Tuesday 30 March 2010

War hero killed by a pothole?

The national newspapers are finally interested in a cycling fatality, reporting that the Afghan War veteran Captain Jonathan Allen was killed by a pothole last week as he rode home along the A338 in Wiltshire.  I am not in possession of the full facts which will, I trust, be explored fully at an Inquest.  However it does appear to me far too simplistic to blame the pothole.  Captain Allen was run down by an HGV.  It is a sorry feature of cycling in this country that a significant proportion of traffic fails to give adequate room when overtaking.  In Spain and France, overtaking traffic is required to allow a margin of at least 1.5 metres.  Here the Highway Code implies (though not without an unfortunate degree of ambiguity) that a car width is required.  It also follows as a matter of incontrovertible physics that the larger and faster your vehicle the greater the care you must exercise when overtaking a bicycle.  Did the HGV wait until nothing was coming the other way and pull into the adjacent lane in order to overtake?  If he did, how did this collision occur notwithstanding the pothole in Captain Allen's lane?  It is no good just 'blaming' the pothole.  The fact that cyclists need to avoid potholes, and may even be brought down by potholes, is one of many reasons why motorists (and HGVs in particular) must GIVE CYCLISTS ROOM.

Monday 29 March 2010

PIBA Annual Conference 2010

I have just returned from the Personal Injuries Bar Association Annual Conference in Oxford where I presented a paper on bicycle helmets.  My talk came between that of a Neuropsychologist and a Neurologist, both of whom expressed full agreement with what I said from a medical point of view.  Indeed the Neuropsychologist spoke of a threshold for brain injury of 25 mph suggesting that if a blow is powerful enough to damage your brain it is twice as big as anything that a helmet can help with.  This gives an answer to the 'My helmet was destroyed leaving my head undamaged' anecdote.  Interestingly also the prevention of a skull fracture is not necessarily a good thing since the fracture will limit the brain damage to a local lesion rather than widespread damage.
The paper can be downloaded here or here.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Cycle positioning

So, the Institute of Advanced Motoring is urging us to claim the lane, moving out into the middle of the lane when approaching junctions or parked cars.  Fair enough, it is the best place to be seen and to avoid being doored but why is this advice coming to us from the IAM?
Would they not be better directing their advice at their membership and other motorists, educating them that cyclists are entitled to the lane?  The rub, though, is in the less headline grabbing part of the organisation's advice; they suggest that other than at junctions a cyclist should be around 0.5m from the kerb and 'remember it is not always sensible or appropriate to take the centre of the lane especially if traffic is heavy.'  This is WRONG.  Rather than proffering advice to cyclists, the Institute should leave it to the experts like John Franklin author of 'Cyclecraft'.  A cyclist is at risk of not being seen on a straight road, riding 0.5m from the kerb is to invite the further risk of being seen but ignored.
The Highway Code advises motorists to leave vulnerable road users (that includes cyclists) at least as much room as a car, that's around 1.5m and that is the basis upon which the Government has rejected recent petitions for a mandatory passing distance.  In Spain legislation has been passed requring motorists to cross into the adjoining lane when overtaking cyclists and to allow 1.5m (Article 85 C√≥digo de la Circulaci√≥n).  Here too, in all but the most exceptionally wide lanes, motor traffic should wait until the adjoining lane is clear before pulling out to overtake.  Hugging the kerb is only going to assist the motorist who tries to squeeze by in the same lane, not something to be encouraged.
Further, in a built up area the frequent switches from kerb to middle of the lane would put cyclists at additional unneccessary risk both from motorists and pedestrians.
It is perfectly appropriate to adopt a secondary road position (which I suggest should be around 1 metre from the kerb) in order to make an overtake easier for a following vehicle that has slowed and pulled out appropriately (and has thereby demonstrated that its driver has seen and reacted to the presence of the cyclist).  This may be regarded as a courtesy that assists us to rub along better, but should only be done if there is no risk to the cyclist's safety.
Although not a member of the IAM, I am a motorist and I have never ever been delayed more than about 30 seconds wating for an appropriate opportunity to overtake a cyclist or cyclists as though they were occupying the space of a car.
Many cyclists may prefer to keep well into the nearside, the road is after all a potentially intimidating place.  However for a motoring organisation to tell cyclists where they should ride strikes me as inappropriate.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Legal Review of the Month - February 2010

Inquests have been held since at least Norman times into sudden or violent deaths in England. The inquest represents the remaining vestige of the medieval code of kingship whereby the Crown protected his subjects in exchange for their fealty. There is a vital public interest in encouraging cycling and there is no more important role for an inquest than investigating thoroughly the circumstances in which someone who has taken up this public encouragement meets a violent death.

It is true that the families of killed cyclists may pursue a responsible party in the Civil Courts. However liability is likely to be admitted and there is unlikely to be any investigation into the circumstances of the 'accident'. Before the days of the car culture, Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities described the actions of the aristocrat who tossed the gold coins to the family of the child his coach had run down and killed as epitomising the immorality and corruption of the ancien regime. Today his actions would be lauded as providing the promptest possible admission of liability and generous offer of compensation. Often the prompt admission of liability and payment of compensation is not enough.

Though we are all equal before the law, it would perhaps be asking too much to expect that every inquest be as detailed as that which occurred into the relatively straightforward circumstances of a Princess who was driven by a drunk driver at high speed through a city centre without fastening her seatbelt. Nonetheless every inquest into a cyclist's death requires thorough examination. It is a pity that legal aid is (generally) not available to the bereaved families. However in a rather encouraging decision on the assessment of costs, it has been determined that part of the costs of an inquest, may be recoverable in a subsequent civil claim. It is to be hoped that many lawyers would be prepared to help families in the hope that some part of the cost may be recovered subsequently - I for one would. It would also be a useful step if cycling organisations facilitated legal representation by including it as a standard insurance benefit (as it is for motorists whose conduct comes under scrutiny at an inquest).

In February I met some of the family of Eilidh Cairns who tragically died under the front wheel of an HGV a year ago in Notting Hill Gate. The inquest, which recorded a verdict of accidental death, was clearly not as detailed as the family would have liked and may be thought to be entitled to expect. A narrative verdict is available to Coroners and there is a case for believing it should be used in this type of case. I say no more as proceedings arising from this tragedy have clearly yet to conclude.

Scotland does not have the same history of inquests but instead Fatal Accident Inquiries may be used to perform a similar function. Such an FAI has just opened into the death of Jason MacIntyre and there is hope that, at least on this occasion, a thorough investigation will take place.

The Crown Prosecution Service's determination to enforce the law against those, on the face of it, responsible for the death of cyclists remains patchy as Eilidh Cairns's case illustrates. It is interesting that they appear to have a policy of leaving it to the jury to determine whether excessive force has been used against a dead burglar, yet being often reluctant to leave the question whether adequate care has been taken by a motorist around a dead cyclist. One might have supposed that the public policy in encouraging and protecting cyclists was greater than that of encouraging and protecting burglars.

However one highlight of February has to be the successful prosecution of Katie Hart arising from the death of Major Gareth Rhys-Evans. I have already applauded the CPS for not accepting a lesser plea. I was not at the trial so do not know how hard Ms Hart was pressed on her explanation that she did not see either of the two time trialists before the collision. The explanation was accepted for the purposes of sentence. A prison term was inevitable and the driving ban of two years was the minimum permissible under the legislation.  The Judge was constrained by sentencing guidelines which in part read 'a ban which will extend for a substantial period after release is likely to be counterproductive if it is imposed on an offender who ... requires a driving licence to earn his or her living, because it may tempt the offender to drive while disqualified.'