Cyclism - the Coroner's Chronicles

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Cyclism - the Coroner's Chronicles

Two weeks ago one Coroner claimed a lorry driver would not have expected to see a cyclist on a trunk road. Last week another speculated that a driver's failure to see the cyclist in daylight 'may have been compounded by his clothing'. CTC's Duncan Dollimore asks do the Coroners understand cycling - or perhaps more importantly, the Highway Code?

I recently wrote an article highlighting CTC's concern when Gloucester Coroner Katy Skerret appeared to accept police speculation that a lorry driver, who drove into and over a lit cyclist, would not have expected him to be on that road. The police collision investigator suggested that a combination of the rain and glare from lights in the opposite lane might have prevented the lorry driver from seeing him until it was too late.

Accidental death according to the Coroner, accepting the police opinion that Martin Ashford 'was driving perfectly normally' comments of the police and the Coroner, and the unanswered questions including why Ashford did not slow down if his visibility was impaired, hit a chord with many on social media who read the report.

As the 'chronicles' below highlight however comments such as this are not isolated, begging the question whether Coroner's need further training on road safety issues, cycling on the roads, and perhaps even the Highway Code?

Abdelkhalak Lahyani and the 'dark jacket'

Last Friday 20 November the London Evening Standard reported on Coroner Briony Ballard's verdict that cyclist Lahyani's death was the result of a road traffic collision. It was around 4.00pm on 13 May 2014 and daylight when Lahyani was struck and pulled under the nearside wheels of Edwin Humphries' HGV at the junction of Walworth Road and Newington Butts in the Elephant and Castle.

Humphries was driving in the middle of three lanes when he indicated to turn left. At inquest he said he had believed, wrongly, that the left-hand lane was a bus lane. However, as collision investigator PC Andrew Smith explained, the middle lane which Humphries' occupied "is for people intending to go straight then turn right. It's not a left-hand turning lane".

The Coroner concluded that Lahyani was in the cycle lane between the middle lane originally occupied by Humphries and the lane he wrongly assumed to be a bus lane when he was struck by the left turning lorry. PC Smith added that Lahyani was 'probably intending to go straight ahead and not turn left', and that the cycle lane should have been 'clearly visible' to Humphries.   

On legal advice Humphries refused to answer questions about being in the wrong lane. The Coroner nevertheless concluded that his failure to see Lahyani 'may have been compounded' by his clothing. Lahyani is reported to have been wearing jeans, a dark jacket, a multicoloured cycle helmet and a "brightly coloured" rucksack. A typical commuter?

The Elephant and Castle junction was described by PC Smith as "very complex" and by Lahyani's widow last year as a "death trap". London cycling campaigners have criticised the junction on numerous occasions. If the Coroner thought the layout of the junction contributed to Lahyani's death she should have made a  Prevention of Future Deaths Report to Transport for London, requiring them to identify how they proposed to address the concerns she raised. No such report appears to have been submitted. No comments have been made about lorry design or safety issues. The one issue the Coroner believed worthy of comment, to explain the driver's apparent failure to see Lahyani, was the cyclist's choice of clothing.

Nobody who has sat in a HGV would dispute that blind spots are an issue for HGV drivers. However, by failing to deal with Humphries' error regarding the lanes or with the junction design, and in speculating instead about Lahyani's clothing, the impression given is that too much emphasis was given to what the cyclist might have done wrong rather than the cause of death.

Gary Mason and the dim rear light

So, in the Lahyani case, the fact that Humphries appears to have been in the wrong lane and turned across a cycle lane was not worthy of any judicial comment by the Coroner. What about a driver who persistently cuts across hazard lines?

Former heavyweight boxer Gary Mason died in 2011 after being hit by a car driven by Piero Zanelli at a junction in Wallington. It was dark at the time, 6.00am on a January morning, although the junction was lit with street lights. It was unclear whether Mason was riding his bicycle or pushing it at the time as Zanelli claimed he saw nothing.

According to reports of the Inquest in February 2012 Coroner Roy Palmer was told that it was common for motorists to cut across the hazard lines as they turned right from Woodcote Road into Sandy Lane South (effectively cutting off the corner to avoid slowing down before turning right). Zanelli admitted he did this 'eight times out of ten', but could not remember whether he had done so the morning he hit Gary Mason on that junction.

Neither could Zanelli say whether Mason was on or off his bike, saying he 'just looked ahead (presumably down Woodcote Road), saw there wasn't any traffic coming down and that was it, there was just a thump on the windscreen'. Despite the fact that his windscreen was smashed by the impact, Zanelli drove on initially before turning round and driving back. He failed a police eye test on the day of the collision but was subsequently assessed as fit to drive by an optician.

Collision investigators were unable to establish with certainty Zanelli's speed at the time of the collision, estimating that it was between 25 and 48 mph - in an urban area on a right hand junction! Given Zanelli's admission that eight times out of ten he cut the junction it might be reasonable to assume that his speed and whether he cut the junction on that day would be a factor in the Coroner's verdict.

