The Problem With Good People

We would do well to remember that morals are not absolute, and that morality is not a measure of competence.

A good killer

News emerged today of a driver who was sentenced for causing death by careless driving. Deborah Lumley-Holmes struck Julian Evans from behind while he “was cycling on a straight stretch of road on a dry, sunny day with clear visibility“, fatally injuring him. She was given a suspended sentence, was ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, and was disqualified from driving for one year.

Some quite startling remarks emerge in the report.

The court heard that Lumley-Holmes, a practising Christian, had for many years made a important contribution to society through charity work, volunteering for the St Nicholas Hospice.

Judge John Holt said the death of Mr Evans had been a tragedy for all involved, including Lumley-Holmes who had made a ‘remarkable contribution’ to the community through charity work.

Lumley-Holmes’s charity work was, as far as I can tell from the above, admissible in court as part of her defence and was specifically mentioned in the judge’s comments.

It is unclear from that report whether the fact that she was “a practising Christian” was similarly admitted, or even presented in court, but at the very least it is considered by the reporter to be pertinent within a statement of another, apparently mitigating, factor.

Too good to kill?

Both of these aspects are reminders of the many reports of the recent trial of Helen Measures, who was cleared of causing the death of Denisa Perinova. For instance, The Telegraph wrote:

Measures, who has a doctorate in oncology and has worked as a scientist for leading pharmaceutical companies for the past 30 years …

Measures, a former parish church bell ringer, sobbed in court …

Spot the pattern here? Someone who works for charity and goes to church; someone who works to fight cancer and goes to church…

There is a very clearly implied message: These acts are Good Acts. These people are Good People.

A Good Person

I’m sure we’re all just as aware of the abuse scandals in the church as we are of our own recent embarrassment at having spent the 80s thinking what a lot of lovely work for children’s charities Jimmy Savile was doing. Let’s not pretend that either doing some charity work or, even less, being religious are accurate litmus tests for a Good Person.

But, even if they were, there is a huge problem here, a more fundamental problem.

Good morals are not good skills

Death on the roads is, except in incredibly rare cases, not a malicious act. It can be negligence, disregard, incompetence, distraction, impairment, irresponsibility, basic human fallibility… Attribute each incident to whatever you will, but even the most incredibly stupid and safety-ignorant driver who kills or injures does not do so because they intend to kill or injure.

Killing or injuring someone with a car on the road is not like doing so with a knife in the street, or a bottle in a bar, or a gun in a bank. Yes, the result is broadly the same, but the process is worlds apart.

Being a Good Person – whatever you consider to be the Good Acts that define them as such – does not make you a Competent Person. It does not make you a safe driver. It has absolutely nothing to do with it.

The problem here is that the media and – far worse – the courts are allowing character statements to alleviate the burden of responsibility in cases where the defendant’s character is of absolutely no relevance to the offence.

And, you know what? That’s not even the most fundamental problem, either.

A blurred boundary

The truly fundamental problem is that the law does not really seem to separate negligence and incompetence from malice and intent.

“Causing death by dangerous driving”, for instance, is a crime just as robbery or murder are crimes. And we all think Good People don’t commit crime. Good People don’t kill. So can we really punish this Good Person for this crime of killing? Is it a proper crime?

The system doesn’t really care which crime you committed. The court in which you are tried for one offence is the same at the one for which you are tried for any other. The prison to which you may go for one offence is the same as the one to which you would go for any other. The unpaid work you do is the same. The tools at the judge’s disposal are all the same.

Except one.

A good sentence

There is one available sentence that is both pertinent and differentiates incompetence from intent.

And that is the revocation of a driving licence.

In these cases, the incompetence is so great that it has resulted in death. Patently, anyone who is so incompetent at driving as to cause death should not be driving.

Yet Lumley-Holmes will be allowed to drive again in a year. Someone who has demonstrated that they cannot reliably navigate a straight, clear, dry stretch of road without causing the death of someone else is given only a year off.

This difference between intent and incompetence is why I’ve always felt that most drivers should not be imprisoned, but drivers who kill should be disqualified permanently.

The law, the courts and the media need to understand the difference.

The first reaction to fatal incompetence should be to simply prevent that incompetence being an issue. Take killers off the roads. There is no moral judgment in this: it is purely a matter of a driver’s qualification and other road users’ safety.

Do that first. Then, if there’s a need to make a moral judgment on other aspects of a case – such as fleeing the scene or becoming enraged or exhibiting flagrant disregard for safety – then that becomes something that can be judged in a “normal” criminal context.

But a revocation of a licence is simply pragmatic and sanguine. A churchgoer who does not drive is no morally poorer than one who does.

A good thing to remember

Good People, whomever they may be, can and do kill.

Going to church does not make you a better driver, because death on the roads is not an Act of God. It may, if your world view is so black-and-white, be the act of a Good Person or a Bad Person, but the only true fact is that it is the act of an Incompetent Person.

And it’s high time we recognised that an Incompetent Person is, nothing more and nothing less, not competent.

43 thoughts on “The Problem With Good People”

  1. I wonder what the position is with shotgun certificates?

    You need a certificate to buy, acquire or possess a shotgun. Certificates have to be renewed every five years. You can be refused a certificate, or a renewal, if the chief officer of police considers you to be unfit to hold a certificate.

    Organisers of game shoots set strict rules about the use of shotguns. They have to be carried around with the breech broken except when ready to take aim and fire. When shooting pheasant, for example, you must shoot towards the direction of progress of the shoot, and you must NOT fire unless you can see sky behind your target. These rules are intended to prevent accidents in which people become victims of gunshots.

    If you recklessly disregarded these rules, and as a result someone was killed or seriously injured, would you seriously expect that you would ever again be permitted to apply for a shotgun certificate?

    Why would a driving licence be viewed any differently?

  2. On the shotgun thing….
    A few years ago I was clipped by an overtaking driver who then got out of his car, knocked me to the ground and punched me in the head and face numerous times.

    It was all caught on video, with another two independent witnesses. I reported it and while I was in the interview room giving a statement the officer left the room for a few minutes. He left the info sheet about my attacker on the table. He had a shotgun licence.

