No Further Action

28 January 2016

At around 7:30am on New Year’s Day 2015, James Stephenson was killed on the A3 near Bramshott in Hampshire. One man was arrested on suspicion of causing death by careless driving, but Hampshire Police took no further action. Naturally, I wondered why. I finally managed to track down a report of the inquest, published in the Haslemere Herald in May 2015, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—it doesn’t really resolve that question.

The location

The incident occurred on the A3 southbound near Bramshott. Although the precise location of the initial collision is unclear, it was on a stretch of dual carriageway near the Hampshire/Surrey border (Surrey Police initially attended the scene before handing over to Hampshire Police); specifically, within the ~1.3 mile section between the Bramshott Common and Liphook junctions.

It is of note that there is a pavement marked as a cycleway alongside the first half of this section of the southbound carriageway, as shown below. It terminates abruptly, forcing cyclists into the 70mph carriageway. I do not know whether Stephenson used the cycle path, and unless the collision occurred as he left the cycle path, it seems somewhat impertinent to the actual events.

a3-southbound-grayshott

The conditions

The collision occurred at around 0730 on 1 January; on that day, sunrise in London was 0748. This implies that there may have been a little light in the sky; however, conditions were of “slight drizzle” and so the sky was likely overcast. The ambient light level was, therefore, quite possibly not noticeably different from full night time. There is no street lighting on this section of carriageway.

The events

Stephenson had been cycling from his workplace in Grayshott to his home in Liphook. According to Hampshire Police collision investigator Sergeant Darren Ord,

“He had cycled to work because he knew he would be drinking and felt on his bicycle he would be safer to the public than driving his car.”

He was indeed found to have been above the drink-driving limit; I do not know by what margin, but the coroner remarked that “he was not roaring drunk”. (Note that specific alcohol limits do not apply when riding a bicycle: the relevant offence is to be “under the influence of drink or a drug to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the cycle”, as defined by the Road Traffic Act 1988.)

Stephenson’s journey would have been about 6 miles in length, and he would have completed around 4 miles by the time of the collision.

Ord says,

“When [James] was struck he had been cycling in the middle of the nearside of the dual carriageway.”

He was initially struck by a Ford Fiesta van driven by Luke Harris, who had been working a night shift in Slough. It is very likely that he is the Waterlooville man who was arrested following the collision, but I have seen no explicit statement of this.

Harris was driving at 70mph with dipped headlights, and the van was fitted with a tracker and seemingly a speed limiter (though this is not explicitly stated).

Harris said,

“Then [after checking my mirror and speed] I looked and the man was in front of me. I realised it was a cyclist but I didn’t see any light. I swerved to avoid him but my vehicle hit him. I pulled over as soon as I could and put on my hazard lights but I had trouble opening my car door. When I did get out I called the police and ambulance before walking back, but before I could get to him a car ran over him.”

That car was a Skoda driven by Geoffrey New. He had also been working a night shift, in Raynes Park. After seeing “a van with hazard lights parked on the near side”, New “pulled over to the other lane, then swerved to go round something lying in the road”. He said,

“Unfortunately I hit it. At first I had no idea what I had hit. As I got closer I saw it was someone I had hit and I am so deeply sorry for my involvement in this.”

Under questioning, New said that he had had 11 hours’ sleep prior to his night shift, and that he had been driving on this section of the A3 for 10 years and knew it well. (As it happens, I have used the same road for a very similar period; most of us will be familiar with the cognitive complacency that can easily set in when one drives on a two-lane dual carriageway on a regular basis. I do not mean to imply that New was suffering this, but that someone’s familiarity with a road should certainly not be taken to mean that they are more competent when driving on it.)

It is unclear as to whether other vehicles were involved. It seems unlikely that they were, as one would think that Harris and New would both have seen them, but Ord says that Stephenson had been run over “an unquantifiable number of times”.

Investigation officer Pc Emma Clifford stated that “there was no evidence that Mr Stephenson had been cycling in a bad manner” and that his bicycle had been too damaged to fully assess for defects. She noted that it had only a rear light.

