Nearly a year ago I was furious at a legal system that completely failed to provide either protection for vulnerable road users or remotely appropriate punishment for people who kill on the roads.
That piece spurred a number of people into writing to their MPs to demand answers. And it’s time to be spurred into action now.
Because now, things are worse.
Things must change.
Another open letter to the British legal system
My dear legal system,
You’ve done it again.
Measures overtook on a bend, without being able to see far enough ahead to even slow-moving oncoming traffic with which she would become level whilst still on the wrong side of the road. On rounding the bend and suddenly seeing two people on bicycles coming towards her, she decided not to brake and abort the manoeuvre (“if I had been concerned, I would have stopped suddenly“) but consciously chose to continue to use their side of the road, and to pass close by them at speed.
Or, at least, so she hoped.
Tragically, Perinova was unable to keep to the small gap afforded her by Measures, and was flung nearly 50 feet, sustaining severe head injuries from which she later died.
My dear legal system, you allowed Measures to be entirely cleared of responsibility for Denisa Perinova’s death. You have told us that she is not a driver who is punishable by law; that her decisions are not punishable by law.
You allowed her attitude – “I can’t help it if a cyclist, falls over as I’m approaching them [at speed on the wrong side of the road, by my own volition]” (you can help it, simply by not putting all the elements in place for them to die if they do fall) – to be upheld in court as an acceptable attitude.
You stood by and allowed this life to be lost.
You allowed a third party to be punished with death for a minor and understandable mistake because of a driver who couldn’t wait a few seconds, hadn’t looked, and hadn’t changed her course of action once she realised she was entering into what is – to any reasonable driver – a quite clearly dangerous manoeuvre.
You have sent a chill down the spine of all of us who have faced that situation, myself included, of having our personal space invaded closely by a large and fast vehicle that had absolutely no right to be there.
Reports in the media have diminished Measures’ responsibility by pointing out that Perinova was allegedly a novice; but the truth is that even the most experienced cyclist needs space: a pothole, a puncture, a squirrel, even a gust of wind can cause any cyclist to require space that you – quite clearly – now permit others to freely claim as their own through fatal force.
You fail to ensure we have the space we need to stay alive. You fail us. To you, we are not worth standing up for. To you, our lives are less important than saving a few seconds of a car journey.
And this case is but a straw on the back of a camel that lies dead on the tarmac.
When I say you fail “us”, I don’t just mean “us when we happen to be on bicycles”. I mean all of us: whether we’re on a bike, on foot, on horseback, or in a car.
You stand by and watch all of us die.
Your failings are myriad.
You fail to recognise responsibility
By failing to hold Darren Foster responsible for Hope Fennell’s death, you have told us that driving an 18-tonne truck over a young girl and crushing her is not punishable by law.
By failing to hold Daniel Podmore responsible for Christine Harrison’s death, you have told us that losing control of a car and leaving the road as speed, resulting in a fatal impact, is not punishable by law.
By failing to hold Daniel Mackay responsible for Liz Brown’s death, you have told us that driving so close to the vehicle in front that you are unable to see other road users, whom you then kill, is not punishable by law.
You fail to accept that only one person is in control of a vehicle, and that they are what guides it to the death of others. You fail to accept the idea that a pedestrian’s or a cyclist’s mistake should not be punishable by their own death, whilst equally failing to accept that a driver’s mistake should not result in the death of others. You fail to recognise that it is perfectly possible to drive a vehicle in a way that ensures that anyone’s minor mistake does not result in death, and as a result you fail to set that as a required standard to which everyone can be held.
You fail to protect
By allowing these six killers back onto the roads within an average of just 21 months, you fail to protect those who share the roads with them.
By allowing Wayne Rogan back onto the roads within two years, you fail to protect people from a man with over 30 convictions for 70 offences.
By allowing Gary McCourt back onto the roads within five years of causing a second death, you again fail to protect those who share the roads with him. By allowing McCourt back onto the roads after his first death, you manifestly failed to protect Audrey Fyfe, his second victim.
You fail to accept that a driving licence is earned, that it should be a measure of responsibilty. You fail to accept that to permanently revoke it will not actually be a crushing sentence to the offender, who can easily access other modes of transport. You fail to accept that to permanently revoke it will reassure people that convicted killers and the proven most dangerous road users will be prevented from unnecessarily risking others. And by doing so you fail to ensure the safety of those you purport to protect.