    I was then told that there was nothing wrong with the driving, that the assault was only minor, that the driver had never been in trouble before and as a result of all that the most they’d do was get him to write a letter of apology.

    I do wonder if the incident had happened anywhere except on the road if there would have been a different response from the police.

  3. Excellent article. What I find truly astounding is that the judge considers it OK to let the defendent drive again without any explanation at all as to why she drove into the cyclist after he was in her vision for 11 seconds. She is either physically incompetent (in which case she should be banned permanently), or is lying when she says she can’t explain it (which is perjury, and is treated very much more seriously).
    It’s the judgement that is most at fault, not the driver.

  4. It’s worse than that, cases like this lead me to believe that the judge shouldn’t even have contact with the defendant or even know their name.

    Why?

    Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, the way someone dresses, they way they talk, they way they look.

    These things should not be factors in sentencing a person, but sentences are biased, the whole justice system is heavily biased, people are very biased.

    1 year driving ban after not being able to explain why she ran someone over. FFS.

  5. Clearly a life ban is about the least that would have seemed reasonable for the cases you describe. To be honest, I feel an atavistic desire to see them locked up for life, but that’s clearly unattainable, and arguably inappropriate. Stopping incompetents from driving ought to be possible though. But only if ee can stop people thinking of driving as a human right, instead of a privilege offered contingent upon adequate skill and proper behaviour.

  6. Trying to assert your morals in criminal proceedings can backfire. If you make any statement regarding your good character in criminal proceedings and you turn out to have previous convictions, these can be raised by the prosecution. So it could be that the purpose of raising the defendant’s character in this scenario is to effectively say it was the first time it’s ever happened, and so forth Whether that affects any of the points in this piece is another matter. I’d saying a bad but lucky driver who one day kills someone is just as much of a danger on the road as a sreckless one..

  7. I don’t know about life ban, but the basic thrust of the first part of the piece is absolutely correct.

    As a traffic police officer has said to me (and I agree): “Most people who are hurt or killed on the road are hurt or killed by good people doing bad things”.

    And that should not excuse them from a non-custodial sentence such as a driving ban. rather than life bans, you could extend the one year to two or three. you could also have one year bans where the person is “only” seriously injured. That would be a lot more severe than what happens now – never mind the life ban.

  8. A few rambling speculations on the article and comments so far.

    Someone help me out with facts here, but I would imagine that apparently light sentences like this are applied because the re-offending rate is negligible and IIRC some stop driving off their own bat. However, there are two other points:

    – firstly, we need to distinguish between retribution and deterrence, and it’s hard to see which of these some of your other commenters are referring to Why should society demand retribution for “accidental” RTIs (I know that’s a bit un-PC, but as opposed to deliberate attacks)? I don’t think that is defensible. So is the sentencing primarily there to deter others from offending? The justice system seems comfortable with virtually ignoring deterrence as an object in sentencing RTI outcomes in cases such as this (lack of insurance or a deliberate attack etc attracts harsher punishment). I’m not sure how one convinces them to change. Baying for blood is not really the way to do it.

    Presumably a total ban would be a great deterrent But I would imagine that it might deter a fair number of people driving who are actually perfectly safe, and many (?most) would see that as unfair – no chance of getting passed as legislation. Still if it happens they would then learn how cyclists feel – the “sentence” for cycling in the UK is risking death at tens of times the rate for motorists. But how many of the intrinsically unsafe (unlicensed, uninsured, hit and runs) would it deter? Not so many, I imagine.

    - secondly, inverting your argument, not having killed a cyclist or pedestrian with your motor vehicle up to that point is no guarantee of competence, either. Do you have to kill to be handed a total ban, or would clipping a cyclist do? Or reversing into a bollard – could have been a pedestrian? It’s just a matter of degree or luck. Why would you not punish any life-threatening manoeuvre, and not just life-extingishing ones, with a total ban? A bit reductio ad absurdam but you get the idea.

    Following from that I admit I do like @rdrf’s suggestion of increasing the seriously injured ban. That sounds feasible, and proportionate.

    @Paul M Why would a driving licence be viewed any differently (to shotgun licensing)? OK so why shouldn’t cyclists be licensed and forced to retest periodically? You do get a some serious injuries and rare deaths caused by poor cycling. Should those cyclists who inflict KSIs be banned from cycling? How would you enforce that? By having license plates? Not enough damage caused by cyclists? So the line is somewhere between cyclists and drivers? I don’t buy it.

    At the end of the day (and other cliches) though, adopting a total ban for a first driving offence would be an extraordinatry thing to do in terms of global justice systems and in terms of the amount of change from one situation to another. Personally I don’t want the UK to be any more extreme in it’s attitude to cyclists and drivers than a) other countries and b) it already evidently is. There are other ways of taming the beast.

    1. firstly, we need to distinguish between retribution and deterrence

      True, but those aren’t the only things. The reduction or prevention of further directly related risk is another key goal, and is clearly the main product of an automatic permanent revocation for someone who causes death. And then there is rehabilitation, which for offences such as these is not only complex but also completely unrelated to the rehabilitation required for deliberate criminality.

      I would imagine that it might deter a fair number of people driving who are actually perfectly safe, and many (?most) would see that as unfair – no chance of getting passed as legislation.

      I absolute, totally, 100% disagree with this. Drivers who kill do not believe they will be the ones who kill. I don’t believe it’s possible for any sentences to truly act as deterrents for collisions such as these, because people simply do not believe they will ever be in this situation.

      Moreover, even if they do, ask which would be more of a deterrent: not driving, or having to live in the knowledge that you’d killed an innocent person. I’m making assumptions but I think almost everyone would, entirely honestly, respond with the latter.

      inverting your argument, not having killed a cyclist or pedestrian with your motor vehicle up to that point is no guarantee of competence, either. Do you have to kill to be handed a total ban, or would clipping a cyclist do? Or reversing into a bollard – could have been a pedestrian? It’s just a matter of degree or luck.

      I argue for permanent disqualification only for those found in a court of law to have caused another person’s death while in control of a licensed vehicle.

      No, not for clipping someone on a bike.

      Why would you not punish any life-threatening manoeuvre, and not just life-extingishing ones, with a total ban?

