Last week, HGV driver Joao Lopes was sentenced to four years imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving (and also to 12 months imprisonment, to be served concurrently, for falsification of tachograph data).
What is significant is that Lopes will be back on the roads in six years time, free to drive an HGV in central London, provided he passes an extended driving test. This is despite a catalogue of driving misdemeanours, including the deaths of both Eilidh Cairns and Nora Guttman. Shockingly, when Lopes failed to spot the elderly Mrs Guttman on a pedestrian crossing in Marylebone, he was not wearing the spectacles he was required to wear following his conviction of driving with uncorrected defective vision after he ran over Eilidh Cairns in 2009. This was his only conviction following that death – he was fined £200, given 3 points on his licence, and allowed to continue driving, partly because of a bungled police investigation, and a police attitude that treated the death as a mere accident.
The relevance of Eilidh’s death was of course that it made it plain to Lopes that he needed glasses to drive and one would have thought that tragedy would be a sobering experience for any driver regardless of whether or not the police investigation had demonstrated fault on his part. Yet his subsequent driving record was appalling. In July 2009 he drove into the rear of another vehicle causing £3,000 worth of damage. In August 2010 he was involved in a collision though he disputes this was his fault and the Judge therefore rightly disregarded it. In March 2011 he collided with a parked motor vehicle and failed to stop, as a consequence of which he was dismissed by his then employer. In June 2011, shortly before he killed Ms Gutmann, he attempted to overtake a minicab so closely that he removed the wing mirror.
That is, four serious incidents that would have resulted in death or serious injury had the objects collided with been human beings. In June last year came the almost inevitable death of a pedestrian at the hands of Lopes.
The man has proven himself serially incapable of driving an HGV safely, and yet, barring passing another driving test, there will be nothing to stop him piloting lorries around central London in precisely the same reckless manner in six years’ time.
Lopes is not alone. The HGV driver Dennis Putz, who ran over and killed Catriona Patel in June 2009 while over the drink drive limit and talking on a mobile phone, had a string of convictions, including three previous drink driving convictions and twenty convictions for driving while disqualified. Quite simply, he should not have been driving legally at the time, nor should any firm even have considered employing him, or indeed Lopes. Yet both these men were free to continue endangering human beings in central London. After the death of Catriona Patel, Putz was, finally, handed a lifetime driving ban. Lopes presumably has not racked up enough carnage to justify the same penalty.
Here’s a shocking incident, filmed in Horsham.
Although the cyclist in question was lucky enough to escape with merely being struck on the shoulder, at speed, by the lorry, it’s not hard to imagine how the outcome could have been much worse. Clipped a little further along the body of the flatbed, a little harder, and he may have gone under the rear wheels.
It was a highly dangerous maneouvre – and a pointless one, because if you know Horsham, you are bound to be waiting at the lights at the end of the road – with the only mitigation being the apologetic behaviour of the driver, who seems startled at how badly he messed up.
Yet the attitude of the police, in response to this incident, is strikingly similar to that encountered by Martin Porter, who writes, again,
Near misses from lorries are not pursued by the Metropolitan Police because (I learnt last week) a safe passing distance is thought to be too subjective. The quality of response from employers of drivers who have passed much too close varies from the highly responsible to the shockingly irresponsible (I have had one example of each in the last few days). It does not take many miles of cycling experience to recognize that action is required to reduce the number of HGV/cyclist collisions which so frequently result in death. A ‘nothing can be done’ attitude would be unthinkable if considering deaths in an industrial, disease, terrorism or virtually any other unnatural premature death outside the context of road traffic collision.
Sussex Police are apparently “not interested in attributing blame” for the incident shown in the video. The cyclist even asked to take the video to a traffic officer, but was told not to bother because, again, they “wouldn’t be interested”.
After protesting, I was told a cyclist was clipped by a lorry on the A24 (great I ride on that too) yesterday and thrown into a hedge – they didn’t do anything for him either, so I guess that means its OK to let poor driving continue to put vulnerable road users at risk….
other than asking if I was insured (the cheek) [exchanging details] is all the police were interested in. Looking at the standard of driving involved? Not interested, they “only do that if they attend the scene”.
To digress slightly, my personal opinion is that, regardless of the standard of driving, cyclists and HGVs should be structurally separated as much as possible. Residential roads should be closed off to through traffic, and main roads should require either cycle tracks, or entirely separate routes for cyclists. Indeed, I recently compiled a post showing how few interactions I had with Dutch HGVs while cycling around Assen and Groningen on a David Hembrow study tour. Mixing directly with a large vehicle while cycling in the Netherlands is rare; much, much rarer than is the case in London or other UK cities and towns.
Human beings are not infallible, and even with higher standards of driving (and cycling), mistakes will happen. The consequences of those mistakes should not be fatal. Structural separation allows people, particularly cyclists, to make mistakes with only minor consequences. It has the further important benefit of making journeys by bicycle subjectively safe, as well as objectively safe. Instead of cycling around and amongst thunderous lorries and buses, which is hardly a pleasant experience, cycling becomes stress-free.
We are a long way from that situation in the United Kingdom, of course. We expect children and the elderly to cycle on roads that are shared with large and fast-moving vehicles. The very least we should be doing, under these circumstances, is making sure that those vehicles are driven responsibly and with great care, and that all mistakes and near-misses are thoroughly investigated. Yet the evidence seems to be that collisions, injuries and deaths involving cyclists and pedestrians at the hands of the drivers of these vehicles are often treated with shocking ambivalence. This must change.