An administrative affair

driving licence

I have a licence to drive. The state permits me to operate a vehicle on the public highway. To get this privilege, I had to demonstrate competence: to pass a driving test administered by the state. It’s the state’s job to ensure that when you use the public highway the motor vehicles you share it with are operated by people of established competence.

Everyone who has passed a driving test knows there are many ways to bring your competence into question. Top of the list is colliding — with a tree, a gatepost, a parked car or (whisper it) another road user. No one expects to pass a driving test in which they have collided with something or someone.

Driving examiners protect the public from drivers who are not demonstrably competent. Police officers investigating highway collisions should be empowered to do the same. In real life as much as in a driving test, a collision brings a driver’s competence into question. Investigating officers should as a matter of routine take and keep the licences of drivers involved in a collision until the investigation — or a subsequent court hearing — has removed the question over their competence. (This suspension should be for a minimum period — at  least 24 hours — to remove pressure on officers to resolve the matter on the spot.)

It would be a great inconvenience for drivers who collide, but there is no question here of reversal of the burden of proof or of punishment without trial. This is an administrative matter, protecting the public from drivers whose competence is currently in question. No right is being infringed. A licence to drive is a privilege requiring a demonstration of competence. It should be routinely suspended while that competence is being investigated. Who supports sharing our roads with drivers whose competence is in question? 

It is a sad thought, but the certainty of an immediate end to one’s journey and the added inconvenience of getting one’s vehicle impounded if no one else is available to drive it, would do more to improve driving standards than the currently remote prospect of conviction for a driving offence.

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Road niggers

westminster_coroners_court

The failure to prosecute Gale Purcell for the killing of Michael Mason should frighten anyone who rides a bicycle.

Mrs Purcell drove into the rear of Mr Mason’s bicycle as he was riding north on Regent Street in the West End of London on 25 February.

Mrs Purcell, who stopped at the scene, told the inquest she had not seen Mr Mason despite his bike having front and rear lights.

She was unable to explain to the inquest how she failed to see Mr Mason. The coroner, Dr William Dolman, recorded Mr Mason’s death as an accident.

A court trial might find reasons to acquit Mrs Purcell of manslaughter. But on the facts known so far she simply ran him down and killed him. She offers no reason why she should not be held responsible for his death.

The coroner sees no one responsible. It was an ‘accident’. It just happened. There is a case to answer that Mrs Purcell failed in her duty of care to other road users. But Dr Dolman excludes that.

The police consider they have insufficient evidence for a prosecution to succeed. They lament the absence of CCTV footage of the collision. It is hard to see why this would be relevant. No one disputes Mrs Purcell ran down Mr Mason and killed him. A film might show some unreported incident to explain what Mrs Purcell says she cannot explain. The defence might seize on that gratefully. But the absence of CCTV footage could hardly weaken a prosecution, and it is difficult to see what its presence might add to it.

View this as a test case. The facts are rarely this plain. The bald and frightening implication of the inquest is running down someone riding a bicycle is not an offence. We are ‘road niggers’. There is no justice for us.

This cannot stand. Urge and support the Cyclists Defence Fund and the CTC’s Road Justice campaign to get the coroner’s verdict overturned and Mrs Purcell prosecuted for killing Mr Mason.

Killer questions

Judge John DeedThe driver whose lorry killed Eilidh Cairns in Notting Hill in 2009 was fined £200 for driving with uncorrected defective eyesight. Private Eye reports he subsequently failed an eyesight test and had his licence revoked. Then last year he got it back. This year he was questioned by the police after his lorry struck and killed 97-year-old Nora Gutmann on the Marylebone Road.

The Cairns family has asked the High Court to quash the the “accidental death” verdict and order a new inquest. They argue that “There was a failure to consider the wider impact of Eilidh’s death and the huge problem facing cyclists in London.” From road.cc:

However, Jonathan Hough, representing the coroner, insisted that the incident was of a type that is “tragically common,” and that no element of it would lead the coroner to consider that it “illustrated a systemic problem or that it might call for some specific response.”

Here we see what follows from the vandalisation of our public space. The roads are dangerous. Sadly, some cyclists who insist on riding on them will die. People operating dangerous vehicles have a duty of care, but not the kind of duty of care that delays traffic.

Note the incoherence of the argument. Such “incidents” are “tragically common” – therefore there is no question of a systemic problem.

Cycling deaths are normal and require no wider inquiry by a coroner. Where is Judge John Deed now we need him most?

Educating coppers

Police AcademyThere you are, cautiously, conservatively riding in prime position, safely away from the kerb, from lunging pedestrians and from suddenly opening car doors, and alert for every opportunity to let cars following you pass safely. And some enraged, inexperienced or testosterone-poisoned driver deliberately endangers you to express his disapproval.

You’re pleased to find a nearby police officer coming over to find out why you’re suddenly yelling at the driver’s window. Then not so pleased, as the officer instructs you to ride near the kerb, perhaps in one of London’s attractive, green-painted ‘suicide lanes’.

Seems this happens from time to time.

Naturally we must all follow the instructions of police officers directing traffic. (We’re traffic, remember?)

Let’s organise training classes on the law relating to cycling, and offer them — with ample local publicity — to police stations where officers’ grasp of it appears weak.

We have trouble enough with motorists who mistakenly believe they have first claim on the highway, without police officers compounding the error.

Private prosecutions

Rumpole Of The BaileyIn changing culture, law has multiple uses.

The most obvious is normative: new laws redefine what behaviour is acceptable. It did not require many prosecutions for racial abuse to teach us to guard our tongues.

There are also ways to use the existing law. Existing law may encode rights ignored by custom. Many cyclists see police reluctance to prosecute incidents of ‘road rage’ as an example of this.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service do not have a complete monopoly on criminal prosecutions. It is possible for private parties to prosecute where the authorities decline to do so.

One hears tales of motorists deliberately endangering cyclists, where the police fail to prosecute despite evidence that seems ample. Perhaps LCC should establish a legal fund to mount some exemplary private prosecutions?

Should collisions be illegal?

I had an eloquent essay in mind for this, but perhaps it’s better just to pose the question.

Society tolerates collisions as ‘accidents’; police bring charges only when they find clear evidence of wrongdoing. But hey, there was a collision. Make that the offence.

Declare a duty of care that is proportional to the danger posed. If an SUV is five times more likely than a conventional car to kill a pedestrian in a collision, then weight the scales of justice with a greater duty of care.

Extend the same duty of care to all road users – and let cyclists ride on the footway.

Don’t suppose that every collision would be prosecuted, no more than every instance of racial abuse gets prosecuted. But do remember what the possibility of getting prosecuted has done to change race relations in the last half century.

Law has an important normative role in changing culture.