      Because for all but the most serious incidents I think it’s disporportionate. Read Legislating for Real Road Safety (also linked in the article) for my thoughts on non-fatal incidents. In a nutshell: temporary disqualifications, even quite short ones.

      But my point is that disqualifications are pertinent, palpable and egalitarian. Fines can be afforded, points can be afforded, disqualifications treat everyone the same and make a clear statement that the problem is the offender being at the wheel of a vehicle.

      At the end of the day (and other cliches) though, adopting a total ban for a first driving offence would be an extraordinatry thing to do

      As I say: just fatals. If your first offence kills someone then, hey, maybe driving a lethal machine isn’t for you.

      1. I argue for permanent disqualification only for those found in a court of law to have caused another person’s death while in control of a licensed vehicle.

        No, not for clipping someone on a bike

        If you are so incompetent a driver that you can’t pass another vehicle without hitting it… it seems odd to have such a sharp distinction in the sentencing based on an outcome you have no control over. You’ve hit someone. Full stop. That’s the offence.

        They may be lucky and survive. Or they may not. That’s not under your control, so why should it make a difference to your sentence?
        (IANAL, no idea whether attempted and accomplished murder are treated differently, legally. IMHO they shouldn’t be.)

        As I say: just fatals. If your first offence kills someone then, hey, maybe driving a lethal machine isn’t for you.

        Again, does it really make sense to vary the punishment purely based on whether the victim survives? I think the standard of driving and the intent are much more important for sentencing than, say, the response time of the ambulance and presence or absence of first aiders.
        And does leaving your victim brain damaged or in a wheelchair really merit a much lower sentence than killing them?

        The focus should be on the severity of the offence, not on the random results. To pick an extreme example: If you fired off a machine gun clip in a crowded nightclub, should you receive a lesser sentence just because – miraculously – nobody was killed? Or, to get back to the Measures case: I think Mrs Measures should have been disqualified for overtaking on a corner into oncoming traffic (and as you rightly pointed out, her saintlyness or otherwise off the road is entirely irrelevant). If the poor girl coming the other way had managed to keep control of her bike despite the dangerous driving – or just fallen luckier – how would that change the nature of the criminal offence?

        Coming back to the article itself:

        This difference between intent and incompetence is why I’ve always felt that most drivers should not be imprisoned, but drivers who kill should be disqualified permanently.

        I think a lengthy disqualification, with a retest, should be the default punishment for dangerous driving. Full stop. Whether the victim dies or is just seriously injured. I’m not sure a lifetime ban would achieve more than, say, ten years.

        But it must be enough to be a serious deterrent.

        Much more importantly, though, driving while disqualified must lead to a mandatory custodial sentence, rather than just further disqualification.

      2. @ kraut:

        If you are so incompetent a driver that you can’t pass another vehicle without hitting it… it seems odd to have such a sharp distinction in the sentencing based on an outcome you have no control over. You’ve hit someone. Full stop. That’s the offence.

        Yes, indeed that’s a point I’ve made before elsewhere. But what I’m arguing for in this specific post is a permanent disqualification for causing death. I’m fully in favour of disqualifications of varying length for non-fatal offences.

        Some pragmatism is required, as well. There is – quite rightly, if you ask me – scarcely a person in the country who would support a permanent disqualification for anyone who made contact with another road user with their car no matter how minor the outcome.

        (IANAL, no idea whether attempted and accomplished murder are treated differently, legally. IMHO they shouldn’t be.)

        They are. As are dangerous driving and causing death by dangerous driving. Even if you believe there should be no difference – and that’s a tenable argument – you can’t fix everything in one go. A permanent disqualification for causing death seems like achievable progress.

        Absolutely. Again, see my comments re the Mary Bowers case via the above link. But it raises the question of where we draw the line: Brain damage? Paralysis? What happens if the patient is in a coma for two years and makes a full recovery? Death is, for better or for worse, a clear and unambiguous line. Yes, I agree that – as with Mary Bowers – it is a bizarre and problematic fact that if you are spared death by the quality of the UK’s medical services but left in a state described as worse, then the person who inflicted the injuries feels the legal weight lighten markedly.

        But, we are where we are today, and there are multiple sides to this conversation. Some more difficult, some a little easier. The issue of raising certain non-fatal incidents to the same level of severity as fatal ones is fraught with pragmatic difficulty and widespread opposition. The idea of removing proven lethal drivers from the roads seems rather more simple.

        I think a lengthy disqualification, with a retest, should be the default punishment for dangerous driving. Full stop.

        Absolutely agree.

        But it must be enough to be a serious deterrent.

        I agree in so much as I think disqualification is a more palpable measure than fines and points, but I remain unconvinced by the idea of a deterrent against things like killing, because the people who do so simply don’t envisage themselves doing it. So although I think there is some limited deterrent value, to my mind bans do two things: Firstly, shorter bans for safety-related offences like use of a mobile phone would strongly discourage that behaviour – which people do envisage themselves doing – and secondly, long or permanent bans for serious offences are appropriate as a means of protection others on the road.

        Much more importantly, though, driving while disqualified must lead to a mandatory custodial sentence, rather than just further disqualification.

        Again, absolutely agree. Disqualification needs even bigger teeth.

        For more on some of this, you may want to read the last bit of this post.

  9. Excellent blog. And 100% in accord with what CTC’s Road Justice campaign is calling for: http://www.roadjustice.org.uk.

    Just a quick response to Jitensha Oni’s comment on whether the aim of driving bans is ‘retribution’ or ‘deterrence’. I think that what Bez is saying that the aim is first and foremost one of ‘public protection’.

    Driving is the one thing that is routinely done by essentially decent people that routinely kills other people. That makes it a uniquely difficult crime for the justice system to deal with.

    No doubt many jurors find themselves thinking, “I really don’t want to send this basically ‘decent’ person to prison, for something I could easily have done myself.” They feel, very understandably, that the accused driver isn’t a ‘dangerous’ person – even if they have driven in a way which has very obviously caused ‘danger’.

    In outline, the way to resolve this dilemma is surely:
    * To impose lengthy or life-time driving bans on those who have driven ‘dangerously’ but who do not appear to be ‘dangerous’ people. This is much easier to justify in terms of public protection than a long prison sentence.
    * Reserve prison for those whose driving, or previous criminal histories, suggest they are also ‘dangerous’ people – including those who have flouted driving bans. In these cases, there is a clear justification for locking them up, again on grounds of public protection.

