This afternoon two juries in two separate London Crown Courts have delivered their verdicts in cases which have involved Defendants that have been (allegedly) responsible for causing death and very serious injury to two cyclists.
On 4th November 2011 Mary Bowers, a journalist with The Times, was struck down by a left turning lorry at a light controlled junction very close to her workplace in Wapping. The lorry was being driven by Petre Beiu. The evidence placed before the jury included that Ms Bowers was visible to be seen in front of the lorry for many seconds before he overtook her and turned left across her path; that Mr Beiu was talking on a hands free telephone at the time and that in the aftermath of the collision he jumped out of the cab leaving the handbrake off so that the lorry continued to roll over Ms Bowers. Ms Bowers sustained devastating injuries which are seriously underestimated by describing her brain injury as 'significant'.
The jury decided that Mr Beiu was not guilty of dangerous driving. They convicted him instead of careless driving - an offence which he had accepted, though the Judge had still left the jury with the option of acquitting on that charge as well.
Mr Beiu was fined £2,700 and banned from driving for (just!) 8 months.
On 6th August 2011 Sam Harding was riding his bicycle in a bus lane along Holloway Road. As he passed a parked car, Mr Aydogdu, opened the door (wide according to the prosecution and a crack according to the Defendant) into the path of Mr Harding who hit the door and then was struck by a bus. It transpires that Aydogdu had applied some reflective coating to his side windows which blocked 83% of the light. The jury this afternoon decided that Mr Aydogdu was not guilty of the manslaughter of Mr Harding.
Following on from the case of the Townend brothers, these cases must give rise to concerns over how seriously the average jury considers the obligation not to endanger cyclists. A jury reflects the society from which it is drawn and whilst cycling remains stuck at a modal share of 2% of journeys it is going to be an exceptional jury that contains even one regular cyclist. That should change, if and when the proportion of cyclists on the roads increases. However in rather a catch 22, the number of cyclists on the roads is inhibited by the apparently low value that the legal system appears sometimes to place on the value of the life of a human whilst cycling.
I commented at the time that I considered that the decision in the Townend case was perverse (the jury acquitting the Defendant of even causing death by careless driving); the verdict in the Bowers case is astonishing and to be honest the result in the Harding case was, to me, not unexpected.
In the Harding case it appears to me that tragically a combination of factors combined to result in the tragic outcome. First, Aydogdu's daft decision to coat his windows so as to restrict his ability to see out (and that of others to see in). Second, the pressure that cyclists often feel under to ride too close to the left. In February (after Mr Harding's tragedy) The Times, as a part of its campaign published a 'Guide to Safe Cycling' which included advice to cyclists to look in wingmirrors and windscreens of parked cars to see if anyone in the car might be about to open a door. NO! The correct advice is DO NOT RIDE IN THE DOOR ZONE. If for some extraordinary reason (narrow road, oncoming bus for example) you have to then slow to a walking pace. At the time I advised discarding the Times guide in favour of British Cycling's 'Effective Traffic Riding'. Nonetheless there is definite pressure remaining on cyclists and encouraged by most cycling 'infrastructure' that deters many of us from adopting the safest riding position in the centre of our lane. Third the opening of the car door which must have been done without careful observation even if the jury determined it was not gross negligence. Fourth the bus driver (though exculpated by the prosecution at Aydogdu's trial) should have been holding well back behind a cyclist or ought to have been giving him a car width's space if overtaking. I do not know the detail of the evidence but it seems to me surprising that a cyclist falling into the road would be run over by a bus if best driving practice was being followed. Sadly my experience commuting in London is that very often buses get much much too close. This tragedy illustrates why they (and others) must not do so.
It is important to recognize that the correct charging decisions were taken in each case. The fact of acquittal does not in any sense indicate that the bringing of the charges was not justified. Far too often I have had cause to complain in these pages that the appropriately serious charge was not pursued and it is only right to acknowledge that the police and CPS have been conscientiously doing the right thing in the cases I refer to above.