Over the last week there has been front page coverage of the case of one Charlie Alliston, who hit pedestrian Kim Briggs in central London in a collision resulting in her death. . Naturally it is unlawful and wrong to cycle with one rather than two effective braking systems, and we will accept the verdict of the court when it comes later today. But for me the real story here is not what happened on a central London street in February 2016.
The Karol Michta case
The week before the front page coverage I was reading page 11 of a local paper, the Ealing Gazette (July 21st 2017), to see “Driver spared jail despite killing man while speeding”. Here we learn:
A student who hit a pedestrian so hard with his sports car that the man was thrown 150 feet has been spared jail after the court was told he was suffering “survivor’s guilt”.
In this case:
• Student Karol Michta had pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving while travelling at 61 mph within a 40 mph speed limit.
• His sentencing was adjourned for five months so that he could complete his degree.
• A psychiatrist had diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and moderate depression, described by his solicitor as “survivor’s guilt”.
• Michta had swerved into the middle lane from the fast lane , recorded travelling at 61 mph, trying to keep up with another car, with one witness saying at the time: “look how fast he’s driving: idiot”.
• The judge stated that Michta did not see Henrik Luszcz until just before the point of impact: if he had been travelling within the speed limit he would have been able to brake and take evasive action earlier.
Judge Anthony Morris gave Michta a suspended prison sentence (along with 250 hours unpaid work and a “20-day rehabilitation activity” and a fine)because of his age, his psychiatric problems (brought on by him having killed Luszcz) and “the circumstances of the accident”.
You may wish to consider whether “accident” in this case is an appropriate term. What the judge meant by this phrase was apparently that he thought the road layout was not ideal. “Mr Luscz cannot be criticised for doing so, but this was not a safe place to cross such a major road and some sort of steps ought to be taken to at least move the bus stop nearer the lights”.
I would make the following points about this case:
1. It receives coverage in a local newspaper as opposed to the front page national coverage in the Alliston case.
2. The charge relating to car driven at 61 mph in a 40 mph limit, as opposed to a bicycle at about 18 mph, is “causing death by dangerous driving” as opposed to manslaughter.
3. The behaviour involved – speeding – is commonplace, with about 40 – 50% of drivers breaking the 30 mph limit when conditions allow, and a majority admitting breaking the limit. Press coverage in the tabloids tends to be critical of measures to control speeds, particularly speed cameras, whereas cyclists – as a group with anybody who ever cycles included – will be subject to criticism.
4. The killer driver was excused custody because of:
(a) His age – although his age is that of a high risk driver group, namely the under 25s.
(b) His mental state, which was brought on by him having been responsible for the incident in the first place. You may wish to note the phrase “survivor’s guilt” used by his barrister. Historically this has been used for the survivors of disasters and wars. Here it is used to refer to someone traumatised by having killed someone through his violent behaviour .
(c) The road layout and the victim’s behaviour is highlighted. Although the judge states that “Mr Luszcz cannot be criticised”, in effect that is what happens – or at least the perpetrator has his responsibility further reduced.
5. The key issue for us is reducing danger on the roads, which means reducing the instances of driver behaviour such as that described in the case, essentially feeling the need to keep up with another speeding driver. Nothing is said about the other speeding driver in this case. Indeed, speeding behaviour can be seen on the roads as a matter of course. As pointed out above, it is illegal behaviour which has become largely – although not by all of us – socially acceptable. It could be controlled by cameras and/or on-board speed governors. It could be prevented, but it is not.
This is not a particularly unusual case. Above all, apart from what many of us would think was lenience towards the driver; we have the issue of lack of media concern compared to the Alliston case.
Let’s look briefly at two other recent court cases where the lesser charge of causing death through careless driving (never mind manslaughter) was brought.
Two other pedestrian deaths
Farnham, Surrey .
In this case the driver said that he only saw a person’s head above a line of parked cars (along Lower Weybourne Lane) but that it had never occurred to him that the individual would step out into the road in front of his vehicle.
Norwich In this case the driver commented “In the city people cross in front of you all the time. And 99 times out of 100 if they don’t have enough time they will stop.”
I find the stated views of the drivers (both driving for a living) interesting. In the first “it had never occurred” to the driver that someone on the pavement would want to cross the road. In the second case the minority of pedestrians (calculated at 1 in a 100) that don’t stop presumably deserve to be hit.
In both cases the drivers were found not guilty. So even with a much lesser charge, and potential penalties, than manslaughter, there are still issues about getting a guilty verdict.
These are two recent cases taken at random from the local press where they have received a small amount of coverage. They are not scientifically gathered, but do illustrate the relative lack of public concern with pedestrian deaths normally compared to the Alliston case.