    In other words, the key to a rational sentencing framework is to put public protection at the heart of it. But I also believe the above approach does a pretty good job of achieving the ‘deterrence’ objective. And I like to think it would be more acceptable to juries too.

    As for retribution? I prefer to think in terms of justice for road crash victims. Understandably though, injured or bereaved victims can respond to their experiences in many different ways. Still, the above approach is fully backed by road crash victims’ charity RoadPeace (www.roadpeace.org). And if it works for them, it deserves our backing too.

    Roger Geffen
    CTC, the national cycling charity
    http://www.ctc.org.uk/campaigns
    http://www.roadjustice.org.uk

    1. Hello Roger, thanks for the comments. Fully agree with everything you’ve said, and with the Road Justice campaign.

    2. Roger
      I’m just not convinced by the ‘decent people’ argument. Most KSI sre caused by someone, usually the motorist, behaving in ways that endanger others. They get away with it most times, but is that really decent, or just not found out yet?

      1. Ian

        I totally get your point about “just not found out yet”.

        However our criminal justice system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt. And so do jurors, especially, when dealing with fellow drivers.

        Now, if it’s clear that the accused has caused obviously foreseeable ‘danger’ through blatantly reckless risk-taking or outright agression, a jury is likely to agree that the driver deserves to face a substantial prison term. Moreover, this can be justified on public protection grounds – as well as providing deterrence and/or justice for the victim (as per my previous posting).

        However in the absence of reckless or wantonly agressive behaviour, the reality is that jurors will be reluctant to convict, if it means leaving the driver (who appears to the jurors as “someone like myself” and who has done something they too can imagine doing) ends up going down for a long time.

        In this situation, I think we’re much more likely to make progress in strengthening ‘road justice’ by advocating *long* driving bans. For most people, a serious-length driving ban is not a lenient punishment. It would provide an effective deterrent (to the extent that deterrence can ever work to improve driving standards – I believe it can), it is eminently justifiable on public protection grounds, and hence it is more likely to persuade jurors to convict in the first place.

        There’s no point proposing changes to the legal system unless they have a reasonable chance of increasing the willingness of jurors to convict drivers who have driven ‘dangerously’ (whether willfylly or otherwise) of an offence which attracts a punishment that they feel is justified.

        If the courts made much greater use of long driving (on public protection grounds), while reserving prison mainly for more obviously ‘dangerous people (including those who have flouted past driving bans) – again on public protection grounds – I believe we have a chance of making progress.

        Roger Geffen
        CTC, the national cycling charity
        http://www.ctc.org.uk/campaigns
        http://www.roadjustice.org.uk

      2. To Roger – but wordpress won’t let me reply directly. Too much nesting I guess.

        The criminal justice system needs to have a suitable deterrent effect. At the moment, certainly when it comes to bad driving, it clearly doesn’t.

        If drivers realised that passing cyclists dangerously closely could cost them their license for a year, or two, or five – they wouldn’t do it. One of the problems is that the same act – a stupid, dangerous, close overtake – gets treated very differently depending on completely extraneous factors.

        Clip (or, to be blunt, “HIT!”) an experienced cyclist, and s/he may well stay on the bike, and nothing worse than a bit of ranting at the next traffic light will happen. If the cyclist is less experienced (or lucky), you might have a KSI.

        The driving was dangerous either way, and I struggle to see why the skills of the victim should reduce the sentence of the offender.

  10. If you’re not doing something monumentally and obviously stupid like this driver (sentenced to an eight year ban, of which 5 will be spent in jail) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-25682906 and you still end up killing someone, then it probably comes down to a simple, small mistake.

    The problem is that people make simple small mistakes all the time and they generally don’t end in death and destruction, so you’ve got a disconnect between the actions and the potential consequences. If you’re driving so badly to be a criminal then it’s viewed that you must have been driving in the monumentally stupid category, and the majority of drivers don’t drive in that fashion, therefore they see the deterrent of a jail sentence or lifetime ban as simply not applying to them. Therefore they’re free to drive as they always have done, millions of people making small mistakes that add up to 5 deaths and countless injuries a day.

    So that leaves us with 2 options:
    1) Go draconian on their asses – the police and courts could start holding drivers responsible when they kill and injure people, for actions that are today seen as ‘shit happens’. Let people know that there are real criminal consequences to their actions. Probably cost a lot in police and court time that could be spent on better things.
    2) Accept that people make small simple mistakes all the time and build our roads accordingly – forgiving, separation of modes, try to reduce car use. Costs a lot out of pocket, but will save in healthcare costs and has many other positive advantages too many to list here.

    1. Well, I’d argue that the woman who stopped after a blind bend and doored me, the guy who overtook way to close then stopped almost immediately, the woman who looked straight at me then pulled out anyway should all be in the monumentally stupid category. Certainly monumentally dangerous. None of these are just “simple errors”. They are all the product of impatience and arrogance, attributes that sit badly with controlling a tonne of metal.

      I don’t think any of them should be driving. I’m not sure anyone else should either, which is why I now don’t. It’s not about good or bad or competent. It’s about not being able to deliver reliably the skills, patience, concentration and control, all the time. Which is why I think any slippage from those standards should ideally trigger ban and retest at least.

      1. The monumentally stupid, the ‘drinking 8 pints then driving at 80mph on the wrong side of the road before smashing into a bus full of nuns’ type, is certainly on the far side of the bell curve, and I believe the courts and juries have no problem with convicting these types. Any jury can clearly see that these people are dangerous and need to be taken off the roads, and that’s what usually happens. At the other end of the scale you have the tiny probability of ‘perfect people that never ever make a single mistake and are the perfect paragons of virtue’. Needless to say, I don’t believe many of either of these extremes exist in the real world.

        The other 99.9% of drivers are in the middle, not perfect but not going out everyday with a death wish either. The vast majority of drivers hover around the average levels of ability (normal distribution). They are like you and me, some above average, some below average. Most of the time they can make a small behaviour, like changing the radio, or shouting at the kids in the back, or thinking about the fight with the missus, and there are zero consequences, everyone gets home fine. Sometimes the same behaviour = big consequences, like death or injury. Are they incapable, are they ignorant, are they evil maniac killers? I don’t particularly care when I’m being scraped off the road into a body bag.

