Just over a year ago, I wrote an article called The Vicious Circle, about a self-reinforcing system that maintains a very unhealthy attitude in society and the justice system regarding what constitutes careless or dangerous driving.
The general public form their attitudes – social norms – based on what they see the police do, or fail to do, in response to incidents and complaints; the police make their decisions on whether to take action based on what they see the CPS and the courts do; the CPS makes its decisions based on what they see the courts do; and the courts’ decisions are made by lay people serving as jurors or magistrates, who make their decisions based on those same social norms as the general public from whom they are drawn.
The law on driving standards even reflects this vicious circle with its own circular definition: effectively saying that driving should be considered bad if it is poorer than whatever people think is the limit for driving that is considered bad. This is no definition at all and probably contributes to a completely broken justice system when it comes to incidents involving bad driving.
This is especially a problem when a cyclist is involved; when we sometimes see actions by the police that are at the very least based on their own ignorance, and possibly even based on an ingrained, systemic prejudice against cyclists. This particular point was brought home to me again this week by this incident in which an experienced cyclist who was correctly riding in a strong position away from parked cars was tailgated by a police officer in a marked car, who then carried out a dangerously close overtake. After the cyclist objected – very calmly in the circumstances – the officer then forced him to stop and proceeded to lecture him on road position and “obstructing traffic”. Police actions like this lead directly to the kind of attitude in society that was clearly apparent in the very prejudiced reporting from the press (which I won’t link to as it is clickbait) and the subsequent prejudice displayed in internet forums, some of which is reported in this article.
A recent, far more serious event has shone a very bright light on this broken justice system when a driver who hit cyclist Michael Mason from behind on a well-lit road, on a bicycle that was fitted with the legally required reflectors and lights (shown on CCTV to have been on and working at the time), was cleared by a jury of any wrong-doing. Often in these cases, it is possible to suggest that there was perhaps some information that the jury was aware of that the general public does not have. In this case, however, the prosecution was brought forward privately by the charity Cyclists Defence Fund, part of Cycling UK, whose representative, Duncan Dollimore, was present during the whole proceedings and has written this account of the trial and surrounding activities.
It certainly seems perverse that a jury considers a driver who claims to have not seen the cyclist either before, during or after the collision, on a lit bicycle, on a well-lit street, right in front of her car, even when he dented her car bonnet with his body, not to have been driving at a standard below, or even far below, the standard expected of a careful and competent driver. Given the information presented in the Cycling UK article, it would also seem perverse that a jury would consider the evidence insufficient to establish that beyond reasonable doubt. Yet that is what the verdict of the jury is saying; a jury consisting of 12 ordinary people whose decision can only be based on their understanding of the standard of driving required by our society, based in turn on their own experience of living (and driving) in that society.
This is a society in which, only yesterday, a driver thought it was fine to overtake me on my bicycle with significantly less than a metre of clearance, at 40 miles-per-hour on a road with a 30 miles-per-hour speed limit. Yet this is the sort of thing that happens all the time, not an exceptional occurrence around here, seemingly just part of the culture, which I believe is a direct consequence of the failure of our local police to act in response to complaints about dangerous driving.
Returning to the Michael Mason case, it turns out that the police didn’t even bother to present their file on the case to the CPS for them to decide whether to bring a prosecution. I can only guess why that might have been, but I can only imagine they would say it was because they believed it was not worth it as they would be unlikely to secure a prosecution. Their reasons for this included the facts that Mr Mason was not wearing flourescent clothes or a cycling helmet; reasons that they might believe are relevant because they believe a jury would fail to convict for these rather spurious reasons. In fact, the police even failed to interview key witnesses, whom the prosecuting counsel did later interview as part of the private prosecution, presumably because they didn’t consider it worth the cost. The only alternative interpretation I can think of is that they felt it was not worth pursuing because it was only a cyclist.
As the Cycling UK article says, the only way to deal with this situation – the only way to break this vicious circle – is to make radical changes to the laws regarding driving standards.