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Cycling and the law: How is the law applied to dangerous motorists?

Cycling solicitor Mark Hambleton takes a look at how the law is applied to motorists who injure or kill cyclists and asks: should sentencing be tougher?

Having written my last article about the framework of laws available to deal with bad drivers, it’s now time to look at some actual cases to see how our laws are being applied in ‘real life’ situations.

I think this is a particularly important topic, as it demonstrates the devastating harm that dangerous, reckless, and careless driving can cause, and challenges the misconception that it’s cyclists who are the danger on our roads, and not motorists.

Inevitably, some of these cases are tragic, and I suspect that each of them will resonate in different ways depending on the experiences you’ve had on your bike.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive summary of all the cases out there – many don’t even attract press coverage, so do share any further cases I haven’t mentioned in the comments below.

By way of a recap, the charges available to the police and CPS are as follows:

  • manslaughter;
  • dangerous driving and causing death by dangerous driving;
  • careless (and inconsiderate) driving and causing death by careless driving;
  • serous injury by dangerous driving;
  • driving without reasonable consideration;
  • causing death by driving: unlicensed, disqualified or uninsured drivers;
  • driving without insurance;
  • driving without a licence;
  • driving during a period of disqualification;
  • using a mobile phone.

This list of charges gives us a framework of offences to punish bad drivers, but the application of the laws is very different when it comes to actually punishing bad driving. The feeling this creates, especially amongst cyclists, is that drivers who kill, threaten or seriously injure are able to ‘get away with it’, or at least ‘get off lightly’.

We know motorists are less likely to go to prison following fatal collisions with cyclists than following a fatal collision with another road user. After a couple of hours searching the web, these are the cases I found that had been widely reported and involved many of the (more serious) offences listed above.

The cases:

The case of cyclist Carol Boardman

Having fallen off her bike at a mini-roundabout, Carol Boardman was struck by a pick-up truck driven by Liam Rosney in North Wales. He pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving and was sentenced yesterday to 30 weeks in prison. He has also been disqualified from driving for 18 months.

Put simply, Mr Rosney should have stopped his vehicle a safe distance away from Mrs Boardman and helped her after her fall. Instead, because he was distracted by his mobile phone, he wasn’t looking at the road, drove into her and didn’t immediately stop because he wasn’t sure about what had just happened. His vehicle was not fitted with a ‘hands free’ phone system and phone records confirmed he had ended a phone call with his wife only 4 seconds before the fatal collision – so, rightly, the judge found Mr Rosney had been distracted by his mobile phone.

On social media I’ve seen people make the argument that Mr Rosney wasn’t distracted by his phone because he’d ended his call, an extremely unattractive and insensitive argument which ignores the facts of the case. For example, a key witness said Mr Rosney wasn’t even looking at the road, and was looking at his lap. Mr Rosney denied the more serious charge of causing death by dangerous driving and such a conviction was not pursued by the prosecuting team.

In many ways, it would have been good to see the prosecution pursue a charge of death by dangerous driving to hear the outcome. The decision to accept the guilty plea for causing death by careless driving probably reflects a lack of confidence that a dangerous driving conviction would actually happen – shocking in and of itself.

All in all it’s a sad state of affairs, as is the fact it has taken two and a half years to sentence the driver. To wait that amount of time for grieving families must be terrible; a considerable factor would have been Mr Rosney’s last minute decision to actually admit to causing death by careless driving.

The case of cyclist Paul Garrett

A driver collided with and killed Paul Garrett when he deliberately swerved his Ford Focus onto the wrong side of the road in an attempt to scare his girlfriend (front seat passenger) during an argument. The driver was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving and sentenced to 4½ years in prison (only to serve 2¼ years though). He was disqualified from driving for five years from the time of his release and will have to pass an extended re-test before being allowed to drive again.

This was clearly dangerous driving but the sentence (prison and driving ban) are both too lenient. The sentence falls some way short of the maximum: unlimited fine, driving ban and up to 14 years in prison. I can also see the case for questioning whether the driver’s conduct in this situation satisfied the definition for manslaughter. See how you feel about that suggestion once you’ve read about the case of cyclist Charlie Alliston, below.