Not so. Recording a verdict of death due to accident or misadventure the Coroner appears to have been more concerned with the brightness of Mason's rear light, described as "dim" (arguably irrelevant if he was pushing rather than cycling his bike across the junction), and his 'dark clothing'.

Presumably this means that if a driver fails to see a pedestrian or cyclist when ignoring road signs and cutting junctions in a street lit area there is no culpability if the cyclist or pedestrian is not fitted with or wearing lights?

How the rules are different for 'speeding cyclists'

Following the logic of the Mason verdict above then presumably if you are cycling on a poorly lit road and hit a pedestrian without lights you cannot be blamed. It would seem not.

In May, the Daily Express reported on the Inquest into the death of pedestrian Gwyn Lloyd Jones, who was walking in the rain on a dark country lane when, as the Express described it, he was 'mowed down' by cyclist Richard Eakins. At Ceredigon Coroner's Court the Coroner Peter Brunton pulled no punches, issuing a 'warning to speeding cyclists' and saying that the case "highlights the dangers of bikes riding at speed".

Jones' death was a tragedy however whenever motorists collide with cyclists, as in the cases above, inquests often focus upon the luminosity of the cyclist's clothing, the quality of their lights, and the possible reasons why motorists might have been unable to see them (opposing traffic, glare, not expecting a cyclist on that road). When the cyclist is the 'colliding vehicle' and not the victim the rules appear to differ.

The Coroner also referred to "significant breaches of the Highway Code", without which "the collision would not have occurred". Perhaps he could have paused to reflect more broadly on the Code, which informs pedestrians that they should keep to the right-hand side of the road when walking on roads without any pavement, so that they face the traffic, keep close to the side of the road, and at night wear reflective materials which can be seen by other road users.

Ne reference has been made to Jones's attire and whether he was walking on the right or the left of the road. Imagine the focus of the story if a car driver had hit an unlit cyclist at 25mph on the same road at night?

Eakins has been blamed for riding too fast for the conditions, but Martin Ashford was not blamed by Gloucester Coroner Katy Skerret when he drove into David O'Connell at 50mph in poor visibility. Is it only cyclists who are expected to slow down in the rain, or as Ali G might say, "Is it because I is a cyclist?"

'Normal driving' in Gloucester - again! 

What is 'normal' in Gloucester Coroner's Court might seem abnormal to many. Remember that two weeks ago Coroner Katy Skerret accepted that Martin Ashford was "driving normally" when he hit David O'Connell, and the police speculation about how he may have been distracted.

Turn the clock back two years to June 2013 and Katy  Skerret's verdict of accidental death for 87 year old cyclist Ivor Howard. He was crossing a pedestrian crossing when the lights were on green, pushing his bike initially, when he climbed onto the saddle halfway across the road prior to being hit by a car driven by Karen Sykes.

Obviously Howard should not have crossed on green, but presumably some questions would be asked about why Sykes failed to stop?

It was a sunny winter's day. So the police collision investigator's first speculation was that Sykes may have been distracted by the 'low sun', despite indicating in her police statement that 'the sun was low but not distracting'. Obviously the investigator knew better. 

Sykes also admitted in her statement that she was driving at around 30mph and did "not really know what happened next". Cue police speculation two and three as to why she only applied her brakes six metres before impact. Her view of Howard "could have been obscured as another vehicle passed by in the opposite direction", or in the alternative "by a car reversing".

What was Sykes's comment on the police's generous speculation as to her failure to see Howard? We don't know as she was not required to attend the inquest as there was apparently no evidence to suggest she was driving in "anything other than a normal manner" - a view of normality which the Coroner accepted. Some may question whether speculation and blame deflection are the norm in Gloucester cycling inquests.  

Cyclism and the Road Justice Campaign

It would be churlish not to point out that there are cases where Coroners fully understand the road safety issues, do not accept speculation to absolve driver responsibility, and use their powers to make Prevention of Future Death Reports to identify infrastructure and road design failings. The cases above however indicate that problems with Coroners understanding the reasons for cycling fatalities are not isolated.

To be fair to the Coroners, if they have no personal knowledge of cycling, the collision investigators fail to identify issues of concern and indulge in mere speculation, and the victims families do not have the benefit of a legal representative at the inquest asking the right questions, then there is a risk that Coroners will overlook what to cyclists appears obvious.

To help CTC highlight these problems with inquests into cyclists' deaths and the need for training, we need to gather a catalogue of cases where concerns are identified regarding the inquest process and comments made by Coroners. Many case studies have been forwarded to CTC's Road Justice campaign regarding police investigations and prosecutions, but few concerning inquests. Please help us by forwarding details and press reports of inquests involving cyclists to Road Justice  to enable us to tackle 'Cyclism' in the Coroner's Courts, a crucial issue for victims' families.

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Yet again it seems that coroners (and in some cases also the police and magistrates) in the UK need some education regarding cyclists . In my opinion the most sensible option would be a law similar to that in the Netherlands (and Germany?). If a the driver of a motorised vehicle collides with a pedestrian or cyclist then the motorist is assumed to be guilty unless proven otherwise WHATEVER the circumstances. The assumption being that the motorist always has the most protection so should always be on the lookout for the more vulnerable others.

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