        Now in these cases what makes the difference between a good driver that doesn’t kill anyone on the one hand, and a bad driver that does kill someone on the other hand? Is it something we can control and therefore we can sink our teeth into doing something about it?

        Nope, it’s probably just dumb luck, “the wrong place at the wrong time”. A tiny statistical chance of a bad outcome happening (and the chance of you randomly killing someone while driving is demonstrably tiny), it is practically guaranteed if a behaviour is repeated enough times over a large enough population.

        So how are we to improve anything out of this, and increase our chances of survival? We could try to increase the ability of the average driver by better and more frequent testing. Well, the gov do pay lip service to the former, but the theory test could be done by any idiot that swotted up beforehand then promptly forgotten for the rest of their lifetime. No politician could currently be elected if they proposed mandatory retesting or anything that sounded like a ‘war on the motorist’.

        So we could reduce the number of bad drivers by automatically getting rid of all those who kill. Apart from breaking the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty, given the latest news that drivers with dozens and dozens of points are not getting their licences removed, the numerous examples on this blog of failed court cases and the public’s unwillingness to convict anyone in the it-could-be-me-making-the-silly-mistake scenario, as well as ‘the war on the motorist’ – I think the chances are slim.

        As well as the fact that correlation =/= causation, sure on a population scale we might say that ‘bad drivers’ are more likely to kill than ‘good drivers’ and insurance companies have all the algorithms to figure this out. But on an individual scale, is an someone definitely going to kill somebody so we should remove his licence and someone else won’t so he gets to keep his? There’s just no way of predicting the future just like some people who smoke never get lung cancer and some people who do have never smoked.

        Still, I firmly believe that it’s better to prevent an accident from happening in the first place than to try to slap the culprit in chains afterwards. It matters not one jot to me what sentence the perpetrator receives after I’m dead, especially when I don’t see the removal of that driver as improving the quality of the remaining driver pool. And like I said above, I don’t believe harsh punishments work as a deterrent because the 99.9% of normal drivers don’t see their normal everyday behaviour as particularly dangerous, no matter what the actual statistical chance of a death might be, otherwise they wouldn’t be behaving that way in the first place.

        So if we don’t know that getting into an accident at some point in the past reflects someone’s future driving abilities, we don’t know if they are truly a risk, or if they’re more likely or less likely to get into an accident, at the individual level. Then automatically taking away someone’s driving licence for life is not a rational scientific approach. Although if someone proved themselves to be consistently incapable or unwilling to learn and/or consistently flouting the law then you have a pattern of evidence against them to build a proper case on. The only fair alternative to the current ‘you’ve got your license until we can prove you’re bad enough to have it taken away and only then if it’s not too much bother for you’ is to have everyone in the country continually being retested and updated, like a pilots licence – how much will that cost and what politician would choose to piss of the voting motoring public, regardless of public safety?

        Even if we figured all these difficult issues out that still leaves us with a problem. There will always be drivers of below average ability, by definition. And how am I as a fellow road user going to know if the driver of the lorry zooming up behind me in in the above average or below average category? Is he wearing his glasses today? Has he had a fight with his wife today? Is his paperwork up to date? And jeez, that 10^7 kJ of lorry passing by is awffy close… How can we predict who these people are beforehand when they look just like you and me? Do we just ban everyone from driving ever and damn the economic consequences?

        And even if you banned every bad driver in the country, it’s still only as good as the paper it’s written on, how do you enforce it when the police is being squeezed to a minimum as it is? Also how do we police ‘dangerous’ but perfectly legal behaviour, like the a close pass then stopping?

        And even if somehow you changed the distribution so that everyone was a perfect driver in every way, let’s say you replaced the human element with robots – SHIT STILL HAPPENS! An event can happen at any moment in time that can turn one of the up-til-now perfect non-killer drivers into a killer-driver. Cars will sometimes skid on ice, brakes will sometimes fail, meteors will still fall out of the sky.

        So isn’t it better just not to be in front of a vehicle when this happens? If you could have been in a proper Dutch-style segregated lane it wouldn’t have mattered one jot if a driver opened a car door, because you wouldn’t even be there! If a driver happened not to see you on a straight road on a clear sunny day, who cares! your paths are never going to intersect anyway! Not only would you not have to care about close passes, drivers wouldn’t have to worry about getting past you safely (or otherwise) either!

        Needless to say, the Netherlands has not figured out how to increase the ability of their driving population. Indeed either on the motorways or in a town centre, I’ve not seen any driving that was better or worse than anything I’d see on a British road.

        But then a curious thing happens – when you’re on your bike you don’t have to interact with these drivers at all, and if you do have to share it’s at a slow 20km/h. And almost as if by magic your chances of dying as a person on a bike have been halved. (It would be a lot lower than that too if we discounted those killed by the mopeds that are allowed on Dutch bike lanes, and discounted ‘golfing deaths’ – the people who just happened to die whilst on their bike, an inevitable consequence of a huge cycling population including the disabled and elderly.)

        The only thing that tames drivers is to either keep heavy transport well away from human beings, or traffic calmed areas – and if you’ve ever been over a Dutch sleeping policeman you’ll realise what ineffectual piddling half-efforts our stupid pillow style ones are.

        What the Dutch have achieved in building their infrastructure is attainable – it’s right there for anyone to have a look at and it’s attainable WITHIN OUR LIFETIMES. Pie in the sky talk about changing behaviour is just the opposite.

      2. So we could reduce the number of bad drivers by automatically getting rid of all those who kill. Apart from breaking the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty…

        Whoa there. At that point, they’ve been found guilty. It doesn’t break that principle in the slightest.

        So if we don’t know that getting into an accident at some point in the past reflects someone’s future driving abilities, we don’t know if they are truly a risk, or if they’re more likely or less likely to get into an accident, at the individual level.