The media report implies that she said that Stephenson “would only have been illuminated by the oncoming lights of cars” (which seems a little curious given the presence of the rear light), and explicitly quotes her as saying,

“There would have been no time to avoid the collision.”

The verdict

Coroner Andrew Bradley recorded a verdict of accidental death. He remarked,

“After his birthday and the New Year party, James had been wise and taken his bike, but we don’t know how much the light on his bike was illuminated. He is going along the open carriageway while he is affected by his alcohol intake and the effect was that it was possible James, while cycling on the road, had been confused. He could have experienced some form of disorientation, but he was not roaring drunk and as a result of the accident he suffered catastrophic injuries.”

Comment

Naturally, any comments made on the basis of a media report of an inquest are, to some unknown extent, speculative.

However, there appears to be no evidence that James was responsible for the collision. He had a rear light and he was positioned quite legitimately in the carriageway.

Granted, it is not known with certainty whether his light was lit, but this is an extremely problematic line of thought. If a pedal cycle is struck by a motor vehicle (or indeed multiple such vehicles) travelling at around 70mph, there is a very good chance that its light will be destroyed in the impact. It would be deeply concerning indeed if pedal cyclists were not given the benefit of any doubt as to whether a light damaged in a collision was working prior to it—though it should be noted that this is generally not trivial to reconcile with the burden of proof of guilt.

The consideration of the fact that James was to some extent intoxicated is also a source of concern. Some people will, of course, say that being on the road while drunk is “asking for trouble” and will pay no further attention to the case, but this would be rather short-sighted. In legal terms alone, it is not a specific offence to cycle while less than sober; it is only an offence to be incapable of adequately controlling the bicycle. There seems to be no evidence that James was in such a state.

The coroner alludes (albeit with a slightly curious turn of phrase) to the possibility of James not being fully alert: “it was possible James had been confused. He could have experienced some form of disorientation”. Yet the report does not mention any evidence of lack of control or unpredictable cycling; indeed the investigating Pc is quoted as saying that no such evidence exists.

The problem here is that, even if Stephenson were to have been riding slightly erratically, this could have been for any number of reasons. There may have been a pothole; an animal or bird may have run out from the verge, and so on. All of these are reasons why drivers are reminded to afford cyclists as much space as possible by moving into the right lane before passing.

That did not happen in this case: Harris saw Stephenson too late, and hit him. New, too, failed to see him and also hit him (though it seems reasonable to suspect that at this point the rear light would no longer be functioning).

This is just one of many cases where people on foot or on pedal cycles in the carriageway (and legitimately so) are hit by drivers travelling at a speed which exceeds their ability to avoid a collision given the extent of their visibility.

Of course, the use of alcohol provides a neat distraction from the fact that two people failed to see, and drove headlong into, a legitimate road user. It means that a verdict of accidental death is less likely to attract scrutiny, but there seems to be no evidence that Stephenson’s death was in any way directly attributable to his own actions. It seems quite plain, however, that both drivers had chosen a speed at which they could not prevent their vehicles striking him.

From the little information available, this seems to be just one more in a long list of examples which, both in terms of outcome and comments made by multiple parties along the way, justify the choice to drive at a speed at which it becomes impossible to avoid a collision.

And if that is justified, then the killing of anyone not travelling at a similar speed is justified.

Comments

  1. bsk 28 January 2016 1:45am #

    As ever a well constructed argument. But still a sad avoidable death that was not the victims fault.

  2. Tulyar 28 January 2016 7:36am #

    Your argument on the rear light equally applies to the front light, many cycle lights are detachable and many of the mounting systems equally transient, a front light with a strap on mounting could easily have been detached and sent a long way from the crash site.

    At that time of day there will be a great pressure on the Police investigators to wrap up the gathering of evidence so that the road can re-open and further crashes (through bad driving in the congestion created) deliver further casualties.

