In the Courts you're on your own; our laws are not fit for purpose

Last week our legal system failed to deliver justice to victims of road crashes and their families. 

At the Old Bailey motorist Kenan Aydogdu was on trial for the manslaughter of cyclist Sam Harding.  Harding died after Aydogdu opened the door of his car in to Harding's path, causing him to be hit by a following bus.  Aydogdu was found to have window tinting which reduced the visibility from inside his car to 17%, and admitted opening the door without first checking in his mirror.  A jury took less than an hour to find Mr Aydogdu not guilty.

Times journalist Mary Bowers

Meanwhile, across town at Snaresbrook Crown Court, the case against the lorry driver who crushed cyclist Mary Bowers at Wapping last year came to an end.  Mary was cycling to work at The Times  where she worked as a journalist, and it was her colleagues who - in light of her terrible crash - set up that newspaper's wonderful and diligent Cities Fit For Cycling Campaign.  The driver of the HGV which crushed Mary and put her in an ongoing coma, Petre Beiu, came to the UK from Romania just a year before the crash.  He admitted to the Court "Maybe I didn’t look properly enough. This is what I will regret for the rest of my life.”  Beiu has previously admitted a string of tachograph offences including driving one day for twenty hours non-stop (the legal commercial driving day is nine hours long)  At the time of the collision with Mary when he ran his lorry over her when turning at a junction, Beiu was in fact engrossed in a phone call with a colleague, giving directions.  (A fact he later lied about to the Police.)  On hearing the screams of another cyclist who was also alongside Mary in the Advanced Stop Line bicycle box, Beiu stopped his truck and leapt out of the cab.  Having failed to apply the handbrake his lorry continued to roll over Mary.  A Jury of 12 - "to the dismay of the Judge" according to Evening Standard journalist Ross Lydall - sided with Beiu, finding him not guilty of dangerous driving.  Beiu was found guilty of the less serious charge of careless driving, was issued with a £2,700 fine and given a temporary driving ban.  Beiu will be back on the road most likely driving commercial HGVs like the one in which he crushed Mary Bowers whilst carelessly talking on his mobile, and will be so in under 8 months.  Mary suffered from a significant brain injury, two severely broken legs, a severed artery, a punctured lung, a broken arm and a broken pelvis.  She is still "minimally conscious" and requires round the clock one to one care at Homerton Hospital.  The Judge in the case said that her hands were tied in how she could sentence Beiu "The irony is Mary Bowers has barely recovered but had she not survived, the situation would be very different."

Her father, Peter Bowers, described the verdict as an insult. "There are no winners in this.  We are suffering. I am sure that the lorry driver agonises over this. In time I would like to forgive. I do sympathise, although when I do visit my daughter that evaporates rapidly...."

Much was written on Friday about how disgusting these verdicts are - whether it is the fault of the Jury or the letter of the law, no one can doubt that the families of the victims in these terrible cases can only have left the Courts feeling utterly cheated.  Friends called me about these Cases in dismay.  On Twiiter and Facebook people vented their fury, even suggesting we should demonstrate at the Crown Prosecution Service over these two cases.

But the sickening, shocking, tragic reality is that these terrible Cases are in no way unusual.  When it comes to protecting and delivering justice to victims on the roads outside of motor vehicles, the law fails on a regular basis.

Who remembers champion time trial racer Jason MacIntyre, killed in Scotland by council van driver Robert MacTaggert in 2008?  MacTaggert was given the option to enter a plea to the charges of dangerous driving and careless driving.  He pleaded guilty to the less serious later charge and was fined just £500 and was suspended from driving for six months.

What about the lorry driver who dragged Adrianna Skryzypiec beneath his truck for 140 metres, and never stopped, having never even realised he'd run Adrianna over?  The driver's legal team argued it would have been impossible for him to see Adrianna from within his cab, and consequently had his case dismissed.

And what of British Cycling volunteer Rob Jefferies, killed by a speeding driver in rural Dorset?  The 18 year old driver who killed him (who already had a prior speeding conviction) was sentenced to 200 hours community service and a temporary driving ban.

There's the Coroner who, in an inquest, found that there was "no one to blame" for the death of Svetlana Tereschenko beneath an HGV whose driver was on the phone in the moments leading up to the fatal crash.  In the inquest in to the death of Daniel Cox, crushed by a turning HGV in Dalston whilst waiting in the Advanced Stop box, the Coroner found that the bike box, and not the driver, were to blame.