        I think it’s pretty clear that if you’ve been found to have killed someone, you have been found to be “a risk”. I don’t think there’s a much clearer illustration of being a risk than killing someone. What it doesn’t say is anything about those who haven’t killed, yet may be as risky or worse, but that’s where “innocent until proven guilty” applies. In order to remove them from the road you’d have to prove they’re guilty of preventing a certain level of risk. And that happens.

        Even if we figured all these difficult issues out that still leaves us with a problem. There will always be drivers of below average ability, by definition.

        That’s not a problem in the slightest. The problem is the number of drivers who dip below a threshold of a minimum standard. The commercial air industry, equally, has pilots of below average ability. But there are very few of a standard poor enough for air crashes caused by pilots to occur at anything like the rate of car crashes caused by drivers.

        Anyway… I agree with your main point: on the specific point of cycle safety, getting motor vehicles out of the way is the only reliable solution.

        But this post wasn’t about that; and on the point of driving standards in general, I think you’re shuffling into “wrap them in safety equipment and give up on driving standards” territory. Personally I don’t see any problem in principle, nor any major problem in practice, with saying we should trim the driving population of the few who have shown themselves to be a fatal hazard. Nor with endeavouring to do more to embed safe habits and purge dangerous ones.

        After all, it’s hardly just people on bicycles who are at risk. Even if you segregate motorised traffic from all other traffic, people still get injured and killed in cars through completely avoidable poor driving.

    2. It feels like we are missing the point here about deterrence and prevention. It’s not about small mistakes or big ones, those mistakes usually occur because there is a lack of awareness or mindfulness. Deterrence is about encouraging mindfulness. Speed cameras can do that if well employed, suddenly everybody on the motorway is driving sedately at 50mph or 70mph as required and making an effort to keep it that way.

      So removing licenses feels like a good deterrent because most people can’t comprehend prison or a fine very clearly but they can work out very quickly what it would be like to lose the freedom of the roads for a long period. It’s also the reasoning behind calls for strict liability on motorists to be responsible for more vulnerable people, rather than trying to determine the detail of blame on each case.

      I’ve just been to see the Poynton shared space traffic scheme (find “Poynton Regenerated” on youtube). The big thing for me was the way that the environment created really got everybody awake and paying attention to other road users because nobody has right of way. Pedestrians couldn’t walk over the road texting, drivers couldn’t cruise through on autopilot, everybody had to exercise awareness and skill and you could see it happening all the time.

      Great blog post thanks

    3. The answer is: Yes.

      Both need to happen.

      1) A lot of the “simple and small mistakes” are simply down to attitude and awareness. As a cyclist, I frequently curse, gesticulate and use the full depth of my anglo-saxon vocabulary at drivers – as a driver,I’ve yet to be shouted at by a cyclist. I’m sure the day will come, when I do something daft – I’m hardly perfect after all.

      2) City centres need to be pedestrianised. And made bike friendly. Just think how much nicer Oxford Street could be. And there’s frankly no reason for most people to drive in the square mile. Moreover, it would be relatively cheap to do it. And for cities, building physically separated cycle paths – with priority at junctions! – is the only way to go forward. And you will clearly never get kids cycling to school until parents know that there is a safe, segregated path for them.
      (And there’s rarely a good reason to drive into central London anyway)
      But Britain is also a country of A and B roads, and of country lanes. I can not even imagine every country lane being accompanied by a bike path – and I don’t think I want to. So driver behaviour has to change, too.

      1. Krout said “City centres need to be pedestrianised. And made bike friendly. Just think how much nicer Oxford Street could be.”

        I agree that oxford street should be pedestrianised, but as someone who cycles down there regularly, if it where pedestrianised I would be forced to cycle elsewhere or at less than walking speed – it’s just too crowded and pedestrians don’t even look before walking in to the road – I stay well away from the kerb to avoid hitting them when they do this.

        And what’s with those chicane’s? – just about wide enough to allow very dodgy passed by cars. ( http://goo.gl/maps/yuT1v )

  11. Drcaonian.

    Yes, you have nicely expressed the dilemma facing courts and juries when dealing with careless driving. Do you judge the driving or the consequences?

    The ability to consider the consequences is a relatively recent introduction – previously it was always just careless, dangerous or reckless driving, 99% of the time the careless variety. Not paying attention and clipping a kerb was the same crime, with the same punishment, as not paying attention and mowing down a clubrun.

    There is some logic in this, and it certainly made sense to our more libertarian law-making predecessors. In a way it’s surprising that libertarians didn’t also follow the dictum of taking responsibility for all of the consequences of their actions, but as has already been said, good people judging other ostensibly good people put themselves in the other’s shoes and forgive minor errors. In fact the very existence of those subjective driving laws came about because the idea of indicting thousands of people for manslaughter every year just wasn’t acceptable. Juries would always acquit.

    One of the quid pro quos of allowing people to escape full responsibility for outcomes should be that we do our utmost to reduce, mitigate or ideally, eliminate those outcomes. This is why we have such advances in primary safety, which reduce the number of incidents by improving road design, car design, driver training, various new restrictive driving laws , etc, and also improvements in secondary safety, which reduce the effects of incidents, thus seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones, etc. Sadly, cyclists (and pedestrians) are virtually immune from any secondary safety features in cars, and primary features never bring the full reduction in incidents they should due to risk compensation in drivers.

    All of which brings us back to square one – how to protect the most vulnerable on the road when current technical mitigations can’t protect us and juries largely empathise with the drivers rather than the victims. Much as I am a hanger and flogger, I do recognise that harsh punishments will not make any difference. In the overwhelming majority of cases cyclist deaths and injuries are not malicious. You can’t deter someone from making a mistake. No one sets out expecting to make one. As the post says, it’s a question of competence, and since lack of competence has been demonstrated, removal of the right to drive for a lengthy period must be part of the punishment. Re-acquisition of a licence should depend on demonstrating a decent level (ie above average, so a stricter test) following compulsory retraining and a retest. The driver should also be subject to the new driver probation period. I’d also always apply a life ban on driving anything bigger than a private car. No second chances for anyone who thought they were responsible enough for an HGV or PSV licence, regardless of whether that was the vehicle involved in the incident.

    In the meantime, separate cyclepaths, and roll on computer-controlled vehicles. They don’t get distracted.

    Phew, I waffled on there! Sorry.