One could go further. For example, last week I heard the case of a pedestrian death at inquest where my colleague assessed legal fault as likely to be with the driver of a motor vehicle – however the police had decided not to pass the papers on to the Crown Prosecution Service and bring the case to trial. Many cases do not involve a trial, even for the lowest charges, despite evidence to suggest at least an element of driver guilt.
With regard to the Metropolitan Police Service, we had the high profile case of the death of Michael Mason, where the MPS failed to pass papers on to the Crown prosecution Service despite the judge in the ensuing private prosecution saying that there was a case to be answered. Again, compare with the Alliston case.
Let’s get more scientific by looking at the overarching issue: what other road users are involved in collisions where pedestrians die?
How do pedestrians die?
Here I am indebted to Bez of Beyond the Kerb for his analysis of the last eleven years for which we have figures. From 2005 to 2015 5525 pedestrians died on Britain’s roads in “road traffic collisions”. In these cases, where the sole other vehicle involved was a bicycle, 31 died: 0.561% of the total. These are the figures as officially collected. For example, if the pedestrian dies after one month, as is often the case, the death counts as “Serious Injury” instead. I have no reason to assume that cases where cyclists are involved are more or less likely to fall into this category. The figures on deaths are about the most reliable of all road traffic collision casualty figures, so I’ll go with them.
Now, it may be argued that in cases where bicyclists are involved, the cyclist is more likely to be legally responsible than the driver of a motor vehicle. The best way we can assess this is to look at in-depth analysis of court cases and verdicts. However these seem to have a great degree of variation in how verdicts are reached and certainly with severity of sentencing. We can look at Contributory Factors (CFs) listed by police attending the scene, which imply a degree of fault. In the cases of pedestrian deaths over the time period studies, we have 25/45 CFs (55%) being pedestrian fault. This analysis, although open to criticism, does not indicate that cyclists are more likely than drivers to be responsible for collisions where they are involved in hitting pedestrian who dies.
So – why…?
This has been a weird time for professionals working in the area of road safety. We find ourselves concerned with a daily toll of people killed on the roads with court cases receiving minor coverage in the press, particularly with pedestrians killed in typical road crashes. Of course, this is highly variable, with some of the more extreme cases – such as those with multiple deaths and extreme bad driving – gaining coverage. And some local papers such as the London Evening Standard have been covering road crashes more often.
But the dominant fact is that when drivers kill pedestrians in “normal” circumstances, we are presented with little coverage. We also see charges far lower than manslaughter (or none at all); we see acquittal often on spurious grounds; and we see low penalties when conviction is secured. But when a CYCLIST is involved…
And that for us is the real story behind the Alliston case. When we finally get public concern and outrage from the media it is for something which – whatever its specific circumstances and severity – is above all NOT what is involved in 99.4% of cases where pedestrians die in road crashes.
…and does it matter?
I think this matters a great deal. Some colleagues have simply argued that it would be good if we could get this kind of coverage for more typical crashes. As our colleagues in West Midlands Police tweeted:
I think there is a deep and important issue here. One commenter on social media has suggested that this is simply a “man bites dog” story: it is just a case of something so unusual that it merits unusual attention.
I don’t think it is. I think it is a case of a persistent and profound refusal of this society to take road danger seriously, and specifically to exonerate and accept danger from motor vehicles and those responsible for how they are used. While this road danger can and does involve engineers of highways and motor vehicles, and a transport industry and politicians responsible for how we get about in the first place, it necessarily involves – at least largely – the responsibilities of motor vehicle drivers.
So for the road danger reduction movement the media coverage of this case is a matter of deep interest and concern.
In the first instance there is all the negative stereotyping of cyclists beloved by all too many commentators. Focusing on one errant cyclist is a key to tarring all cyclists with a brush of danger. In a context where it can be easy for a typical, let alone a particularly bad, driver to endanger a cyclist, I think that such negative ideas have an all too destructive potential. (On this point you can read the chapter on cyclist hatred in Peter Walker’s book .)
More importantly, this is a manifestation of a culture where motor danger is simply not seen as the problem we in the road danger reduction movement think it is. We’ll comment further when the verdict is given. But for now the indicators from this episode for road danger reduction, and the prospects for a civilised society which takes road danger seriously, are not good.
POSTSCRIPT Tuesday 22nd August.
While waiting for the verdict in the Alliston case, I picked this up from the excellent Martin Porter QC: In a nearby court in the Old Bailey, with minimal press coverage, we read this story
We have, again, the death of a completely innocent pedestrian killed by someone in charge of a motor vehicle going well in excess of the speed limit. The charge is not manslaughter, or even causing death through dangerous driving, but death through careless driving. The defendant was spared jail.