Monday 1 October 2012

Legal Update - R v Fields

The Evening Gazette of Teeside reports that last week John Fields was 'spared jail' at Teesside Crown Court where he was sentenced for causing the death of Andrew Hutton by careless driving.  Mr Hutton had been riding his bicycle westbound along the A174 dual carriageway road, near Eston in Teeside.  Mr Fields was not only spared jail but also spared any driving ban beyond the one year minimum that Parliament has mandated for this offence.

The circumstances of the offence seem to demonstrate a very high degree of carelessness on the part of Mr Fields.  Andrew Hutton was there in front of Mr Fields' van for at least 11 seconds (if you do not think that is a long time count it out loud).  Instead of seeing and avoiding Mr Hutton, Mr Fields drove his van over the rumble strip at the side of the road before striking him at 60mph.  His best explanation was reported to be 'He just came out of nowhere..I just heard a loud bang'.  I do not know precisely where the collision occurred but this Googleearth picture of the A174 westbound serves to give a general impression of the layout.

Invariably when I am subjected to a close pass on this type of road the miscreant has seen me only too well and implies that I should not be on the road at all.  In short, they do not respond to my presence because they do not care sufficiently.  Perhaps it is possible to care so little that you just do not see.  Other explanations would be a matter of speculation which of course the prosecution would seldom, if ever, be able to prove against the driver who says he did not see.  This all points towards the need for some deterrence if the safety of cyclists is to be improved.  Prevention is also furthered by removing the very worst, least attentive drivers from the roads for a long time.

I have previously expressed my support for British Cycling's call for a review of sentencing guidelines.  These guidelines have very little to say about the appropriate period of disqualification saying only that the minimum should be one year or the period of custody (whichever is greater).

I am equipped only with the facts reported in the newspapers but on those facts it is very difficult to see why this driving was any less culpable than that of Katie Hart who was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving and sentenced to prison.  Why the CPS chose not to pursue a case of dangerous driving against Field is not clear from the reports.  How the standard of driving could be thought to be anything other than 'not far short of dangerous driving' (the top tier in the guidelines) puzzles me.  Certainly it was not momentary inattention (the bottom tier) but seems to have been regarded as middle tier (none of the above).  Mr Fields appears to have been very fortunate in the prosecuting decision and in the application of the existing guidelines.

The personal mitigation (ie relating to the offender rather than the offence) seems to have been powerful and swayed the Judge against the custodial sentence that the Guidelines rather suggest.

This is not unusual, after 9 months, my analysis of careless driving cases is starting to demonstrate how rare immediate custodial sentences are for motorists who kill cyclists.  Many cyclists would not take issue so much with the leniency over prison (though I rather incline to the view that some serious deterrence is required for the small minority of motorists who most endanger us).  However, if there is to be such leniency, it is a pity it is not accompanied by the simple expedient of withdrawing licences for substantial periods from drivers who have demonstrated themselves to be hopelessly incompetent.

Invariably Parliament leads and police, CPS, sentencing councils and courts struggle to keep up.  Perhaps it is time now for Parliament to mandate a minimum driving ban for causing death by careless driving of 5 years and for causing death by dangerous driving of 10 years.  Enforcement of driving bans would need to be improved but with modern technology this should be possible and could even be self financing if every car driven by a banned driver was seised and auctioned.  Some radical action is required to remove the least safe drivers from our roads.

As a footnote this is not an easy type of road to negotiate.  Sadly there is no safety in riding at the edge of the carriageway even if there is a rumble strip to protect you (for the same reason that you should always get out of a car that is broken down on a hard shoulder).  I would ride well out into the nearside lane, around 1.5m right of the rumble strip.  Not for everyone I appreciate but at least your presence is very likely to be noted and you have some room to move into to your nearside.  This is the sort of road where high quality segregated infrastructure for cyclists is badly needed.  See if you can spot the inadequacies of the provision alongside the eastbound carriageway of the same A174.