    Perhaps you might try to present such reports using a format from the RAIB/AAIB systems and conclude with 3 sections
    1) a list of possible causal factors eg travelling to fast for the distance seen ahead/geometry of the road etc
    2) a list of learning points – like driving to be able to stop within the distance you can see to be clear
    3) recommendations – here we expose the massive omission from our roads governance system, an independent regulator (but the ORR is now making some useful noises wrt Highways England and safety – at roadworks) If the RAIB makes a recommendation to change something then ORR will in over 90% of cases make this a required action from rail operators with a time limited delivery.

    For 3) it makes vary interesting reading to look at Reports and Bulletins ; Croydon tram -bus crash 2008 Oxshott HGV incursion 2010 and I look forward to reading what is said in the 2015 Froxfield report on a 90mph crash between a train and a bridge parapet demolished by an HGV, which could have been totally avoided (and the train stopped short) but for a chain of total incompetence in the reporting the initial incident. Like Croxton (2006) trains crashing at 90mph through road debris left on the line with no serious casualties speaks volumes for the thought that goes into rail safety.

    In the absence of an effective roads regulator RAIB writes letters to the County Roads Authorities, DfT, vehicle operator etc, which I suspect in many cases might just as well go into a black hole. For Croydon the change in traffic signal sequence, carried out the day before the crash, and failure to repair the screening cowl on the green signal taken by the bus driver as the call to proceed, lead to the death of a passenger thrown out from the upper deck of the bus, and a letter to DfT and bus operators (and presumably TfL who specify the buses used on their contracts) that measures should be in place on double deck buses that would prevent passengers from being thrown out through upper deck windows. Older buses had framing for the opening window lights, and often a grab rail across the front windows – just looking at the modern offerings (eg NBFL) and it would seem that this letter has been quietly forgotten. Just wait for the civil claim when the next passenger is ejected through an upper deck window in a bus crash?

  3. Eric D 28 January 2016 11:33pm #

    1) No mention of reflectors ?
    They are perhaps more reliable, assuming the motor vehicle lighting is OK.

    2) The huge question is ‘Why no further action’ ?
    There should be some made-up wording to hide police apathy.
    No Hi-viz ?
    Disagreement with Bikeability – Primary Position ?
    ‘No evidence an offence has been committed’ ?
    – “well within the distance you can see to be clear” is only Highway Code advice, not law
    – Law : “what would be expected of a careful and competent driver”
    Is the average driver ‘careful and competent’ ?
    Do ‘careful and competent’ drivers hit things ?
    Scots police once went up + down the A9 shooting deer …
    I fear the police attitude is really ‘the A3 is dangerous, so you use it at your own risk’ !
    (or pretty much any road)
    Did the Helen Measures case set a precedent – ‘your mistake was to choose to cycle’ !

    Would a Freedom of Information request find the police rationale ?
    Google [cyclist killed police site:whatdotheyknow.com]
    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/police_report_for_cyclists_death_2
    Failed ‘Public Interest’ test – a different case:
    “It would not serve a core policing function to publish the details requested at this time. As the argument favouring disclosure was not made out and the requested information was withheld.”
    FOI Act section 30 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/section/30
    “Information held by a public authority is exempt information if it has at any time been held by the authority for the purposes of—

    (a)any investigation which the public authority has a duty to conduct with a view to it being ascertained—

    (i)whether a person should be charged with an offence or

    (ii)whether a person charged with an offence is guilty of it,”

    So no, the police are not accountable for inaction ?
    Or “argument favouring disclosure was not made out” means that, instead of saying “If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch”, NCC should have employed a solicitor to draft the request in compelling legal terms ?

  4. Eric D 29 January 2016 3:51pm #

    Or, ‘It is not in the public interest to prosecute – not supporting core policing.’ ?

    I’ve written this for other reasons – could be worth fact-checking, expanding and publicising :

    Police do have a variety of ‘disposal’ methods without going through charging, prosecution, CPS, courts

    0) ‘NFA’ – No Further Action

    1) informal warning – ‘local resolution’ – verbal only, but can be quick, cheap + effective
    – the modern equivalent of ‘a clip round the ear’ !

