A ride to remember Sam, and that some 'accidents' can be avoided

Painting of 26-year-old Sam Boulton
With another bereaved family repeating calls for car dooring to be taken seriously, Cycling UK's Duncan Dollimore says it's time for cross-party action from MPs to stop avoidable tragedies being trivialised as 'accidents'

On Friday evening, cyclists in Leicester will be thinking about Sam Boulton as they gather for a ride to remember an inspirational teacher, whose life was cut short when a car door was opened in front of him, knocking him off his bicycle and into the path of a passing van.

Ride for Sam 2017

Sam Boulton would have been 27 today, but it won't be a day of celebration for his family. A year ago, on his 26th birthday, Sam was cycling along London Road past Leicester train station when the passenger in a parked private hire vehicle, Mandy Chapple, opened the offside rear door, knocking Sam off his bike and into the path of a Citroen van. Tragically, Sam's injuries were fatal: another life cut short for want of better education, guidance and enforcement regarding the danger of opening car doors without looking.

There is much that Sam's family are entitled to be angry about. The private hire driver Farook Yusuf Bhikhu could have driven past and turned into the train station to allow his passengers to alight in the designated drop-off zone, but that might have delayed him. He chose instead to park on double yellow lines outside the station, permitting Chapple to disembark into the road rather than onto the pavement. Chapple could have exited from the near-side door onto the pavement, or just looked properly, though many who don't cycle will suggest that her failure to do either of those things, and the choices Bhikhu made, were just "accidents".

Rather than simply being angry, however, Sam's family is desperate for things to change, so others don't have to go through the year they've just had. Tomorrow night, 28th July at 6.00pm, they'll be at the Curve Theatre in Leicester for the Ride for Sam 2017, as cyclists and others who knew Sam gather to remember an inspirational teacher, and call for changes to the law on car-dooring and greater public awareness of the dangers of not thinking, and not looking.  

Predictable accidents?

Of course, neither Bhikhu or Chapple intended to cause any harm on that fateful day, but the absence of intent doesn't necessarily mean that what followed from their actions was an "accident". If you open a car door without looking, the outcome for a cyclist passing the car at that moment is predictable, particularly if the available road space has been narrowed by double yellow parking. If you're a professional driver and opt to save time by parking where you shouldn't, saying and doing nothing to advise your passengers to leave on the pavement side, then you make avoidable choices which increase risk and carry potential consequences.  

It is because the consequences of failing to look properly are obvious that it's an offence to open or permit a car door to be opened so as to cause injury or endanger someone, though the maximum penalty is limited to a £1000 fine. In March, Chapple pleaded guilty to that offence, as the door-opener, and in June following a trial, Bhikhu was convicted of permitting this to happen. With fines and court costs totaling £150 for Chapple, and £955 for Bhikhu, the penalties where dooring leads to death or serious injury can seem derisory, with victims and their families often left feeling that the offence is not taken seriously.

​After the death of her husband Robert Hamilton in January 2014, his widow May expressed her disgust that car-dooring fatalities were "trivialised with very minor charges". Joanne Jackson was fined £305 for opening her car door into Robert on Linaker Street, Southport. May understandably struggled to accept Jackson's explanation to the court that "it was an accident", believing that the occupants of vehicles owed a greater duty of care to other road users, and that a manslaughter charge would have been more appropriate. Realistically, however, as was shown to be the case following the death of Sam Harding in 2011, the prospects of obtaining a manslaughter conviction in a dooring case are slim.

​A gap in the law

Kenan Aydogdu decided to darken the windows on his car by fitting plastic tinting film, such that the side windows only provided 17% transparency, detrimentally affecting what he could see from the driver's seat. The restricted vision wasn't an accident, it was an obvious result of a conscious choice, yet Aydogdu was acquitted of manslaughter after knocking Sam Harding off his bike and under a bus when he opened his door into the bus lane on Holloway Road, London.