    1. But we could, with enough will and intent, make speeding, punishment passes, overtaking on blind bends and other stupidly dangerous actions appear so antisocial and beyond the pale as to reduce them markedly. After all, drink driving used to be accepted by many people. We no longer treat drink drivers as nice people who made a mistake – why not campaign to change attitudes in the same way for other criminal acts, rather than accepting them?

    2. It is very clear that the justice system is only interested in dealing with the consequences, deterrent effect be damned, as shown by all the cyclists including myself that report bad driving and the police do nothing approx’ 95% of the time

      “You can’t deter someone from making a mistake”
      True, but you can give them the information beforehand to pre-empt the mistake and often the bad driving is willful – especially so with close passes.

    3. Richard: “You can’t deter someone from making a mistake. No one sets out expecting to make one.”

      Thanks to Kie for alerting me to this

      It sounds common sense that mistakes are inevitable. However that ignores the possibility of increasing mindfulness.

      Quite a lot of people (me included) have claimed that they broke the speed limit because they didn’t notice that it had changed, eg where 40mph goes down to 30mph but the road conditions appear similar. I guess you could call that a mistake.

      I don’t drive a lot these days so I was slightly surprised recently by the number of stretches of motorway where speed limits are now strictly enforced by frequent overhead speed cameras. Suddenly there is a big change in behaviour and everybody cruises along at 70mph, they are well aware of their speed and that tendency to match speed with the traffic or allow it to drift upwards had all gone.

      Similarly, as I’ve mentioned already, I visited the Poynton shared use traffic scheme, you can see it in action on YouTube. It’s noticeable that everybody there becomes very alert as they enter the scheme. Drivers are having to exert a higher degree of skill than normal to ‘manage’ their way through the junction, both in observation of others and control of their vehicle. Pedestrians can’t afford to be looking at their phone or each other, everybody is paying attention and interacting. There’s very little chance of making a mistake.

      So it is possible to create mindfulness and greatly reduce the risk of mistakes. I would say that awareness of serious personal consequences and awareness of the vulnerability of others is a great thing in this respect. One reason why some drivers get agitated about cyclists is probably their habit of popping up unexpectedly in front of you and making you aware of how much danger you pose to them. Maybe employing cyclists to do this, preferably semi-naked, would be good for road behaviour :o)

      It’s the rationale behind the strict liability laws protecting vulnerable road users in some countries and to me it makes sense, I wonder how much psychology research has been done on this?

      1. I said “I wonder how much psychology research has been done on this?”

        So I thought I should do a quick check with Google.I tried a couple of search terms: “mindfulness road design” and “mindfulness driver”. It’s apparent that the whole emphasis is on individual responsibility, eg how to help drivers become more mindful through training. The idea that the design of the environment can engender mindfulness does not show up much.

        The only thing that came up was a paper, not specifically about roads or built environment, by Kristina Niedderer, who is concerned with product design and craft products. She was one of the people who alerted me to the issue in the past so she and I are outsiders in the road business.

  12. I agree this this is irrelavent, but to my mind, sentances should refelct the intent:

    Eg, we have all seen ‘road wars’ type programs where persistant offenders seem to persitently get away (leniently at least) with actions which they know are reckless and will/will likely cause harm to others – whether loss, harm or fatality. To my mind, this should be the harshest sentance.

    These sorts of cases are slghtly different. These people didn’t set out to cause harm or indeed do something that may cause harm. But they did – through recklessness, carelessness or whatever. It’s effectively the difference between murder and mansluaghter. It is intent.

    There is little point in locking up a a little old lady for killing a cyclist/pedestrian. By being free, she is not a danger as such. he should clearly however, never/not for a long time be allowed to drive again – certainly not without INTENSE re-education. Take away the dangerous element of her.

    Coming back to your point, this element or his/her character will be dangerous regardless of what they have done for her community etc. That is what needs removing or adjusting. On the point about shotguns above. I would lose my licence immediately if I were caught with one under the influence, or being unsafe with it. It’s a good comparison. It is a privalege not a right – and you don’t get given a shotgun licence for just being a ‘nice enough bloke.

    1. If the little old lady drove over the speed limit, or with impaired eyesight, or was so mentally or physicslly impaired as to struggle to control her car, then yes, she set out to do something dangerous. The fact that she used a car to endanger people rather than a gun is irrelevant. She threatened other lives, and punishment seems appropriate. Otherwise we just say that some forms of violence are acceptable.

  13. ‘Good people’
    ‘Decent People’

    I don’t think the majority are as good and decent as made out to be.
    A birthday card with cash in envelope experiment showed that when members of the public found a dropped stamped addressed envelope containing a birthday card and £20 note in it, a large percentage of people would pocket the cash. Is that a good decent thing to do, are the people who do this good and decent?

  14. I know that someday I’m not going to make it home from work because a ‘good’ person decided that waiting for one minute at a set of red traffic lights is not worth it to get home to their family for dinner. I’m going to die by the roadside and the driver will just get some community service and a suspended sentence. The law is backwards and we’re powerless to change it because the government will always pander to the desires of the motorists.

  15. To underline the systematic bias in the way the justice system treats road deaths, the character of the victim is rarely treated as pertinent to their death, while their perceived lack of competence often is.

    Consider the way the coroner in the inquest into the death of Dr Katherine Giles dwells at length on her position in the driver’s blind spot, rather than her astonishing work as a climate scientist. Or the inquest into Ellie Carey’s death dwelling on whether she was wearing headphones at the time of her death, rather than her charitable work. Or the fact that Hope Fennell was described as being ‘too close’ to the HGV that killed her, rather than the fact that she was a child.

    None of these women were able to speak to their character in court, because of the driver’s actions. Perhaps it’s right that courts should consider actions and competence, rather than character. But in that case, courts must do so for both victim and accused.

  16. I have been a passenger with careful drivers who do not talk when driving, who check, check and check constantly and who do not take short cuts. This should be normal driving behaviour, not out of the ordinary. When driving a car, lack of care and concentration is criminal. If you are not willing or capable of taking care, you should not be driving. If that means far fewer people will be driving, society will get used to it and even appreciate it – one day.