The driver who killed Tomas Barett on the A40 in Northolt claimed he had the sun in his eyes at the time. He was found not guilty of death by careless driving and issued with a one year driving ban.

 Nora Gutman and Eilidh Cairns, may they rest in peace.

And who can forget Joao Lopes, the driver who ran down and killed cyclist Eilidh Cairns in Notting Hill in his HGV?  Not prosecuted for the crash and fined just £200 for driving with defective eyesight, he was set free to later kill 97 year old Nora Gutman as she crossed the road on a pedestrian crossing in front of his lorry.

As this shocking document listing the punishments - or lack of - meted out to drivers charged with causing death by careless driving shows, the law consistently fails us all. (Data gathered by the always excellent Cycling Silk blog)

Even Judges have attacked the restrictive sentencing powers by which their hands are tied in these kind of cases.

As I write this I feel sick.  And you should feel sick too.  Because as you can see tragically, awfully, terribly, the lack of justice in the cases of Mary Bowers and Sam Harding are just the very tip of a despicable black iceberg that floats amongst and threatens us all.  Hardly discussed outside of campaigning circles, and so often dismissed as "just another cycling death", the very basic lack of justice served upon those who perpetrate these most terrible deeds underpins the shocking breakdown in our road sharing culture.  Without an effective criminal justice system there can be no "sharing" of our roads.

It's not enough to be angry, and it's not enough to feel despair.  Every time a car cuts me up, or an HGV passes me too close as I simply cycle to work, there's a sharp intake of breath from me as I blink and see in my mind's eye those families who leave Courts with nothing to show for their lost loved ones except looks of anguish and unimaginable grief.  As I think to myself "there but for the grace of God go I", I know that it's not enough to be furious at this situation, or to pray for the best.  If you want it to change you have to get involved.

London Cycling Campaign are always looking for volunteers and run a fantastic No More Lethal Lorries campaign.  British Cycling have been calling for a review of sentencing guidelines for many years.  And RoadPeace not only offers care and support to the victims of road crashes and their families, but they're always out there - through the toughest and most despicable cases - fighting for the rights of more vulnerable road users. 

This might sound like a charity appeal but it's not.  It's a simple question that faces us all - whether we want our streets to be a more equitable place for all users or not?  If we do, then we need to do what we can; whether that's writing to our local council, sending money, volunteering some time, or joining one of our fantastic campaigns in order to ensure they have a strong voice to help contribute to a fairer society.

Because until we are more angry, more united and more vociferous about the need for reform to laws regarding road traffic victims, sadly these cases will continue as predictably as road deaths themselves.

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18 comments:

elliot said...

Nice article. But how is it relevant that "Petre Beiu came to the UK from Romania just a year before the crash"? What's the implication - that Romanians are somehow incapable of driving properly? That, had he been British born and bred he would have been less likely to have caused the collision?

You don't mention any other irrelevant facts of the case, like whether driver had fluffy dice dangling from the rear view mirror, or a teddy bear attached to the radiator grill.

Anonymous said...

The real shocker here is how short the driving bans are. We need disqualification from driving for five, ten, fifteen years for these incompetent or careless drivers - not just a few months.

ibikelondon said...

@Anonymous I agree. What is worse is that a good lawyer can usually get these bans shortened on appeal.

@Elliot Thanks for your comment. The point I'm trying to make is not regarding Beiu's nationality but the fact that he did not learn to drive a heavy commercial vehicle in this country, on this side of the road. I don't know if HGV training in Romania is any better or worse than it is in the UK, but within the EU you can earn a living driving in the UK on a foreign commercial license and vice versa. Now, this might not be a problem, however there *is* a record in London of "recently arrived" commercial vehicle operators who have trained elsewhere than the UK being involved in collisions involving cyclists. I want this to be investigated as a potential issue as much as speeding, or eyesight problems or any other potentially contributing factors. It's not to do with nationality and all to do with how people are used to driving and where. Therefore, I do not see this as an irrelevant factor, hence why I mentioned it. I think if you've spent your whole driving career on the other side of the road and then you start doing the opposite, in central London, surrounded by vulnerable road users, it is a potential problem - perhaps a refresher course for commercial operators is a good idea?

andreacasalotti said...