  1. From Dr. Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum,

    Firstly, glad you are back on form Martin after the crash.

    I'm in sympathy with everything you say here, but I'd like to look at the following: " Many cyclists would not take issue so much with the leniency over prison (though I rather incline to the view that some serious deterrence is required for the small minority of motorists who endanger us). However, if there is to be such leniency, it is a pity it is not accompanied by the simple expedient of withdrawing licences for substantial periods from drivers who have demonstrated themselves to be hopelessly incompetent."

    It is NOt a small minority who endanger us (or other road users, for that matter). It may be "a small minority" who WILFULLY endanger us, but dnager comes form ordinary typical motorists through everyday incompetence and/or negligence/inadequate vigilance and care etc.

    1. A good point. I have added the word 'most'. I do think, from my own observations, that some drivers are a lot worse than others. The idea that this could happen to any driver leads to many (motorists) in law enforcement, including Judges, empathising with the motorist rather than the cyclist.

  2. Yes, glad to see that you are recovering from your spill.

    I wholeheartedly concur with "anonymous" above that the wilful aspect is of somewhat less import than the everyday incompetence/negligence/etc. situations. For me this runs to the core of the whole motoring-centric nature of our laws that these can just be, in everyday parlance, said to be "accidents".

    Cycling daily around Bristol, I have had both, although the latter is far more concerning to me just because of the frequency at which they occur. Just yesterday while cycling along the centre of a completely vacant bus lane a motorist suddenly turned left directly in front of me. I had half anticipated this (it often happens there) but it was very close. I managed to strike his roof, to create a noise to indicate "I am here", and he pulled out of my way. When I caught up with him at the lights, from behind his hermetically sealed windows, he shrugged, indicated an apology and a sort of "Oh, well, these things happen" kind of thing. He was, to be fair, visibly a bit shocked. However, this is fine for them sitting encased in steel, but if I had been a few feet further ahead when he did that manoeuvre, I would have been off my bike at best.

    On the other point, I did, following your blog on the CTC inspired EDM email my MP Stephen Williams, and he respond to say that he had signed it.

  3. While I acknowledge that as cyclists we have perfect entitlement to cycle on DCs, I would have to say that, as one speaking from his own experiences, this is not to be recommended if one values a long and stress-free life.

    While I accept the rationale behind your point about cycling 1.5m from the rumble strip in order to be visible, I think that tactic will cause as many problems for the cyclist as those it solves. For starters, you are relying on vehicles, travelling at 70mph plus, being able to judge the massive speeed differential within a matter of a few seconds. Allowing for hills, bends and other traffic, the probability is that many drivers will see you no more than 3-5 seconds before they pull level. In that time, they have to make a snap judgement as to whether to brake or manoeuvre past you. If they are being passed by another vehicle, the chances are they will try to pass you concurrently. This will lead to a lot of close passes (at best). Given the recent increase of uninsured drivers and/or those driving with defective brakes or tyres, you will probably hear the bowel-emptying sound of brakes locking up as well.

    Notwithstanding, you will get a large number of motorists using their horn as a sign of their disapprobation of your daring to impinge on their (sic) space, or a lot of punishment passes. Not, I venture, a recipe for longevity. Moreover, I don't fancy your chances of being able to move into the curb at the last moment due to the fact that a vehicle travelling at 70 metres/second will leave insufficient time to take evasive action, should you decide that you and the following vehicle are on an inevitable collision course!

    1. Hopefully not 70m/s but I take your point and have acknowledged that it is not easy. It is safer than riding on the edge of the road. I will look for an alternative route if the speed limit exceeds 50mph but that is personal choice and these roads are often far and away the fastest route and there can be no hint of criticism of those who choose to use them.

  4. Thanks Martin. 31m/s of course!

  5. A driving licence is awarded to those who pass the driving test, proving that they are competent and safe drivers. If a driver subsequently displays driving behaviour that suggests that they are incompetent or unsafe (in other words, anything that would cause instant failure of a driving test), they should surely lose their licence to drive? Let them regain it as soon as they have passed their test again.