    2) NDORS course – doesn’t even say an offence has been committed : recorded (only so they don’t keep sending them on the same course repeatedly) : can be an insurance question, but for stats only ? Much better for the driver than the alternative of fine + points !

    3) formal caution – will be recorded so they know if offence is repeated
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/a_to_c/cautioning_and_diversion/

    4) FPN – can endorse licence – penalty points, or just recorded at local ‘central ticket office’? – involves an admission of guilt – can affect insurance – not part of CRB/Disclosure
    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-penalties-for-careless-driving-come-into-force
    https://www.askthe.police.uk/content/Q210.htm?letter=E

    5) ‘Section 59’ warning – repeats can mean vehicle seized
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2002/30/section/59

    I believe the ’14-day requirement’ for a NIP – Notice of Intended Prosecution – is not required for any of these – not prosecutions ! Also they are not subject to ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’ – if contested they may be escalated to court. And they are not subject to the unpredictable jury system, who may not apply a law they themselves break.

    There may be a way to streamline some of these to ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ levels of efficiency (like ‘safety cameras’).

    The ‘This kind of crime is so widespread that we can’t (afford to) begin to act against it’ attitude is sadly defeatist. Maybe they should bring back ‘hypothecation’ so the fines fund the enforcement – criminals pay, not the innocent taxpayer ?

    Especially disappointing is the “leadership” (LOL)- both Hogan-Howe and Davenport !
    http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/uk-roads-policing-expert-i-would-not-commute-by-bike-in-london-there-are-too-many-risks-a3099096.html

    They are really making the roads into a lawless no-go area where you venture at your own risk.

    • Eric D 11 February 2016 12:47am #

      How can police identify ‘repeat offenders’ ?

      http://www.cyclecamera.tv/reporting-videos-to-the-police/
      Operation Crackdown is run by Sussex police … will only take action against drivers that are reported more than once.

      If that’s not just a simple brush-off, it implies they keep a record or mark against the registration or ‘keeper’ or driver.

      http://blog.mrdrem.me.uk/2015/06/email-from-re-west-yorkshire-police-log.html
      “I have submitted an intelligence report about the incident and the footage.”

      I don’t know whether other police forces use an Intelligence database to search for previous markers – I doubt if they would search the whole ‘incident’ or ‘call’ databases.

      Even with a ‘NFA’ disposal, an ‘Intel marker’ is better than nothing.
      Option 0.5)

  5. JP 29 January 2016 9:46pm #

    If anybody has ridden down this section of road then I can confirm that the design / layout is ridiculous. The signed cycle path exists down the side of the A3 for many miles, and then abruptly ends halfway between two junctions without warning, forcing any cyclists to either continue into the road of the dual carriageway at greater risk, or try and figure out what’s going on by turning around and cycling a mile back in the other direction and plot another route.
    An extension to the cycle path for half or mile or so might well may well have meant this tragic event never happened, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen again in the future.

    • Fred Malakoff 8 February 2016 12:15pm #

      The cyclepath alongside the A3 comes to an abrupt halt with a sign “End of Route”. I don’t recall any signage indicating the turn off to the left – through a pedestrian gate.

      The cyclepath then doubles back under an underpass and eventually reconnects with a country lane on the other side of the A3. A good proportion of this section is unsurfaced.

      The country lane onwards down to Bramshott, then Liphook is a far longer loop around, with it’s own minor challenges ( e.g. poor surfaces, difficult passing oncoming vehicles . . . )

      Local cyclists are aware of this and will certainly trade-off the drawbacks of the cycleroute versus the risks of the direct route on the A3.

      The A3 has narrow carriageways on that section. The motorists psychology appears to be ” no expectation of having to drive less than 70 mph”.
      I last cycled that section a couple of years ago, but the increased traffic volumes and speeds since the opening of the Hindhead tunnel mean I will never again risk it.

      The de facto motoring culture and legal situation offer no protection whatsoever, to cyclists, in a case such as this.

  6. Cp 7 February 2016 10:04am #

    You’ve reminded me that I drive too fast down the a3. It’s always stupid to take speed limits as recommendations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *