What The Law Told Us This Week (no. 3)

7 September 2013

Thanks to a few things, I’m covering a couple of weeks here. But there have been several sentences passed on cases involving fatalities of pedestrians and cyclists during the past fortnight.

I’m going to rattle through the cases fairly quickly. Each is, of course, of interest in its own right and in a number of ways, but they all have much in common. And there is one particular point common to all of them.

But, as we shall see, one is very much the exception that proves the rule.

Case 1: The eighteen-second blindness

Last September, Victoria McClure ploughed into the back of Anthony Hilson on a long, straight stretch of open road. McClure was using her satnav at the time. The prosecution stated that Hilson would have been visible to McClure for around 18 seconds.

Although she pleaded not guilty, McClure was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. Her sentence was 18 months in prison (though according to some sources she is expected to serve half that) and a two and a half year driving ban.

Case 2: The invisible junction

Last May, Steven Conlan overshot a give way line and hit Grahame McGregor, who later died of his injuries. It is stated that the satnav recalibrated itself shortly before the collision and did not show the junction where the collision occurred. Conlan was distracted by it.

(Note that Conlan’s approach to the junction can be seen on Streetview. There are two yellow-backed warning signs marked “STOP 100yds, followed by a third marked “STOP 50yds, and then a hexagonal “STOP” sign at the junction itself, which also has markings on the tarmac. Conlan presumably failed to observe all five.)

Conlan was cleared of causing death by dangerous driving but pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. His sentence comprised 240 hours of unpaid work and a two year driving ban.

Case 3: The sandwich eater

In May of last year, Paul Brown hit Joe Wilkins from behind and killed him. Brown was holding a sandwich at the time of the collision.

Brown was found not guilty of causing death by dangerous driving, but pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He was sentenced to 240 hours of unpaid work and received a one year driving ban.

Case 4: The golfer and the left hook

In November last year, Tracy Capal killed Margaret Ward when she overtook her and immediately turned left, knocking her from her bicycle – the classic left hook. Capal was unaware she had even collided with the cyclist. The cause for such urgency and inability to wait a couple of seconds? A visit to the garage.

Capal pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. She was given a suspended sentence (six months, suspended for two years), 200 hours’ unpaid work and a one year driving ban.

Case 5: The bus and the pelican crossing

Last October, bus driver Simon Draper drove into Stephanie Talbot on a pelican crossing. Talbot had just alighted from Draper’s bus.

Draper pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. He was given a six month sentence suspended for two years, a six month curfew, and a three year driving ban.

Case 6: The zebra crossing

In March, Julieta Couch killed George Beale by hitting him with her car while he was on a zebra crossing in Devizes.

Couch pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. She was sentenced to 80 hours’ community work and was banned from driving for one year.

Totting up

These six incidents were all fatal. They were all unequivocally the fault of the drivers who were found guilty. In at least five of the cases it is quite clear that the victims could have done nothing to prevent their death.

These are all cases where entirely innocent people, six of them, have died because others have driven motor vehicles into them.

In only one of these cases does the law deem the act to have been “dangerous”; the others merely “careless”. Only in this case was a prison sentence applied.

But the most appalling pattern in these cases, to my mind, is this:

Not one of these drivers was banned from driving for more than three years.

The total ban applied for these six deaths was just ten and a half years, an average of 21 months per death. This is the length of time the law sees fit to remove you from the roads after you have shown that your level inattention is significant enough to actually cause someone’s death.


My thoughts on remorse are as follows:

To her credit, Couch has said that is exactly what she will do.

Yet the law leaves it up to individuals to make this decision. The truly remorseful will make the the same choice as Couch, but the less remorseful will not.

Couch herself clearly believes that a lifetime ban is appropriate: she is applying that sentence entirely of her own volition. But the law will not do this. The law says that a year off is enough. Take time out.

A specific call

I am not one to call for prison where there is neither intent to injure or kill, nor an attempt to cover up the incident afterwards. (If you want to know my reasons for that, you can read this.) But – as is the case time and time again – the lack of substantial driving bans is truly shocking.

A year’s ban is of a magnitude that seems fair for having caused injury at the wheel of a vehicle. But to have caused death? To have taken someone from their friends and family for no reason other than inability to safely drive a vehicle? Why should this incur anything less than a lifetime ban?

It’s perfectly possible to live a full life without driving (whereas – please note – it’s harder to do so if, say, you lose your husband or your daughter). Other forms of transport are available. Life does not end when the steering wheel is wrenched from your grip.

A lifetime ban would simply make the roads safer by removing proven dangerous drivers from the road. (And yes, they’re dangerous, no matter what semantics the statute books choose: “carelessly” driving a car into someone is dangerous, and it’s hard to refute that given that in these examples alone six people have died as a result. For crying out loud, is there any clearer definition of danger than something which is fatal?)

Julieta Couch can see this. Why can the law not? What the law told us this week is this: The law is lagging behind the consciences of the people it convicts.

I defy anyone to give good reason why the law should not take note of Julieta Couch’s conscience and rule that causing death whilst at the controls of a licenced vehicle should incur an automatic lifetime forfeit of that licence.

(Footnote: It’s Not a Ban.)


Shortly after publishing this, @markhobson pointed me this morning’s report of the case of Darren Foster.

Foster pulled away from a green light and failed to notice 13-year-old Hope Fennell on the pedestrian crossing in front of him. He ran her over. He climbed out of the cab, but while she lay dying, trapped under the wheels of the truck, Foster returned to his cab to delete the text messages he had been sending and receiving in the minutes prior to the collision.

Despite all this, the court ruled that Foster was not responsible for Fennell’s death. (Which seems more than a little odd if you remember that a green light means “proceed if your way is clear”.)

He was found guilty of dangerous driving and perverting the course of justice. His sentence was two months’ imprisonment for the former and four for the latter. He was told he would serve half of this. He received, as in so many of the cases above, a one year driving ban.

I’m normally willing to pull a case to pieces to make a point out of it, but I honestly don’t know where to begin with that one.

With that one, I’m just rage and sorrow.

Actually, I will make one point.

The court took the view that Foster was not responsible because of the truck’s blind spot. In other words, the driver was deemed not to be at fault precisely because of the vehicle’s design. This is totally damning to the Freight Transport Association’s astonishing response to the government’s drive to improve the safety of HGVs.

The FTA is refusing to fix the problems which case law has deemed to cause the death of a 13-year-old girl.

In light of this case, it seems the FTA has blood on its hands.


  1. grasshopper10 7 September 2013 3:09am #

    Have you caught up with this videoed incident in OZ? Quite a scandal and subject on much discussion on the bike forums

    Re: Moron Motorists #3
    by cowled ยป Wed Sep 04, 2013 3:32 pm

    First time for me trimming helmet cam footage, compressing it and uploading to YouTube. This is the footage of my tussle with a Jeep 5wks ago.


    Sent from my GT-I9300 using Tapatalk 2

    Sent from my GT-I9300 using Tapatalk 2

  2. D. 7 September 2013 3:48pm #

    There’s a story on the BBC today about how a young mother and her toddler have been put in hospital by a guy driving his car into them on a zebra crossing, in London. The driver has, according to the police, not been arrested but there are no further details. Maybe he just didn’t see them…

  3. nilling 9 September 2013 9:58am #

    There was a story recently on BBC Breakfast about a drunk driver killing a pedestrain on the pavement on New Years Eve. It took some 8 months before the case finally got to court in which time the driver was free to continue to drive in the village causing much distress to the victim’s family. The driver knew he was getting a ban and so attempted to delay the case by any means for as long as possible.

    I think that if a driver kills then there should be an immediate revoking of their license pending a court case and regardless of any ‘financial hardship’.

    • Bez 9 September 2013 10:15am #

      Well, it’s a fair point, but I think you’d have to change “if a driver kills” to “if a driver is involved in a fatal accident”: the driver isn’t deemed to have killed until found guilty, and that’s a principle the UK – quite rightly – isn’t going to shift from any time soon. However, this gets complicated in some cases: for instance, had the recent 130-vehicle Sheppey pile-up caused a death, would all 130 drivers have had their licence revoked pending the court case?

      • Phil Lee 4 October 2013 8:11pm #

        Innocent until proven guilty is ok up to a point. but we need to remember that driving is a privilege, not a right. Any pilot who’d been involved in a fatal air crash would (rightly) have their license suspended until a full enquiry had been held, regardless of the effect on their income.
        Train drivers get suspended for signals passed at danger (SPAD).
        Why should driving a motor vehicle be treated any differently?
        If anything, the close proximity of vulnerable users to the area of operation should give rise to greater caution in that regard, not less.

  4. Dave H (@BCCletts) 9 September 2013 1:30pm #

    In the case of HGV and PSV licence holders their vocational licences are issued and controlled by the Traffic Commissioners, they have in annual reports 2010-11 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20121025123854/http://assets.dft.gov.uk/publications/traffic-commissioners-annual-reports/traffic-commissioners-annual-report-1011.pdf and 2011-12 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/9463/tcs-annual-report-2011-2012.pdf voiced concern that they are not receiving a formal referral for FPN and other ‘minor’ offences relating to vocational drivers, and also noted where they had revoked licences – notably for PCV drivers for serious character flaws which made them unsuited to holding a vocational licence.

    I’d propose that for a supposedly trained professional vocational licence holder being involved in a fatal crash will result in immediate suspension of their vocational licence pending interview with the Traffic Commissioner. If the Commissioner is satisfied that the driver is fit to continue driving, after obviously having an opportunity to review the driving record prior to the fatal crash, than the suspension will be lifted. This suspension would not be a judgement of guilt but very much in line with recognised procedure in many other jobs, where a serious conduct issue is considered. The member of staff is suspended immediately pending the establishing of facts.

    In the event of a driving ban for any offence when driving any vehicle the Commissioner should have the ability to require full retesting or even a lifetime ban on holding a vocational licence, given the seriousness of the incident that lead to a driving ban.

    The independence of the commissioners is a valuable asset let us work to keep and improve their efficacy as the regulators of commercial vehicle operation for passengers and freight.

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