    If someone killed a cyclist, by mistake, during a driving test, I don't think they'd pass.

    It doesn't matter whether there was intent or not, or whether it was a momentary lapse of concentration, if a driver has shown that they are not safe to drive on public roads, they should not be licensed to drive.

    The current legal situation makes the driving licence almost pointless. I am still licensed to drive on the basis that I was deemed to be competent and safe more than a quarter of a century ago, when road conditions and cars were significantly different!

  6. Hear hear! It is ridiculous that so many drivers get away scot free after maiming or killing cyclists (or pedestrians), at the very least their license should be removed. Talking of which, it is high time that 12 points meant 12 points, there are thousands of drivers with more than 12 points on their license, and have therefore proven themselves repeatedly not to care about the Highway Code, the law or others' lives, who still drive with the courts' blessing.

    I actually think that the fact that many rely on a car for their job or as a profession should be considered an aggravating circumstance, not attenuating. As a copy-editor my standard of English is held to a higher standard than that of non-editors, why should a professional driver be held to a lower standard of driving than me?

    1. @Nico,

      I don't think I can entirely agree with that. A "professional" driver should be held to the SAME standard as everyone else especially when it comes to questions of criminal liability. Also I drive to work and while at work so I rely on my car to do my job but I do not consider myself to be a "professional" driver.

      Also the standard of your written English is a direct reflection on your ability as a copy writer so it is logical that your ability in this respect should be held to a higher standard than others. My skill as a driver has no reflection on my ability as a nurse. Taxi drivers on the other hand.........

      @ Fonant,

      " It doesn't matter whether there was intent or not, or whether it was a momentary lapse of concentration"

      I can't agree with that. So you would have every one suspected of causing accidental death charged with murder? What about the surgeon who botches an operation through a momentary lapse of concentration or judgement? Would you give them life without parole? Seems a bit harsh to me.

      It is I think a fundamental point of English law that the punishment should fit the crime, wether that is currently the case is of course open to debate but the situation is not remedied but adopting such a draconian position.

    2. Your example of a surgeon is not compelling, and may even undermine your case for the professional driver (the HGV driver, the taxi driver, etc). First, surgeons are rare, but drivers are common. Second, surgeons make every effort (as I understand it) to arrange their workplace for maximum safety and effectiveness in the task of surgery, where drivers (especially non-professional drivers) regard "driving" as a secondary activity, and will happily fill their driving time with distractions and/or rush through it for purposes of minimizing the time spent driving. Third, surgery is rare, and understood to be one of the higher-risk activities that people sometimes engage in (at least, I understand this), and the paperwork that one signs (at least here in the US) makes it plain that side-effects could include death. We choose surgery (largely) on those rare occasions when avoiding it would be the worse alternatives, even given the known risks.

      In contrast, driving is not rare and often not necessary; nations (such as the Netherlands) where a substantial fraction of the population cycles to work and on errands demonstrate that it is very often not necessary, and the small fraction of comparatively hardy and fearless bicycle commuters in the US and UK demonstrates that it is often not necessary here. A surgeon, who in the course of performing an appendectomy, also removed some other body part, and in addition accidentally killed you with the unnecessary surgery, would be punished, and should be punished. We do not take a similar approach to drivers who kill; the questions in court are "was the speed prudent, was the speed reckless", and not "was the speed *necessary*". Was it *necessary* to drive such a large automobile that you had no room to maneuver around the cyclist? Was it *necessary* to use a car at all for such a short and unladen journey? No driver is asked these questions; in fact, I am sure that most people view them as weird, ludicrous, and extreme.

