Helmets, excuses, irrelevant facts and blame deflection

Cycling with or without a helmet - a matter of choice.
CTC's Duncan Dollimore examines why a cyclist not wearing a helmet and other excuses are used to deflect blame in motoring offences, and why so many people, including judges, are unduly empathetic to road crime offenders.

Helmets - again!

Last week, the 'helmet debate' was in the news again after a Canadian study found no link between cycle helmet legislation and head injuries. The merit of helmets is a Marmite issue. Objective consideration of the evidence is often compromised by the reluctance on both sides to consider the opposing argument.

CTC's policy is that individuals should be able to choose whether or not they wish to wear a helmet. I choose to wear one, but have no desire to force anyone else to do so, or to suggest they are responsible for their injuries when a motorist crashes into them.

Surely in the latter case it is the driver's actions which are relevant, not the victim's choice of attire?

Press and Judiciary

Whilst others lose their heads in righteous helmet indignation, we can of course rely on both the press and those within the judicial process to hold theirs and report or consider the relevant issues - or can we?

In recent weeks, reports of incidents and court cases involving cyclists killed or seriously injured have displayed an alarming inability to separate material from immaterial facts. 

Helmet blame deflection

On 4 July 2015, Jane Blake was sentenced at Worcester Crown Court for causing the death by careless driving of cyclist Martin Llewelyn-Jones in April 2014. Driving along a route she had travelled for 12 years, she had no recollection of seeing Mr Llewelyn-Jones prior to colliding with him in daylight at a roundabout.   

Convicted at trial, Mrs Blake would not have been eligible for any 'discount' in her sentence for a guilty plea. Nevertheless, she avoided a custodial sentence. Imposing a community punishment order, the Judge could have ordered her to perform 300 hours of unpaid work, but she was only given 75 hours, disqualified from driving for one year and ordered to pay £4,200 costs.

If this seems like an unduly lenient sentence, the press report shines some light on how this tragic case was dealt with. The jury were told that Mr Llewelyn-Jones was not wearing a helmet  -  why? Their task was to decide whether Mrs Blake was or was not careless, not consider the evidence regarding the benefits of helmets. 

The judge's role was to sentence Mrs Blake following her conviction, having regard to the seriousness of the offence and any personal mitigation. To helmet or not to helmet is irrelevant to that task.

The apparent difficulty focusing upon Mrs Blake's actions, rather than Mr Llewelyn-Jones's, is perhaps further shown by the judge's reported comments accepting that there had been no intention on the part of Mrs Blake to drive carelessly.

That may well be true, but careless drivers seldom intend the consequences of their actions. The relevant issue in careless driving is the standard of driving, not the driver's intentions. Lack of intention is a red herring in a case about carelessness - something the judge should realise!

Not wearing a helmet - can this cause an accident?

Regrettably, it seems that blame can be deflected to children as well.

In September 2015, 11-year-old Jodie Rogers was killed after a motorist crashed into her as she was cycling near her home in Grimsby. The driver was arrested on suspicion of driving whilst unfit through drink or drugs and bailed until December pending investigations - a relevant fact.

It is, however, unclear from the press reports, and the opening at the Coroner's Inquest, which 'revealed that the young cyclist was not wearing a safety helmet', whether the alleged intoxication and actions of the driver or the absence of a helmet is the issue of most concern.

I think I can confidently say that no cyclist has a collision with a car because they are not wearing a helmet.  

Is it because most of us are also motorists?

Inferring that cyclists without helmets are at fault, referring to momentary 'lapses of concentration', why do road traffic offenders appear to receive a more sympathetic ear within the press and the judicial process?

Possibly the answer lies in the fact that most of us are not criminals, but we are motorists - ditto judges, magistrates and reporters. They have more inherent sympathy for motoring offenders than for others, because they are motorists themselves.

This is perhaps most clearly shown in the extraordinary case of lorry driver John Noble, who pleaded guilty to causing the death of cyclist Chris Dennehy in September 2014. Mr Noble had reached for his phone and was distracted when he drove his lorry into the rear of Mr Dennehy in daylight on a straight road in Devon.

Ignoring all of the sentencing guidelines, and sentencing Mr Noble to a suspended prison sentence (24 weeks suspended for two years), the judge appeared hugely influenced by matters of faith.

Though he never gave evidence on the point, Mr Noble claimed that he reached across to download a sermon from his mobile phone whilst driving. Why that was less careless than downloading pornography or music whilst driving is a mystery.

In his sentencing remarks, the Judge commented upon Mr Noble's 'long association with the church'. The relevance of that is unclear. Perhaps Mr Noble, a church-going man committing a driving offence, was just somebody the judge could empathise with, which then leads to a search for excuses, blind acceptance of mitigation, and blame deflection.

"Was the cyclist wearing a helmet?" is the type of blame deflection question that then gets asked in other cases.

The answer - the long awaited reviews!

If judges and others within the judicial process have regard to irrelevant factors when making decisions, such as helmet choices or alleged faith as outlined above, then clearer sentencing guidelines are required.

When the penalties for motoring offences leading to the death of vulnerable road users vary so much, with irrelevant factors influencing those penalties, a review of offences and penalties is required.

Wait a minute - don't we have those already?

In theory. The Sentencing Council's review of serious road traffic offences involving death or serious injury was announced back in August 2013 and the Government's review of motoring offences and penalties by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in May 2014.

Neither have started.

CTC assisted Ben Bradshaw MP to table a Parliamentary Question of the Justice Secretary last week asking when these reviews would commence . 'In due course' was the answer. Needless to say, we are following the 'if at first you don't succeed' adage and pursuing other parliamentary routes.

Securing these reviews is essential if relevant facts are to be considered and the irrelevant facts ignored. As these cases show, at least with motoring offences, it is too easy for people to be persuaded to accept any argument to excuse or minimise the culpability of a group of offenders who most people empathise with more than the shoplifter or car thief.

Time to harass the Ministry of Justice about their review!