Moira Gemmill was killed when she was crushed by a tipper truck driven by James Kwatia as he pulled onto a roundabout at the western end of Lambeth Bridge.
Kwatia was charged with causing death by careless driving and stood trial in February 2017.
The court was shown CCTV footage of the collision, but media reports are slightly unclear as to what exactly happened.
Both Gemmill and Kwatia were heading west on Lambeth Bridge, which has one lane in each direction for all vehicles plus a fairly narrow painted cycle lane at the gutter. The prosecution reportedly stated that Kwatia “had positioned his lorry towards the centre of two lanes on the bridge” and that “he should have remained straddling the two lanes to give her room”, but also said that “his lorry [was] in the centre of the lane”—it is not clear whether he was driving within the westbound lane or whether the offside part of the lorry was across the central line and in the oncoming lane.
It seems clear that Kwatia then moved to the left on approach to the roundabout, which would have been necessary as there is an island at the centre of the carriageway where it meets the roundabout (which makes the aforementioned suggestion of continuing to straddle the lanes seem somewhat odd). The cycle lane comes abruptly to an end a few metres before the pinch point just as the motor vehicle flow is forced to the left by the narrowing of the carriageway. This is a recognisably terrible but regrettably common design, and it is one that features in a number of other fatalities, such as that of Magda Tadaj.
The CCTV “showed [Gemmill] passing Kwatia’s lorry to the nearside as they both approached the junction”, implying that she was ahead of the lorry at the entrance to the roundabout. This tallies with photographs of the scene, which show Gemmill’s bicycle stuck under the front nearside wheel of the lorry: it is clear that the lorry had been driven into her from behind. (Note that the visible final location of the vehicles is several metres past the initial point of impact: Kwatia continued to drive onto and partially round the roundabout.)
It is unclear from reports whether either had stopped at the roundabout. Kwatia is described by the prosecution as having “accelerated away” from the give-way line, but there is nothing to indicate their relative positions in terms of either distance or forward visibility from Kwatia’s position. The prosecution asserted that Gemmill would have been visible in his mirrors for around eight seconds while they crossed the bridge, and that he had failed to pay proper attention.
The jury found Kwatia not guilty.
This case highlights a number of issues.
The road layout can and should be heavily criticised: it is a typical painted cycle lane that stops at a pinch point, a layout which is well known to be dangerous and which has at various locations seen several fatalities in the past. This specific roundabout was recently listed as the UK’s top cycling casualty blackspot.
It is also reasonable to point to the design of the lorry, but photographs clearly show that it was equipped with mirrors allowing the driver to view cyclists in the proximity of the nearside door and the nearside front of the cab: precisely the location where Gemmill would have been at the point of the collision.
Furthermore, if reports are fundamentally correct, there are only three plausible explanations for Kwatia’s error that come to mind.
One is that he simply failed to see Gemmill in the alleged eight seconds that she was visible in his mirrors, either by failing to adequately observe her or by failing to look altogether. It seems reasonable to argue that this seems below the level of care required for someone driving an HGV at a speed below that of a bicycle towards the point where a painted cycle lane merges with his own lane.
The second is that he did observe Gemmill as he crossed the bridge, and steered to his left on the assumption that she was still behind him—ie not having checked that the space he was moving into was clear despite knowing that someone on a bicycle had been in the vicinity of it. This too seems reasonable to argue as being below the necessary level of care.
The final explanation is that he did observe Gemmill on approach, did check his mirrors prior to steering left, but did not see her in that check. In this explanation, where a cyclist who was approaching on the nearside passes out of view of the rear view mirror, it seems reasonable that a competent and careful driver would deduce that the cyclist was likely to be in the immediate proximity of the lorry at its nearside (and, therefore, visible in one of the downward-facing proximity mirrors at the nearside of the cab). Steering to the left in this situation would clearly be irresponsible.
Naturally, it is impossible to know from media reports the reasons for the jury’s decision, and in the absence of reliable details from the trial it must be assumed that justice was done. However, as with so many cases, it is difficult for any observer outside the courtroom to fathom a sequence of events by which a driver who was at every stage competent and careful (such as is the term used in the Road Traffic Act) would have produced the same outcome, and this—whether due to a genuine bias or simply a lack of transparency—is the essence of why so many people feel repeatedly let down by the legal system.