Following Aydogdu's £200 fine for a car-dooring offence, Sam's father Keith Harding told reporters that there was gap in the law: the huge gulf in penalties between a nominal fine for car-dooring, which is treated and perceived as a regulatory offence, and a manslaughter conviction, which in most cases will be unrealistic. As Keith said, "the law needs to find something which is commensurate". A cry echoed by May Hamilton, and now by Sam Boulton's parents.

​A new "commensurate" offence

Last week, Sam Boulton's father Jeff Boulton and his younger brother Joe spoke to ITV News, repeating the calls Cycling UK has made for a new offence of causing serious injury or death by car-dooring. There is a separate offence of causing death by careless driving, with greater penalties than for the basic offence of careless driving, and separate offences with increased penalties for both causing serious injury or death by dangerous driving, but with car-dooring no distinction is made having regard to consequences.

​The suggestion of a new offence with increased penalties in death and serious injury car-dooring cases formed part of Cycling UK's response to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation on motoring offences and penalties. We still await the outcome of that review, which was first promised under the coalition government in May 2014, finally launched under a Conservative government in December 2015, and has been in the in-tray of four consecutive Justice Secretaries already. Cycling UK wrote to the new incumbent David Lidington following his appointment in June, receiving a response earlier this month indicating that the responses to the consultation were being considered, and that an announcement would be made in due course.

​Is Godot finally here?

Waiting for progress on the motoring offences and penalties review has been like Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's play where there is nothing to be done, and nothing ever happens. After making submissions on and blogging about car-dooring, meeting Jeff and his family, attending court, speaking regularly to May and generally trying to garner some parliamentary attention for this issue, I must confess I was starting to become a little weary with the lack of progress. With both Labour and Conservative MPs attending tomorrow's Ride for Sam, however, and the new road safety Minister Jesse Norman responding constructively to recent correspondence concerning car door opening awareness and techniques such as the Dutch Reach, there seems to be greater interest and concern. Perhaps something might actually happen after all!   

All of the people I have spoken to whose lives have been ripped apart by a carelessly opened car door have expressed concerns about the inadequate penalties for car-dooring. This leads to the offence being minimised and the assumption that the collisions were "accidents". But they also want greater awareness including advice for learner drivers so the dangers are explained to them, and public information campaigns to highlight safe practice.

I can't remember the information in the Highway Code about checking for cyclists before opening a car door ever being publicised, but a Government-funded THINK! campaign on car dooring could easily achieve this, at little cost.

Join the Ride for Sam

I have no doubt that Sam's family will be heartened tomorrow by a large turn-out for the Ride for Sam, but a lasting tribute to their son, and what they desperately want, is new car-dooring legislation and government action to inform, raise awareness and change behaviour. Hopefully, the MPs attending tomorrow, and others we have engaged, will continue to ask questions and make a fuss when Parliament returns in September, but more noise is needed.

If you're involved in a dooring incident, make sure you report it. We strongly suspect these are under-reported in the casualty statistics, because people don't bother to report minor injury collisions.

If you're injured in a dooring incident and the police don't take action, ask them why not and what their policy is on prosecuting dooring cases. Also ask how many were reported last year and how many they prosecuted. Analysis by the Bristol Road Justice Group identified 16 cases in Bristol where cyclists had been injured through car-dooring in 2016, only one of which led to prosecution.

If you have been seriously injured and the police don't prosecute, or they do but the penalty seems derisory, contact your MP and tell him or her about Sam Boulton, Robert Hamilton, or Sam Harding, and ask them whether they will support the call for a new offence of causing serious injury or death by car dooring, and let us know you've done this.

Over the last year, we've managed to get close passes in the news. The media are talking about the space to leave when overtaking cyclists. We are seeing the start of a cultural change, where many (not all) police forces are taking near misses more seriously. We need to do the same thing with car-dooring, so people think before they fling the door open. Despite their tragic loss, Sam's family are doing all they can to help with that, so if you're free tomorrow evening and live around Leicester, come along.

I hope to see you at the Curve at 6.00pm.