Saturday, 1 March 2008

The killing of a cyclist

This case is prominently reported in today’s national papers. It raises some interesting issues:

A motorist who was texting on her mobile phone when she hit and killed a cyclist has been sentenced to four years in prison.

Jordan Wickington, 19, died from head injuries when he went through a red light and was struck by Kiera Coultas' car in Southampton in February 2007. Coultas had earlier been found guilty at Southampton Crown Court of causing death by dangerous driving.

The 25-year-old from Hythe, Hampshire, was banned from driving for five years. Following the crash, Mr Wickington, of Netley, Hampshire, who had not been wearing a helmet, was taken to Southampton General Hospital where he later died. Sgt Alison West, of Hampshire Constabulary, recommended drivers switched off their mobile phones during journeys. "It's pretty routine nowadays at the scene of these serious or fatal accidents to seize drivers' mobile phones, and to have them analysed to see if the phone has had anything to do with the driving standards involved," she said. "In this particular incident, it transpired from a phone analysis that there was phone use close to the time of the incident."

One aspect of that BBC report irritated a cyclist, whose response I picked up by googling on this case:

I was annoyed to see the old red herring 'was not wearing a helmet' trotted out again in the BBC news article. Have sent the following to their editors:

It's a small thing, but I'm becoming increasingly irritated by the standard insertion of the phrase 'who was not wearing a helmet' into news articles about cyclists who have been killed or injured, even where it is clear that wearing a helmet would not and could not have saved them (for instance when they have been run over by a heavy vehicle, struck by a vehicle travelling at great speed, or simply not suffered any head injuries).

This has two effects: for some it will invest a helmet with a talismanic power to protect in all circumstances; more importantly it reinforces the idea that cyclists who do not wear helmets, which are not compulsory, and are not designed to prevent life-threatening injuries, are guilty of contributory negligence when they are not.

Today's story to use this formulaic and lazy phrase, that of the imprisonment of Kiera Coultas, is unusual in that the cyclist could have avoided death by stopping for a red light. But the collision itself would have killed him even if he was wearing a helmet.

However, in the world of corporate motoring journalism it’s the cyclist going through a red light that is significant.

Mike Rutherford of Auto Express writes:

So who caused this lethal collision? The irresponsible driver, aided and abetted by the cyclist. They both did wrong. And jumping a red light surely has to be the bigger wrong as it’s a more certain accident causer than using a mobile or speeding. With all that in mind, I put half the blame for this incident on the driver who didn’t use her brain; the other half on the bike rider who took a huge and, ultimately, fatal risk. So if she’s only 50 per cent responsible, why is she receiving 100 per cent of the flak?

Arguably, it wasn’t her speeding or mobile misdemeanours that killed the cyclist. It was his deadly decision to ride through a red when a car with right of way was approaching.

His family said: “We hope his death will deter drivers from using mobiles.” With respect, they should have added: “We also hope his death will deter cyclists and other road users from jumping red lights.”

Rutherford’s generalisation that “jumping a red light surely has to be the bigger wrong as it’s a more certain accident causer than using a mobile or speeding” is not backed up by any evidence. All three are potentially lethal but only when committed by drivers. Rutherford seems to equate lawless cycling with lawless driving. However, the lawless inconsiderate cyclist is most unlikely to kill or seriously injure anyone else. It happens but it is very rare. But the lawless driver is operating a ton or more of metal.

In this instance the cyclist paused at the red light, then crossed. He did so because he thought he had time to get across safely. What Jordan Wickington failed to appreciate was that there was a driver who was coming towards him at 45 mph in a 30 mph limit. Moreover, the driver was concentrating on sending a text message. Had the driver been obeying the speed limit the cyclist might have lived. But the crucial aspect was that the driver wasn’t even looking at the road ahead. Even a speeding driver might have been able to slam on the brakes and take evading action. Kiera Coultas did neither because she just wasn’t looking.

Jurors at the trial heard that the teenager, who lived in Woolston Road, Netley, had momentarily stopped at the traffic lights but then went through them when they were red. He was about two-thirds across the junction when Coultas struck him in her BMW on her way to see her estranged husband at the hotel where she worked. The court heard that police could not understand why Coultas had not seen the cyclist and queried her speed in the 30mph limit. But when checks were made on her mobile phone it was discovered she had just received a text.

Rutherford asks: “Why is she receiving 100 per cent of the flak?” Well maybe it’s because she is alive and the cyclist is dead.

However, there are other aspects about this case that interest me.

The court heard Coultas, from Hythe, in Hampshire, has received three fixed penalty tickets for speeding - two of the offences were committed on a road leading to the junction.

A classic instance of the leniency repeatedly shown to prospective killers. Neither speeding nor the use of a mobile phone are regarded as very serious offences by a judicial system which requires four offences before a driver loses their licence. Coultas was the classic yob driver who the system protects and who sure enough ended up killing someone. But even then she enjoys protection. Apart from the possibility that her sentence will be cut by the Court of Appeal, she will be allowed to drive again in five years time. Why? Why is the right to drive regarded as the most fundamental human right of all, extended to killer drivers no matter how appalling their offence?

And note the car that Coultas was driving: a series 3 BMW. A car designed for speeding. The directors of BMW should be in the dock too, but of course they weren't. All car manufacturers conspire to pervert the course of justice by deliberately designing cars to flout the 70 mph limit, but no politician or senior police officer has a word to say on the subject.

The car lobby dictates transport policy, both in Britain and in Europe generally. It would not be difficult to ensure that every new vehicle is fitted with an aircraft style ‘black box’ that measures speed at the moment of a collision. The road lobby has always strenuously resisted such an innovation, and organisations like RoSPA collude with road death by placing all the emphasis on educating cyclists and pedestrians instead of addressing the source of road danger.

Note, too, the breezy remark of the police officer that “It's pretty routine nowadays at the scene of these serious or fatal accidents to seize drivers' mobile phones, and to have them analysed”. It shouldn’t be pretty routine, it should be an absolute requirement in every injury crash.

The environmental campaigner Mark Lynas has two good suggestions which ought to form part of any cyclist’s personal political agenda:

First, every motorist who kills should receive a lifetime driving ban, with no exceptions under any circumstances. The right to life must take precedence over the right to drive. Lifetime driving bans would force motorists to be more careful, as well as take the most dangerous drivers off the road.

Second, British law – which currently favours motorists – should be altered in line with the Continental system, where a driver who hits a cyclist is presumed guilty unless proven innocent. We must lift the culture of impunity, and force motorists to acknowledge that possession of a dangerous weapon requires extreme caution and diligence. Once the terror of the car recedes, people might again begin to venture on to our streets on foot and by bike. The reality of car culture promoted by the likes of Top Gear is not high-performance thrills in glamorous cars, but a wilting bunch of flowers by a busy roadside.