@elliott. Mark's remark is NOT racist. Eastern European countries have a much lower standard of driving than in Northern Europe, which results in many more pedestrian deaths. The question that should have been asked to Beiu's employers is "What special training did you give to Beiu, given that he has come from Romania only recently?"

In other words, the fact he was a recent Romanian immigrant is a relevant factor but should have affected the culpability of the employer not of the driver.


Similarly drivers from cultures which are less respectful towards vulnerable road users should be tested, trained and monitored more rigorously when put in charge of buses, lorries, minicabs, etc.

andreacasalotti said...

Immediately after reading your article, I was reading this one on the history of gun control in the USA: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/the-secret-history-of-guns/308608/.

A paragraph struck me as relevant, see below(apologies for its length).

Of course I do not advocate use of arms; the key here is "policing the police".

Because of the drip-drip nature of the deaths, public interest is generally nil; I propose that we adopt a Zero Killings vision and painstakingly showcase all the pedestrian deaths and their aftermaths, both the devastation in people's lives and the ineffectiveness of Police, CPS, Courts; the Times has started with listing all cyclist deaths, but much more detailed work needs to be done.

We need to provide an alternative court, because the goal is not to put more people in jail but to reduce the number of killings to zero.

QUOTE:

In February of 1967, Oakland police officers stopped a car carrying Newton, Seale, and several other Panthers with rifles and handguns. When one officer asked to see one of the guns, Newton refused. “I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address,” he insisted. This, too, he had learned in law school.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied.

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.” Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.

The people who’d witnessed the scene were dumbstruck. Not even Bobby Seale could believe it. Right then, he said, he knew that Newton was the “baddest motherfucker in the world.” Newton’s message was clear: “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks @Andrea for that really interesting contribution, I hadn't seen that story.

You're right, of course, that our aim should not be to put more and more people in to our over-crowded prisons, but to reduce to zero the instances of road death in the first place.

We've got a very, very long way to go.

Chris Wheeler said...

Although clearly it affects Cyclists, many of these issues are more about people taking risks (driving tired, using phones etc) whilst in command of a lethal weapon. It is incredible how little society considers what this means. Blacked out windows always annoy me, as looking through the back windows is the best way to know when someone is going to open a car door from a row of parked cars (though sadly doesn't work for short drivers).

I do recall incidents from when I was a habitual cyclist, particularly the lorry driver who tried to run me down for undertaking him (not reported, I was diving between cars for my life, not taking notes - the most memorable thing was the expressions on the faces of the passers by). Sadly too many near misses recently involving stupid cyclists when I was driving. Like the cyclist who cycled without lights at night on the pavement behind my car as I was reversing into my drive. Or the one who crossed a traffic light crossing diagonally whilst the lights were green for the cars - cue many emergency stops.

Some people are idiots. Frighteningly some are idiots driving lethal weapons. Sadly some are idiots who will get themselves killed and scar others for life.

Paul M said...

Elliott – one thing I really don’t think you can level at Mark is prejudice against minorities. Is the fact that Petre Bieu is Romanian relevant? Actually, I think it is.

Firstly, Romania is one of only four countries in the EU (the others being Ireland, Malta and the UK) which does not have a version of “strict liability” law for civil claims against motorists. Under strict, or proportional liability, it is up to the driver of a larger vehicle defending a claim brought by a more vulnerable road user – car v bicycle, lorry v car, etc - to prove, under the civil test of balance of probabilities, that the more vulnerable road user who they have hurt was responsible for the incident. It is not up to the more vulnerable injured party to prove the fault of the respondent they are claiming against. This is of course by no means a perfect solution to road danger faced by cyclists or pedestrians, but it forms an essential part of a comprehensive system of protecting such road users. It also broadcasts a powerful message, that motorists owe a duty of care to those more vulnerable than themselves. I think it is quite possible that, culturally, a Dutch or French truck driver would be pre-conditioned to take more care precisely because he has lived with that legal framework all his life. I think you’ll find that Romania sits a very long way down the European road safety league, for this as well as for other reasons which perhaps don’t pertain in the UK.

Secondly, he may well have been less familiar with law and practice in this country relating to roads and driving. That clearly does not excuse his actions in a criminal sense – ignorance of the law is no defence there, and it is clear that he has “form” already – but it helps to illustrate a different point, which is that bad or incompetent people will always be present on our roads and will always present a danger, however swift, certain and brutal any legal retribution visited on them may be, until the source of danger is removed: proper separation from fast, heavy traffic flows, and traffic reduction/calming and a change in the legal paradigm on quiet roads.