The case of cyclist Charlie Alliston​

The question I’ve posed about manslaughter in the case of Paul Garrett may seem harsh, but is it really when we consider the conviction of cyclist Charlie Alliston for causing the tragic death of Kim Briggs?

Briefly, this case concerns the prosecution of a teenage cyclist who collided with and killed pedestrian, Mrs Briggs, when she stepped into the path of Mr Alliston. Unfortunately his bike was only fitted with a rear brake (unbeknown to Mr Alliston, it should also have had a front brake). With a front brake, it was alleged, he could have stopped in time to avoid the collision.

Mr Alliston was not convicted of manslaughter but he was convicted of causing bodily harm by ‘wanton and furious driving’ and sentenced to 18 months in prison. In his article, published in The Guardian, Martin Porter QC describes this as a “heavy-handed prosecution”. There were lesser offences that Mr Alliston could have been charged with, but unlike motorists responsible for killing cyclists he was charged with the extremely serious offence of manslaughter which carries with it a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

It is worth bearing this case in mind when considering the Garrett case above, and whether there are double standards. There aren’t many other cases I could find to add further comment on the charging and sentencing of cyclists responsible for killing or injuring cyclists, probably because, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t happen very often and cyclists don’t pose a significant level of risk to pedestrians (or other road users). 

The case of cyclist Clifton James

Clifton James was cycling home at around midnight in June 2015 when he was killed. The driver responsible failed to slow down as he approached a mini-roundabout where he collided with Mr James, who was just a short distance from his home.

The driver was due to stand trial for causing death by dangerous driving but, given his guilty plea to the lesser charge of causing death by careless driving and the acceptance that he was not breaking the 30mph speed limit, he was given a suspended sentence i.e. he didn’t go to prison. Additionally, he was ordered to carry out 300 hours of community service and was banned from driving for 15 months.

There is obviously a strong argument to say that the vehicle was being driven dangerously given the failure to slow for a mini-roundabout. However, I suspect the absence of speeding was the determining factor in the conviction for careless rather than dangerous driving. The maximum prison sentence is five years and there is the option of a driving ban and unlimited fine.

Depending on your view about more prison sentences being the way forward and the most effective deterrent, you may think that a prison sentence would have been appropriate. I would find it difficult to argue with that conclusion but I certainly think that the driving ban should have been much longer.

The case of cyclist Christopher Gibbs

Mr Gibbs was cycling along an unlit dual carriageway at night when a van, driven by a courier, drove into him with such force that he was thrown almost 150 feet. In court there was contradictory witness evidence with some saying that Mr Gibbs’s illuminated lights were visible from a distance of around 200 yards, while others said they had to swerve to avoid him. The courier stopped only briefly, denied being aware he had struck a cyclist despite extensive damage to his windscreen, and continued with his delivery. He claimed he thought he’d struck a deer. He was only caught because a police officer saw the damaged van making the return journey on the back of a recovery truck. The courier pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He did not go to prison but he was ordered to carry out 240 hours of unpaid work and he was disqualified from driving for 18 months

The fact that the courier didn’t even know that he’d collided with a cyclist begs the question as to whether he was driving dangerously rather than carelessly. I think we should all be able to expect reasonable and competent drivers to drive in such a way that they can identify other road users, and that the failure to do so should satisfy the definition of ‘dangerous’. In this case, the inconsistent witness evidence as to Mr Gibbs’s lights might be the factor that made the difference. The cynic in me thinks that evidence from other drivers, who weren’t paying proper attention, helped the driver in this situation.

Nevertheless, the sentence is not severe enough to do justice to the conviction for causing death by dangerous driving. I think a prison sentence was justified and certainly a far longer driving ban.