You fail to punish
By fining drivers £300 for driving without insurance, you fail to punish people’s lack of insurance: the fine is cheaper than a typical policy and is only payable if detected.
By fining drivers £100 for irresponsible and distracting practices such as using a mobile phone, you fail to punish inattention and the projection of risk onto other road users. By applying such a low punishment, you fail to even convey the basic message that it is a punishment, with drivers referring to the affordable costs as “a tax on motoring”, which they continue to pay.
By fining Ichhapal Bhamra £35 for the death of Tom Ridgway (and, indeed, failing to actually hold him responsible for his death), you set a price on a life: a price below that of a fixed penalty notice that is viewed as a tax rather than a punishment.
By sending an aggressive motorist on an awareness course, you fail to recognise that a seemingly deliberate use of a car as a weapon and a subsequent verbal assault are not a matter of awareness, and you fail to punish entirely unprovoked violence.
By failing to imprison David Atkin for the assault on William Mak (even – bewilderingly – after stating during sentencing that the sentence “has got to be prison“) you again fail to punish the use of a car as a weapon.
You fail to see heavier and faster vehicles as demanding more responsibility than lighter, slower and less protected ones. You fail to recognise the differences inherent in the basic physics. You fail to punish those who drive in a manner which poses significantly higher risk to others. You fail to punish those who kill. And you fail to punish those who use vehicles as weapons.
You fail to be effective
By failing to keep these seven disqualified drivers off the road (and those were just the ones you actually caught, in just a week, that I happened to find reports of) you fail to demonstrate any power to enforce sentencing.
By disqualifying criminal children from driving for periods which do not even extend into their actual eligibility to drive, you make a laughing stock of yourself.
By allowing over 8000 people with up to 42 penalty points to continue driving, you fail to demonstrate any willingness to disqualify the most persistent offenders.
By creating the “exceptional hardship” loophole you explicitly open the door to repeat offenders and create a market for devious lawyers.
By cutting road policing you fail to apply the law and you allow deaths to rise.
You fail to apply even your own weak sentences. You fail to instil any confidence in your fitness for purpose. You fail to keep the roads from descending into lawlessness where, more and more, people are equipping themselves with video cameras in the absence of police.
You fail to remedy
By failing to adopt rigorous practice of investigation and recommendation, you fail to address any of these problems. You fail to recognise or address road design issues, satnav design issues, or indeed – seemingly – any systemic issues at all.
You fail to even see the problems as problems.
You simply fail to see.
In every respect, you fail.
It doesn’t really matter where your many failures stem from: the failure of the politicians to write good statute, the failure of the CPS to follow its own guidelines of prosecution, the failure of police to gather sufficient evidence, the failure of the Crown to convince juries, the failure of judges to pass decent sentences, or anything else. All of these things contribute to the same result, and all are fixable.
Your failings must stop.
The killing must stop. The maiming must stop. The needless tearing apart of families must stop. And for these to stop, the sacrosanctity of the driving licence must stop.
You failed Denisa Perinova as you have failed countless victims of road incidents. You should have been her safety cell, her crumple zone, her air bag. You should have been her protection from people who simply drive cars into people. This is your purpose. And at this, you fail constantly.
Things must change.
And things must change now.
It is time for you to adopt the following:
- mandatory lifetime revocation of licences for drivers who kill or who use a car as a weapon, to protect other road users
- mandatory lengthy imprisonment for those who drive whilst disqualified, to firmly deter reoffending
- the removal of the exceptional hardship plea, to close an absurd loophole
- clarification and simplification of the statutory definitions of existing driving offences, with clear guidelines for actions that constitute each offence
- such guidelines to be rigorously acted upon by the CPS and unambiguously explained to jurors and magistrates
- the introduction of presumed liability, to help rectify damage and injuries caused by users of more dangerous vehicles
- a zero-tolerance approach to safety-related offences such as using phones and speeding, to correct behaviour before it causes injury or becomes fatal
- statutory investigation of all fatal road incidents to result in recommendations, to reduce the death toll over time
It’s time for you to protect the vulnerable, to act as an egalitarian counterbalance to the basic physics of the vehicles that use the roads, and to actually seek to reduce death and injury.
And it’s time for us to make one hell of a noise in demanding that.