Martin Porter, who blogs at The Cycling Silk, has recently mentioned the case of Karl Austin, the time-trialling cyclist who was killed on a dual carriageway in Derbyshire in June last year when he was struck from behind by an HGV driven by Michael Bray.
Mr Austin is, unfortunately, just the latest in a long line of time-trailling or sporting cyclists who have been killed after they were driven into on dual carriageways; Anthony Maynard, Rob Jefferies, Tomas Barrett, Pat Kenny, Gareth Rhys-Evans and William Honour the ones that immediately spring to mind, although there are undoubtedly more.
In all of these cases, the drivers had – or should have had – ample opportunity to see the human beings travelling along the road in front of them, yet somehow managed to take no avoiding action whatsoever. Several of these drivers – those who killed Maynard, Jefferies and Barrett – claimed to have been blinded by the sun. The unnamed driver who killed Maynard escaped any prosecution whatsoever, as did the three who collectively killed William Honour.
This issue of ‘dazzling’ has been discussed at length in this excellent previous post by Martin, so I won’t revisit it much here (the post is particularly worth a read because it notes how one case – that of a young woman who killed a child in a car park while learning to drive – far outstrips the others in the severity of sentencing because the woman was uninsured). Suffice to say I don’t think, like Martin, it is much of an excuse, especially given that the amount of time the individuals had to adjust their driving was ample, and that the sun didn’t seem to affect the ability of the countless other drivers who were on these roads at precisely the same time to observe and move around the cyclists who were later killed. Unfortunately it is seemingly still being accepted as mitigation.
As Martin remarks, this excuse again resurfaced in the Karl Austin case; there was some vague talk of the sun ‘troubling’ Michael Bray in the minutes before he killed Karl Austin -
Bray, 61, told police he had not seen Mr Austin. He said he was unsure why this was the case but it could have been because they were driving into the sun. Alex Wolfson, prosecuting said Mr Austin was wearing brightly-coloured clothes and had a bright, pulsating light on the rear of his bike. ”Without explanation, he went straight into Karl Austin,” said Mr Wolfson. He said another motorist told police the sun had been “an annoyance” but the visibility was good.
Part of [Bray's] defence was that the sun was bright and posing a problem to him; he had lowered his sun visor and was ‘thinking of pulling in and putting on his sun glasses’. Yet a police questionnaire sent to 300 drivers using that road on that evening found that most had no real problem with the sun.”
To be clear, driving towards the sun is not as easy as driving away from it, but it should not be any impediment to spotting ‘obstacles’, human or otherwise, in the road in front of you.
The police themselves state that Bray had 45 seconds to spot Austin ahead of him, presumably taking into account the speed of Austin (no doubt well over 20 mph) relative to the speed of Bray, 56 mph. This is an incredible period of time to be effectively driving blind, which is what this amounts to; it is even more incredible when you consider that Austin had a 75 lumen Exposure Flare attached to his bicycle, a particularly bright rear light that I believe far outstrips the brightness of car tail lights. Frankly I have no idea what Mr Bray was doing over that period; it is, to me at least, incomprehensible that he could fail spot Austin, and take no avoiding action whatsoever.
Now my personal opinion is that the speed differentials involved when cycling along dual carriageways with national speed limits are too great for safety, particularly of the subjective kind, and that cyclists should, in an ideal world, have the excellent dedicated provision alongside these kinds of roads that you can see in the Netherlands. Be that as it may, however, I do not believe that ‘accidents’ involving cyclists who currently use dual carriageways (as I myself occasionally do when I have to) are somehow inevitable. Drivers should expect to see cyclists on these roads, and should drive in a manner that will enable them to take sensible action around them. That is; sticking to speed limits; keeping a safe distance from the car in front; spotting cyclists early enough to enable action to be taken smoothly and sensibly (namely merging into the outside lane sufficiently in advance).
All of this is, or should be, standard practice. Unfortunately it is not, given the extraordinary rate at which the few cyclists who do use these roads are being killed or seriously injured. Perhaps it is a function of scarcity – drivers do not ‘expect’ to see cyclists on these roads, precisely because they are so uncommon. (This is not surprisingly, given how unpleasant these roads can be, even for experienced cyclists.) But even if you do not expect to encounter something (setting aside how arguments about competent drivers should expect to encounter cyclists, however scarce they may be), part of being a competent driver should surely include an ability to react safely to the unexpected, something all these drivers who killed manifestly failed to do.
This behaviour is treated as simply careless, both in common everyday parlance, and also judicially. The drivers who were charged – with the notable exception of Katie Hart – were convicted of causing death by careless driving. Martin Porter is quite right to question why, if Katie Hart’s failure to see a cyclist over a considerable period of distance and time, and her failure to take evasive action, should be seen as dangerous, Michael Bray’s similar failure to see Karl Austin should be treated as merely careless – especially given that Bray was driving a vehicle that posed a substantially greater danger, relative to Hart’s small car.
It is noteworthy that Level 3 – the lowest –of the sentencing guidelines [pdf] for causing death by dangerous driving covers
Driving that created a significant risk of danger
I think there is something seriously wrong when the behaviour a man who piloted a 26 tonne vehicle along a road for a nearly a minute, apparently completely oblivious to any human beings who might be the road ahead of him, is not considered to fall into this category, and is instead treated as ‘careless’.
But maybe that’s just me.