A council worker who inspected a rural road, where just months later an 84-year-old cyclist was killed after hitting a six-inch deep crack, has conceded that the pothole – described during an inquest into the rider’s death as a “trench” – was missed during the inspection because the “primary focus” was to identify “dangers to cars”, not cyclists.
An inquest into the death of “much-loved” cyclist Harry Colledge in January also found that Lancashire County Council was sent numerous photographs of the crack in the road – which had been visible on Google Maps since 2009 – in the months before the 84-year-old’s death and, despite plants growing in it, failed to find the pothole on two occasions.
Area coroner Kate Bisset this week criticised the local authority’s “wholly mystifying” and “logic defying” argument that the crack must have closed prior to the inspections before suddenly opening up again, adding that if the council had properly heeded warnings about the dangers inherent on the road, Mr Colledge would still be alive today.
Miss Bissett also concluded that the council appeared to be “primarily focused” on spotting and fixing hazards for motorists, rather than cyclists, and that the inspections were “insufficient” or of an “unacceptable standard”.
As we reported earlier this year, 84-year-old retired music teacher and father-of-three Harry Colledge was cycling on a rural road with friend Nigel Mycock near the Lancashire village of Winmarleigh on Monday 2 January when the front wheel of his Claud Butler bike got stuck in a deep crack in the road, throwing him off and causing serious brain injuries.
Mr Mycock told Preston Coroner’s Court that the pair had diverged due to a groove in the centre of the road and, as he rode slightly ahead, he heard a “sickening crunch” before turning to see Mr Colledge on the road, still attached to his bike. Police say the 84-year-old would have had under two seconds to avoid the crack.
The former Cleveleys Road Club president was taken to hospital, where he died from his injuries. Photographs of 1.4-mile-long Island Lane – the scene of the crash – taken following Mr Colledge’s tragic death showed visible damage and lengthy cracks, raising questions about the attitude towards cyclists on the UK’s rural roads from both local and central government.
And an inquest into the cyclist’s death has now heard that the crack on Island Lane which threw him from his bike had been visible on Google Street View since March 2009, and that thirteen years later, in September 2022, the chairperson of Winmarleigh Parish Council arranged for 19 photographs featuring the road’s defects (one of which can be viewed on this story’s main image), including the 87-metre-long “trench”, to be sent to Lancashire County Council.
Mark O’Donnell, the county council’s highways manager, admitted to the inquest that the pictures, some showing exposed metal mesh, were “hard hitting”. However, though the images were shared at a meeting of the council’s “pothole team”, none of the four workers sent to assess the road six days later were shown the photographs. They failed to spot the cracks during the September inspection.
One of the highways operatives, Richard Hull, told the inquest that the crack – located in the middle of the road – may have been missed as the “primary focus” of the inspection was to identify “dangers to cars”.
Another worker, David Riley, said he had not been “briefed properly” before visiting Island Lane, claiming that “if I had seen the pictures I would have said it needs fixing”.
11 days later, when the road was visited by the council’s highways safety inspector Robert Treen as part of a quarterly assessment, “no defects” were again identified.
Mr Treen insisted at the inquest that “I didn’t miss [the pothole], it must have been repaired”, before suggesting that the crack “must have closed up on its own” before he visited the road.
“I can only say that that puzzles me,” Adrian Runacres, an expert with 30 years’ experience in highway maintenance, said in response to Mr Treen’s claims. “I am not aware of any mechanism that would likely have caused that crack to be there on September 9, then to not be there on September 26 but then return on January 2.”
Mr Runacres argued it would have taken “a considerable period of time” for the crack – which stretched for 87 metres along the road – to develop “to that magnitude”, before noting that, in line with the county council’s own policies, the defect should have been repaired within a maximum of 10 days.
The coroner concluded that not only were the council’s inspection standards motorist-centric and “unacceptable”, but that the local authority’s belief that the crack disappeared before miraculously opening again “defies all reasonable logic”.
Miss Bisset said that Mr Colledge’s family was “well within their rights to feel outraged at the continual refusal of Lancashire County Council to accept the glaringly obvious with regards to the ongoing presence of the crack.
“The council’s position, maintained to the bitter end, was met by audible laughter in this court. The unrealistic, unsustainable, and incomprehensible position adopted by the council with regards to the presence of the defect on Island Lane leaves me with little confidence that meaningful changes have taken place.”
“The government wants us to be fit and healthy and are so keen to get people cycling, but the roads are not fit for purpose,” Harry’s widow Valerie told the Telegraph following the coroner’s ruling.
“Many of our country’s roads are in a terrible state due to a lack of adequate funding for road repairs. Cracks that wouldn’t cause a problem for motor vehicles but are a definite danger for bicycles seem to miss repair until someone dies.”
Mrs Colledge had also told the inquest that her husband believed that France was a safer place to ride a bike because French roads were kept in better condition.
She added that the state of Island Lane on the day of Harry’s death was an “accident waiting to happen” and that the failure of the council to properly deal with reports of the road’s dangers made her “angry beyond words”.
“Every time I see a cyclist riding towards me my heart jumps and I’m right back by Harry’s bedside in the hospital, looking at his lifeless body and wondering how on earth something like this can have happened,” she said.
According to data from the Department for Transport, at least 425 cyclists have been killed or injured due to poor or defective road surfaces since 2016.
At the time of Harry’s death in January, Cycling UK’s Keir Gallagher said that the tragic incident highlighted the serious threat posed by potholes and road defects to cyclists, arguing that “our crumbling roads… are deterring many from taking up cycling”.
“Popping out for some exercise in the countryside shouldn’t be a high-risk activity: it’s time for the government to get serious about the risk potholes pose, and to ensure local authorities have long-term funding to properly fix and maintain the local roads,” he said.
Following this week’s inquest, the coroner will file a prevention of future deaths report in a bid to ensure that the incident which led to Harry’s death is not repeated. Mrs Colledge is also considering suing the council for its failure to prevent her husband’s death.
Angie Ridgwell, Lancashire County Council’s chief executive, said in a statement: “We are aware of the coroner’s findings in the inquest into the death into Mr Colledge.
“Our thoughts and condolences are with Mr Colledge’s family, and we can assure them that we will be considering the findings of this inquest thoroughly and carefully.”
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.