      I have heard from friends who drive as part of their work in the US (that is, UPS delivery, telephone network service) that they do receive specific instruction in safe driving; either draconian policies, such as loss of job for any accident, at-fault or not, or specific rules, such as neither giving nor heeding helpful/hurry-along signals from other drivers (for example, signaling that an unseen lane is clear). Their employer clearly holds them to a higher standard than drivers in general.

    3. I find your confidence in the medical profession touching remember the scandal over the heart surgery being carried out on children at the Bristol Royal Infirmary? But in general you are right. Surgeons are skilled workers who generally make every effort to work in a safe manner. Driving on the other hand being a relatively common activity rarely gets the same attention from those who practice it but that is not really the point. In cases of criminal negligence intent is of central importance and Fonant’s assertion that it is irrelevant would make every case of accidental death murder, where the death was the fault of a third party.

      My response to any body that felt it appropriate to question my choice of automobile or ask was necessary for me to make the journey by car would be, “it’s none of your f***ing business what car I drive or why”. The only relevant question for a court to ask is was the speed prudent or more specifically was the speed prudent given the road conditions. So yes as a driver I do find those questions ludicrous and extreme.

      Professional drivers should as I say be held to the same “criminal” standard as every one else to do other wise would be ridiculous. However an employer like UPS would be totally within its rights to sack a driver who had been found to be driving inconsiderately but within the law for breaking an internal code of practice. I could be sacked from my job as a nurse for bringing my profession into disrepute and you may remember the case of the UK footballer John Terry who was acquitted of racially abusing fellow footballer Anton Ferdinand at Westminster Magistrates court but was given a four match ban and fined £220,000 by the FA.

  7. I don't think a 5 or 10 year ban is enough of a detterent they should be the lengths of the prison sentences.

  8. Martin are you deleting my comments? How disappointing. As a lawyer I expected you to enjoy a good debate if that is not the case then please let me know and I will desist.

  9. I do not mind a good debate but your implication that cyclists are at fault in riding on dual carriageways is offensive to the families of the many cyclists who have been killed on such roads. Further your reference to a 'lycra clad lunatic' as though his clothing was remotely relevant is unacceptable stereotyping. there are many many places where you can post such thoughts on the internet but not here.
    I retain the right to exercise some editorial control and will remove offensive posts.

    1. How disappointing. There were so many different directions you could have taken the debate in, Your own tendency to assume the worst of any driver involved in a collision with a cyclist, the role of defensive cycling in keeping the rider safe (tackled by another commentator), the advisability of using roads like dual carriageways in the first place, contributory negligence, road etiquette, personal responsibility, the list goes on.

      Instead of which you pick up on a throw away comment like “lycra clad lunatic” and construct a straw man argument linking any notion of individual responsibility to the idea that to do so is somehow offensive to the families of the bereaved. Do you want to reduce the numbers of such deaths or simply bemoan what you see as a premeditated act of murder on the part of the driver responsible.

      But the real giveaway is when you start talking about “unacceptable stereotyping”. Really Martin I have met this type of ad hominem attack before. In the health service if you want to undermine someones position or if you simply don’t want to hear what they have to say you accuse them of being “unprofessional”. As a trained lawyer and a QC no less I had expected better from you but then this is your blog and this is not a democracy.

    2. E, the only mention of "murder" (never mind "premeditated") I see here is in your comments.

      Your entire first paragraph is, to my eye, victim-blaming. Of course, people take care to reduce their exposure to danger and discuss ways of doing this, even when the source of the danger is (very) illegal behavior by others. For example, women are cautioned to avoiding accepting drinks from strangers because of the possibility of being dosed with a date-rape drug. Should I therefore infer that you think dangerous driving and rape are similar?

    3. If you are going to build a straw man please do a better job of it than that. I am not victim blaming I am advocating taking personal responsibility. We have a concept in the UK, which I am sure you familiar with, that of contributory negligence. So no, rapists are not to be confused with dangerous drivers. One is a predatory male intent on sexually assaulting and then possibly murdering females the other is an inexpert often inconsiderate and in extreme cases reckless driver of an automobile.