‘Think Bike’ – the case of cyclist Peter Brown

The first Phillip Bridges knew about taking the life of Mr Brown was the sound of his wife screaming in the passenger seat. Despite Mr Brown wearing high-vis clothing, Mr Bridges collided with him on a Bristol roundabout in 2016 and caused a serious brain injury from which Mr Brown would not recover. Mr Bridges was later sentenced for death by careless driving, as he said he’d made all the usual checks. He only had to complete 250 hours of unpaid work and he didn’t go to prison. The jury commented that ‘Think Bike’ signs should be added to the junction in future when they banned him from driving for 15 months.

I think the sentence should have been for causing death by dangerous driving. Mr Bridges pulled out of a side road, and onto a roundabout, without looking properly. Clearly his wife had seen Mr Brown and the motorist behind Mr Brown gave evidence that he too had seen Mr Brown as he approached the roundabout. Mr Bridges had a history of drink driving offences so not to send him to prison and ban him from driving for a longer period of time seems wholly inadequate.

The case of driver Michael Bradbury

After driving home from a work party at 2am and having consumed alcohol that evening, hit-and-run driver Michael Bradbury knew that he’d struggled to keep his eyes open. In fact, amongst the first questions Michael Bradbury had for police officers who arrested him three hours after the accident was “what did I hit?”. Mr Bradbury had driven into the back of a group of cyclists participating in a long distance event. The cyclists were wearing reflective clothing and had their lights on. Put simply, there was nothing more they could have done to make themselves visible.

Unfortunately, as a result of the collision, three of the cyclists suffered very serious injuries.  Mr Bradbury’s blood alcohol level was below the legal limit when he was breathalysed later that morning and he wasn’t insured to be driving.

Despite all of this, Mr Bradbury found his initial 45-month prison sentence for three counts of causing serious injury by dangerous driving was reduced to 36 months. This is particularly galling for the injured parties and fellow cyclists alike who could have been injured in exactly the same way had they been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I fail to understand how this driver didn’t receive the maximum prison sentence of five years and a two-year disqualification from driving.

No charge – the case of cyclist Michael Mason

This is perhaps the most shocking case: when laws weren’t used to punish the motorist responsible for killing Michael Mason.  

The case of Michael Mason, who was killed after being hit from behind by a Nissan Juke driven by Gail Purcell, is a prime example of the criminal justice system failing cyclists. The case against Ms Purcell wasn’t even brought by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) after the Met Police refused to refer the file to them; the case was instead funded privately by Cycling UK. The reasoning behind the CPS’s refusal to pursue the case fits the typical mould of cyclist victim-blaming:

  • Mr Mason wasn’t wearing a helmet
  • he was wearing dark clothing
  • his lights weren’t powerful enough on a busy London street.

Gail Purcell, having said that she “just didn’t see him” and didn’t “understand what happened”, was acquitted of the death of Mr Mason.

‘Careless’ is simply defined as driving that falls below the standard that would be expected of a reasonable and competent driver. If failing to see a cyclist ahead of you while you’re driving a potentially lethal motor vehicle isn’t ‘careless’ or ‘dangerous’, then I’m not sure what is. 

Should sentencing be tougher?

Sentencing should be tougher, but there are other things we should do. These include: better driver training with a focus on cyclists (and pedestrians), investment in infrastructure to prioritise vulnerable road users and to segregate them from motorised traffic where possible, and more substantial driving bans and non-custodial punishments.

However, tougher sentencing does form an important part of road safety for vulnerable road users. Because without punishment to fit the crime, the current ambivalence amongst motorists towards road safety and the problem of lenient charging/sentencing will only persist.

Of course, not every incident on our roads ends in serious injury or death. What about the minor knocks and near misses that surely go unreported each and every day? I’ve certainly had my fair share of close calls; events which didn’t warrant a call to the police, but certainly would have come under the banner of ‘careless driving’ and would probably be enough to put others off cycling.

These cases are only scratching the surface of the issue of motorists being treated too leniently after causing a collision with a cyclist, and I would encourage you to refer me to other cases known to you so I can look into them as well.

After taking up cycling to commute between Bristol and Bath, Mark has seen all sorts of incidents and has become a keen advocate for cycling and protecting the rights of cyclists.

Mark is now lucky enough to combine his passion for cycling with his day job as a cycling solicitor at RWK Goodman.

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