to completely misunderstand the problem: asking people to defend against having a ton of metal aimed at them is ridiculous; it is that ton of metal moving at speed that presents the danger, and it’s there that attention should be focused.

    “road cyclists have developed a fashion sense for being invisible in black”

    But if they have lights and reflectors as legally required, what is the problem there?

    “I hate to say this but roads are for cars. Anyone who has a differant attitude to that ought to ask who looses in a collison.”

    You should hate to say it, because it’s flat wrong. Roads are for people, most of whom use vehicles on them. Sure, this road has been designed with cars in mind—roads like this shouldn’t carry cycle traffic because if a collision occurs it will likely be fatal—but to say “roads are for cars” dismisses swathes of history, law and liberty.

    Your statement is a little analogous to what some people might have said 30 years ago: “I hate to say this but watching football matches is for men. Any children who have a different attitude to that ought to ask who loses once the violence kicks off.” Sure, kids are going to get trampled by a crowd of fighting me. Maybe we should deal with the fighting, though?

    “The article quoting the relevant legislation is a bit short sighted of the fact. The wording is just that. Wording. Its the physical effect that matters.”

    Actually, *that’s the very point* of that wording. It is based on the physical effect, not the level of consumption. You go on to state that consumption is not necessarily a measure of control.

    But in any case, you are falling into the trap of dismissing other factors purely because of an opportunity to blame the victim. It was explicitly stated in the inquest that there was no evidence of “bad cycling” and that the victim was in an entirely legitimate position on the road. Other than a blood analysis there is *zero* evidential difference between the victim in this case and an entirely sober person using that road (which, remember, is a road that they are guided onto by a cycle path). Thus there is no reason to presume that the collision would not have occurred had Stephenson been completely sober.

    “Another point is this. Anticipation. When you learn to drive and maybe do more advanced driving, you learn to look and think like the vehicles that surround you. Early in the morning, you have three major considerations, especially in winter and on New Years Day. 1) Drink drivers 2) Tired people going home/going to work and 3) Drivers whose windscreens have not cleared yet.”

    May I suggest you add a fourth? People on bicycles. (There are more than four, of course.)

    The problem here is that you are using the date and time to *exclude* things from your anticipation. It’s a little perverse to lecture about anticipation by coming up with a very short list of things to anticipate. Why on earth would 7.30am not be a time to be on a bicycle? When I ride, it’s mostly around that time. I’d really quite like you and others to consider the fact that I might be on the road early in the morning.

    And this bit…

    “Just because its called a road bike does not mean it belongs on all roads. Sadly alot of road riders hold a differant view and hence they keep dying causing considerable distress to their familes and the innocent motorist who never stood a chance of seeing them.”

    …is frankly contemptible, and I shouldn’t need to explain why.

  14. I understand it’s a right cyclists have to be on a dual carriageway in the dark, but drunk and with no front light- really? Poor driver having to live with that on their conscience. It would be better for all if some cyclists remembered that drivers are only human, and are not perfect all the time. For me that’s the right verdict considering the circumstances.

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