    4. "Murder" is not a straw man? You are cheerfully extrapolating words into other people's mouths; I think in general most cyclists would be happy to see drivers heavily prosecuted for the broken traffic laws that are on the books, with perhaps a little "manslaughter" (or whatever it is called in the UK) thrown in for egregious carelessness.

      Advocating for your extended definition of "personal responsibility" when the harm is caused by negligent and/or lawless behavior is victim-blaming. I see no defense here of actual irresponsible cycling -- running through red lights with looking, speeding or riding wrong-way. You, instead, propose that "responsible" cyclists should exclude themselves from roads that they are legally entitled to use, not because the roads themselves are dangerous, but because a small fraction of motorists are unable to meet the minimum safety standard of not running into people, and because (further) courts and police both in the UK and US are unwilling to properly prosecute dangerous driving as the proven hazard that it is. That's victim-blaming.

      Consider, also, your intemperate response to my suggestion that someone's lawful choice of automobile for a particular journey might also be viewed as contributing. That choice is no more or less lawful than a cyclist's choice to ride legally on multiple-lane roads, so I don't see why you should think it is so unreasonable to question it in the same way.

      From the point-of-view of social responsibility, the choice to drive a car does entail a certain risk to others, and there is a range of legal behaviors that may raise or lower that risk. If the speed limit is 30mph, it is of course legal to drive 30mph, but the risk of pedestrian death in a crash is far lower if you instead chose to drive at 25 or even 20mph. The use of a car and the choice to drive at the maximum legal speed both contribute to the likelihood of a fatal crash with a pedestrian; therefore, even though both may be legal, one might ask, are they necessary?

      It is also curious that only in the realm of driving cars do we elevate the importance of "personal responsibility" above "social responsibility". Look, again, at your reaction -- as far as you are concerned, if you are driving legally, then questions of whether your behavior might be unnecessary or contributory are completely out of bounds even though we know that those (legal) choices do raise risk to others, yet it is (to you) completely legitimate to question a cyclist's choice to ride (legally) on a multilane highway.

    5. Murder isn’t a straw man but your arguments are. You want to see lawbreakers “heavily” prosecuted. How heavily do you want them prosecuted? I just want to see them prosecuted, fairly and to the full extent of the law, not made an example of as you and a few other commentators here seem to advocate.

      Advocating personal responsibility is never victim blaming but setting aside the issue of cyclists using dual carriage ways with all the attendant risks that implies for a moment (A right I do not dispute by the way). Why would anyone want to ride on such a road in the first place when there are quieter, less busy roads running near by? We don’t allow cyclists to use the hard shoulder of motor ways but would you want to if even if able? Knowing you probably yes just to make a point.

      I was wondering when you would don the mantle of “social responsibility” like cyclists are the only people in the world who can aspire to such a lofty claim. Honestly dr2chase get over your self do you have any idea how big a carbon footprint a titanium framed bike makes for instance? You could fly to the moon and back on what it costs to make one of those things. This is the sort of holier than thou attitude that gets right up the noses of non cyclists and I say that as a cyclist myself.

      If you are driving legally then questions of social responsibility are not just out of bounds they are irrelevant in a court of law. Only in the court of public opinion do they have any place and there opinions are like noses, every one has one as they say.

    6. Hmm, did I ever say cyclists were the only socially responsible people? Looks like you're making more wild extrapolations again. And in fact, you don't know me.

      Nonetheless, I think there is a good case to be made that cycling is a very socially responsible activity. First, they are much more safe for other people; compared to driving, about fifteen times less likely to kill other people, from looking at US and UK statistics. Second, cycling consumes much less fuel than driving, which is good in several ways. Oil is a finite resource, so we should not waste it (or at least, waste it as slowly as possible while we find alternatives); the quest for oil has entangled the US and UK in a few wars that were at their root resource-related; and burning oil generates (quite a lot of) CO2, which is over time changing the climate in ways that are very likely not good (rising sea levels and droughts both likely to displace millions of people in the next century or two). Fourth, in countries with publicly funded health-care (which has even included the US for some years if you consider Medicare and Medicaid) healthy activities -- like cycling -- lead to reduced medical expenses, and save everyone else a little money.