  17. I agree that drivers who kill should have their license revoked permanently, but I’d add a coda to that: when you have a suspended sentence, there can be conditions attached to it, and if you break those conditions, you can be sent to prison without going back to court. So, I believe that people who cause death with a motor vehicle should have their license revoked permanently, and should be given a suspended life sentence – suspended on condition that they never drive again.

    That way, they don’t have to pay a penny of fine or spend a day in prison – but they will always know that if the police should ever find them behind the wheel of a motor vehicle again, they could be in prison for the rest of their lives.

    Good people, as you say, need not be punished. But incompetent people should not be allowed to drive. And the solution I propose meets both ends.

  18. A well written article which I support I have been involved in investigating many fatal collisions. Very few people go out to intend to hurt someone else on the road. Many are mistakes and a momentary lapse in concentration. However the is also evidence to show the reasons that some drivers do not see the cyclist,the motorbike or the pedestrians at junctions in particular.. Its called “hidden in plain sight”. Its where the brain sees the object but ignores it because it is not a danger to the driver. I know its not an excuse as drivers have to train themselves to to l look and look hard. and specifically look for the cyclist, motorbike and pedestrians. You may also be surprised to know that a great number of drivers are found NOT Guilty at Crown Courts Deaths when they have disputed they are to blame. It is very easy to defend a Death by Careless Driving you only have to introduce an element of doubt such as “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury have you ever been sat at the junction and all of a sudden whoosh where did that come from” and as 910 out of 12 jurors drive they can all put themselves in that position and you end up with a not guilty verdict when there is clear evidence of carelessness. Most Jurors have been there and “There by the grace of God” did not have a collision. Then you can understand a finding of “Not Guilty”. The other thing is that if it is just a mistake and the driver admits “Sorry All my Fault” they are very unlikely to go to prison providing they are no aggravating factors.
    Where there is drink, drugs or mobile phone involved they will definitely go to jail and quite rightly so.
    Most of the bereaved families I have dealt with simply want an acceptance of responsibility for their actions. Sometimes there are those who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time a genuine accident.
    One thing I do agree with is that after conviction and disqualification they must take an extended test.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I hope you’ll be able to visit regularly to provide some insight from an investigator’s point of view.

      The cognitive issues around seeing people are covered nicely here…
      http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/
      …although it is of course a shame that it’s not universal knowledge and that it isn’t an integral part of driver training prior to gaining a licence – it really should be.

      The points you make with regard to securing a prosecution are all very true as well; they’re often topics on the blog. As I believe you (rightly) allude to, the real problem is that we fail to find poor driving illegal because it is all evaluated relative to the defendant’s peers rather than to an absolute yardstick.

      The statute, notably the RTA1988, sets up this huge problem: bad driving becomes the norm because of the predominance of bad drivers, and the vicious circle spins ever quicker.

  19. Hi Bez a very interesting article RAF Pilot teach cyclists. Another way that drivers can better themselves is by taking the Advance Driving Test. I have taken this and other driving assessments on a regular basis. If nothing else it makes you a better observer.

  20. Kill someone with the misuse of any other piece of equipment, or even with a motor vehicle being used off road, and the charge is manslaughter (and on the occasions where the act is deliberate or with malice – murder). It gets even crazier if the load falls from a turning truck and kills someone, the charge is manslaughter, if the same move results in the truck hitting that person it would be the eupehmistic denial charges “Causing death by dangerous/careless.driving” . Surely the law should be simplified to make all killing by use of any means manslaughter and save the CPS and PFS the delay and distress caused by deciding which motoring charge to use.

    It works just the same way for investigation and remedy for incidents – building sites, rail lines have independent investigations which are published, and action mandated by independent regulators. For the road we have the feeble Section 39 RTA 1988 where the roads authority investigates and then makes recommendations, effectievly to itself to make the road design and use safer quo custodiet ipsos custodes?

  21. I agree with the point about driving bans, but I’m not entirely sure I agree with the emphasis placed on ‘intent’.
    This is the same excuse one hears time-and-again from people who have said or done something horribly racist – “I didn’t intend to be racist”. Yet people go on doing it, intended or not.

    At some point I think intent doesn’t matter, when dealing with relations between groups of differing power. If a more powerful group collectively makes a decision to habitually be reckless with the well-being and safety of a less-powerful and more vulnerable group, then how much does it matter whether any individual instance in which the recklessness ended badly was ‘deliberate’ or not? The deliberate choice has already been made.

    The problem is that, collectively, society tolerates poor driving and regards it as normal. That’s a deliberate choice made by a good part of society (mainly drivers). Not in their capacity as drivers but as voters, politicians, judges and cops.

    They are collectively responsible for the results. The difficulty comes when trying to then put the full punishment onto the particular driver who was ‘unlucky’, in that their particular bad driving actually killed someone. It then seems (and I guess, is) unfair because they individualy didn’t make the relevant decision.

    I guess I’m saying that there is moral culpability here, its not just ‘incompetence’, but the trouble is that culpability is widely dissipated, spread amongst the great mass of bad drivers and those in power and in the electorate who tolerate it as ‘normal’.

    Personally I’m always puzzled by the way moral judgements work in general. They seem very inconsistent – for example the way the excess deaths due to car exhaust pollution are just accepted, when if you killed that many people through some other kind of decision you’d be prosecuted for murder (I guess the sub-field of moral philosophy that’s come to be called ‘trollyology’ deals with precisely this sort of thing).

    1. “It then seems (and I guess, is) unfair because they individualy didn’t make the relevant decision.”

      I have to completely disagree with this, after many thousands of miles of city cycling, my experience is 20%ish of drivers will pass a bit too close out of impatience and ignorance. A tiny percentage of drivers will do really close deliberate ‘punishment passes’ which are exceedingly dangerous and it is this type of action that results in some of the serious injuries and deaths that we hear about.

      I don’t think the majority drive badly and I don’t think you can absolve bad drivers of guilt by saying the decision is collective, it’s not.

  22. PS I do, all the same, agree with platinum’s comment.

    Though if it were actually possible to ban all the bad drivers we’d get far better public transport and bike infrastructure fairly quickly because there’d be so many people banned from driving that society would have to provide an alternative for them in order to keep the economy functioning.

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