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 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.
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.
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.
“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).
“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.”
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.”
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.