After a week in which we learnt of two disturbing acquittals for alleged driving offences, Roger Geffen reflects on a meeting with Justice Minister Helen Grant MP, and looks forward hopefully to action to address the legal system's compacent response to bad driving in 2013.
The Ministry of Justice

A couple of days ago, my colleague Rhia Weston responded to the two disturbing court verdicts [2] announced last Friday (14th December 2012).

In the first, a jury concluded that lorry driver Petre Beiu was not guilty of “dangerous driving” [3] (although he had pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of “careless driving”) leaving the Times journalist Mary Bowers [4] with very serious brain injuries. She is still minimally conscious, over a year later. 

The court had heard that Beiu was talking on a hands-free mobile [5] while driving his lorry, he had failed to see Mary who was apparently in clear view ahead of him for 10 seconds before he pulled up alongside her at the traffic lights, he then turned his lorry into her when the lights went green without properly checking his mirrors, before leaping out of his cab in shock without applying the brake. If that isn’t “dangerous” (in accordance with the legal definition [6]), then I don’t know what is.

It’s rather harder to know what to make of the second one. Driver Kenan Aydogdu [7] was cleared of manslaughter, after he opened his car door into the path of 25 year old cyclist Sam Harding, causing Sam to fall fatally into the path of a following bus.  Aydogdu had tinted his windows and the court heard that this reduced visibility to 17% of normal levels. There was also a dispute about whether he had looked first before opening the car door, and questions have separately been raised about whether the bus driver may also have been following too close.

However, in neither case can one simply blame the police or Crown Prosecution Service for the failed outcomes.  In the Mary Bowers case, the CPS did bring a “dangerous” driving prosecution, only to have it rejected by a jury, i.e. by ordinary members of the public. Similarly in the Sam Harding case, the CPS didn’t really have the option of bringing a “dangerous” (or even a “careless”) driving prosecution, given that a jury would almost certainly have been persuaded that opening a car door doesn’t count as “driving”.  It’s true that they could have prosecuted Aydogdu with offences relating to the tinted window or with opening a car door when it was unsafe to do so - but neither offence would have attracted more than a small penalty at most.

Driving which has caused obviously foreseeable “danger” is routinely dismissed as mere “carelessness”, with derisory penalties being the all-too-common result."

Roger Geffen
Campaigns Director

The Mary Bowers raises much wider issues.  CTC has long been concerned that the law, and the CPS’s prosecution policies, fail to distinguish clearly between “dangerous” and “careless” driving [8].  Faced with a fuzzy boundary between the two – and with the thought “there but for the grace of God” also in the back of their minds –  it often seems that jurors opt for the more lenient offence, in order to spare the driver what they feel might be an unjustly harsh prison sentence.

Yet the apparent reluctance of juries to convict for “dangerous” offences makes the CPS reluctant even to attempt to prosecute them, particularly where the driver is willing to plead guilty to a lesser “careless” offence. And the upshot is that driving which has caused obviously foreseeable “danger” is routinely dismissed as mere “carelessness”, with derisory penalties being the all-too-common result.

Such outcomes must therefore be seen as a reflection of society’s wider complacency over bad driving. But they also play a powerful role in reinforcing this attitude, namely that death and serious injury on our roads is “just one of those things” - with pedestrians and cyclists being disproportionately the victims.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to raise these issues in a meeting with Justice Minister Helen Grant MP [9] yesterday, together with representatives of British Cycling and the road crash victims’ charity RoadPeace.  I am pleased to say she listened with real understanding to the points we put to her, and agreed to keep open a dialogue on these and other issues we raised in the year ahead.

CTC’s Stop Smidsy website [10] has recorded far too many deaths due to “careless” driving [11]. As 2013 arrives, I sincerely hope that yesterday’s meeting may at last lead to some long overdue action to address this.