Paul M said...

The problem with our judicial approach to dangerous driving is I am sure complex. Do the police fail to take it seriously, or is it just that they despair of getting a result for the efforts they would undoubtedly have to make to prepare a case for trial? Ditto the CPS. Is the jury system broken? I don’t think so – the very last thing I want to see in any general sense is easier convictions. Far too many people who rank low in public sympathy or esteem have suffered cruelly at the hands of the justice system to permit us to make those miscarriages any easier to commit. Do we really want another Guildford 4 or Bridgewater 3? Someone once said that it is better that ten guillty men go free than that one innocent one be convicted, and personally I agree, even if that means dangerous drivers getting off.

But there is clearly a problem with the operation of the jury system when it comes to motoring offences, which I think boils down to a sentiment of “there but for the grace of God go I”. The system tries very hard to ensure that juries do not contain individual jurors who have a connection to the case they are trying – to the defendant, the victim, the witnesses, the offence of the subject matter generally. Judges warn juries that they are bound to try the case on the evidence put before them, and on that alone. They must not allow extraneous information, whether that be news reports or comment, or indeed their own prior knowledge, distract them from that.

But how is that possible with a situation which is literally everyday, even if only on one day in a thousand or million does it lead to tragedy? It would be almost impossible to exclude motorists from juries, because outside the big cities that would mean excluding more than 75% of potential jurors, but how many such jurors have never opened a car door without first looking, normally without there being a cyclist nearby and certainly without a bus following just behind? How many have not committed momentary lapses of attention which came to no harm, or just to a slight fender-bender in a traffic queue? Clearly neither the Aydogdu nor the Bieu case can be dismissed as simply as that – Aydogdu’s tint job was manifestly illegal, done with plastic film because assuredly no commercial car glass suppler would have agreed to supply it, and Bieu was (legally) talking on a hands-free mobile and had a record for tachograph fraud. But think about the advocacy of the lawyers in these cases. They would have been doing their damnedest to make it sound like just the sort of momentary lapse of judgement or concentration which a majority of the jurors would recognise in themselves. Who wants to see themselves as a criminal?

Personally, I think that motoring offences, however serious, should be taken out of the jury system altogether. There are precedents, notably complex fraud cases heard by a judge with a panel of lay assessors – people who do actually understand the issues in a way which 12 good men and true can’t these days be relied on to do. Panels of experts, explicitly briefed and paid to be objective and impartial, could perform a similar service on motoring trials. Before anyone howls that this is an affront to the rights of the small man against the mighty state, similar structures are widely used in courts across western Europe, and we should think twice of accusing them of being police states.

Anonymous said...

There are some countries out there that have s very poor track rescord on road safety, and drivers that learn to drive in that environment can be a bit of a problem. I know, I come from one.

departmentfortransport said...

When I read the article above, I thought that the point about Beiu only being in the UK for a year was made because he had already admitted to fiddling the tachograph and driving for 20 hours. Or were those offences committed in the years before he came to the UK?

sm said...

A reasoned argument on the truly shocking state of justice for cyclists killed at the hands of another's negligence. Stiffer sentences may not bring people back but they will make drivers think twice when reaching for their phone whilst driving.

dilys said...

I think that rather than fighting as cyclists, and we are by no means united in what we want or how to get anything, we should make common cause with pedestrians.
Every driver is a pedestrian to get to or from their car. Perhaps if everyone understoods how vulnerable they are to poor driving then standards may improve and laws change in consequence.

Sri Lanka Holidays said...

British cycling ha, something interesting

Robot Chicken said...

I keep seeing these adverts from Levenes: Injured while cycling? How is it that a driver could be punished more in the courts if a cyclist is injured than if he/she is killed?

solihullcyclist said...

The justice system is clearly at fault and has move beyond a mere farce. The fact that people can get away with a minimal sentence after taking the life of a person,whether it is through negligent or even dangerous driving, both saddens and disgusts me. An overhaul of the system is well overdue.

cycling in kerry said...

Very good article! We will be linking to this great article on our website. Keep up the good writing.

OnLineJones said...

Can the Crown appeal a verdict if they feel the jury has got it wrong?