Suspended sentence for driver who couldn't see a cyclist

Barrett's eyesight was a major issue in this case.
80-year-old George Barrett was sentenced today to a suspended prison term, having been convicted of causing the death of cyclist and Cycling UK member Ian Jobson by careless driving. It raises the question of how we deal with the mobility of an ageing population and the tests needed to ensure that both elderly drivers and others with impairment are still fit, and safe, to drive.

Can you see and react as well today as when you passed your test?

Cycling UK member Ian Jobson was knocked off his bike nearly two years ago on 10 June 2014 whilst cycling along Lower Road in Little Bookham, Surrey, at around 4.15 pm. He died at the scene of the collision, just yards from his home. 

George Barratt, who was 78 years old at the time, drove into the back of Ian in his Peugeot 308 car. Barrett was charged with and denied causing death by careless driving, with the case originally being listed for trial at Guildford Crown Court in August 2015.

Unfortunately the trial was adjourned, commencing on Monday 11 April at  Reading Crown Court. With the delay in the case coming to court and the transfer to Reading, Cycling UK understand that regrettably no reporters attended the trial, hence the source of some information for this report is Ian's daughter Erica, who attended the trial throughout.

Irony of the sighted tandem pilot and the unsighted driver

Sixty-nine-year old Ian was also a member of the Tandem Club and regularly rode tandem as the sighted pilot with partially-sighted stokers. In a cruel twist of fate, a compassionate man who gave his own time to work with and support SeeAbility, an organisation which assists adults with visual and other disabilities, lost his own life when Barrett declined to deal with and accept the consequences of a sight problem which he had been aware of since 2012.      

Barrett's eyesight was a major issue in this case. He failed an eye test at the roadside, and again a few months later, leading to the suspension of his licence. Despite the sight problems he knew about he was driving without glasses on the day he failed to see Ian. Evidence was also presented regarding a mild cognitive condition which might have affected his ability to react to anything that he did see.

Barrett was sentenced to 12 weeks' custody suspended for 12 months, and made the subject of a curfew for three months, from 8.00pm to 8.00am. He was also disqualified from driving for life.

Reacting to the sentence, Ian's daughter Erica Popplewell, a keen cyclist herself, said:

The fact that there was a prison sentence, albeit suspended, shows the seriousness of his offence, as does the driving disqualification for life.

Erica Popplewell, Ian's daughter

Dealing with driver impairment, Erica added that: Anyone whose eyesight or ability to drive is deteriorating should ask themselves whether they should still be driving. I hope that what happened here also prompts people to ask their family members the same difficult question when they are aware that their eyesight is going or they are no longer safe to drive.”

Ageing drivers - outdated licensing?

Cycling UK recognises that sentencing elderly and otherwise law-abiding citizens for driving offences, when they have a long and largely unblemished driving record, is an unenviable task for judges more accustomed to punishing offenders they perceive the prisons were designed for. This case however, not for the first time, raises the increasingly important issue of how, with an ageing population where people want to maintain independence and continue driving as long as possible, the DVLA regulates and tests the fitness to drive of those whose reactions, sight and road confidence are declining.

The jury's task was to consider the evidence presented and form a view regarding carelessness, which they did.  Perhaps the bigger questions are why Barrett was still allowed to drive, and more broadly whether further consideration now needs to be given to the controversial question of compulsory driving re-tests for drivers beyond a certain age.

A tragic misjudgement of speed and distance  

Tragically this is not the first case this year where similar questions have been raised. On 3 February Stirling Sheriff Court sentenced 78-year-old Kenneth McLelland for causing the death of 49-year-old cyclist Sally Preece by careless driving.

Sally was taking part in the 969-mile Deloitte Ride Across Britain Challenge on 12 September 2014 to raise money for the Alzheimer's Society. McLelland was travelling in the opposite direction when he overtook a 'slow elderly camper-van' and the car behind it, while driving along a twisting mountain road. He drove into Sally who was cycling towards him.

Sheriff William Gilchrist cited McLelland's age as the reason for not imposing a custodial sentence on a man said to be suffering with angina and arthritis. However, as in Barrett's case, preventing people from driving when they can no longer do so safely, and before there are fatal consequences, is arguably the priority rather than the punishment of elderly drivers who have not accepted that their faculties or driving abilities have declined.  

The priorities of prevention and punishment

Inadequate sentences and inconsistencies in sentencing have been issues raised repeatedly within Cycling UK's Road Justice campaign, as has the downgrading of charges from dangerous to careless driving. In reality however, decrying what might appear to be lenient sentences of elderly drivers with declining faculties for driving offences potentially masks the bigger questions.

Should some of these drivers still be on the roads, should we be looking again at driver re-testing, and how do we ensure that medical fitness to drive involves more than self-certification?