      There is the additional issue that cars are noisy, intimidating, and dangerous; even if they do not hurt other people, they exclude them from public spaces by making them too unpleasant and/or dangerous.

      And again, this is not the only way someone can be socially responsible; choosing a diet that is as vegetarian as easily possible (it's clearly possible, the world is full of healthy vegetarians) is another route towards reducing oil consumption. Short of fully vegetarian, one can still reduce one's footprint by biasing consumption towards carbon-light meats, such as smaller fish (not shrimp, sigh) and poultry.

      I don't know the exact footprint of a Ti bike, but I looked -- it's estimated to be about 7 gallons of gasoline, including manufacturing and waste. This is far higher than steel, but somewhat lower than the amount of gasoline I save in a month of cycling to work and errands. Of course, all my bicycles are steel, which has a much lower carbon footprint and a very long lifetime, so I'm not at all sure why you brought up titanium in the first place.

      This all may get up the noses of other people, but as near as I can tell, it's all true. From a social-responsibility point-of-view there's not much that's good about driving cars, and the worst people can say about cycling (footprint of a Ti-bike) is small beans compared to the footprint of everyday car use.

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    8. I will get this right in a minute....

      Vegetariansm is a route to acheiving a reduction in oil consumption? Bloody hell what are you cooking your vegetables in crude?

      But lets not get into a climate change debate or we really will be here all night. Cycling is a socially responsible activity at least we can agree on that. It consumes little or no fuel other than bananas, it is quiet, healthy for the cyclist and best of all it gives the rider an almost superhuman feeling of smugness as he or she glides past lines of parked cars waiting at the traffic lights.

      I for one would not miss it for the world. That is the wonderful thing about occupying the moral high ground the view is sooo much better from up there. :)

      (Thanks for looking up the carbon footprint of a Ti bike did you include for the carbon fibre, usually, forks)

    9. I mis-spoke, slightly, on vegetarianism. The CO2-equivalent footprint of meat is high, though not through oil consumption. In the US at least, and I assume anywhere that pigs and cattle are fed grain, there's a diversity of impacts that mean that an average American diet has about the same effect as driving an additional car (these are ballpark numbers, and I thought that their computation was not terribly transparent in the paper I read -- however, you can sanity check it against this: (executive summary PDF is I think what you want)). The GHG effects of beef/pork include: natural gas, burned to produce nitrogen fertilizer for grain fed to livestock; nitrogen oxides from fertilized fields, another GHG; methane from gastrointestinal methane production and fermentation of "manure lagoons" (which, in theory, could be captured and used as fuel, but so far is not).

      The go-to source for food energy inputs is Food, Energy, and Society by Pimentel and Pimentel (note that the extra gasses associated with fertilizer and livestock are not energy inputs). The most extraordinary result I found there (other than the sad news about shrimp) was that oats have an extraordinary energy return on invested; five-to-one. If you cooked them using green energy, it gives you, on a bicycle, an effective (full-cycle) mpg of 3000.

      Here's the original "source" for the Ti information: .
      I don't know if it included forks, but it was asserted that carbon fiber was less energy-costly than Ti, and the fork is not that large a part of a bicycle.

      I think it's asking quite a lot to expect cyclists not to be smug. A vegetarian cyclist might be smugger. And I have not figured out the carbon footprint of a leather saddle.

    10. Phew that is a relief. I live next to a beef farm and they pump out a lot of gas let me tell you. Mainly methane I think. I know for a fact that Brooks saddles are entirely carbon neutral because they are sourced from Vegans who have voluntarily given up their hides for the purpose.

      Any way I have work tomorrow so I need to go to bed.

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