Research conducted by the London Evening Standard has found that just one in ten drivers of vehicles involved in the death of a cyclist in the capital between 2010 and 2012 were given a jail sentence. Politicians say the courts are too lenient in such cases, but road safety charity RoadSafe has previously told road.cc that it believes that drivers should be punished through longer driving bans, not custodial sentences.
The Standard’s Ross Lydall analysed data provided by the City of London and Metropolitan Police forces in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
He found that in at least 24 cases during that period, either the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to press charges, or discontinued proceedings.
In seven cases, motorists were given either suspended sentences or what the Standard describes as “minor” ones, with four other drivers who had been charged with offences acquitted following trial by jury.
Typically, a custodial sentence is imposed when there is some aggravating factor such as the motorist not being insured, or being banned from driving at the time of the incident.
British Cycling and CTC, among other organisations, have urged the government to review the investigation, prosecution and sentencing of cases in which vulnerable road users such as cyclists are the victims due to concerns that the criminal justice system fails them and their familes.
In its response to the Get Britain Cycling report last autumn, the government said that it plans to hold a review early this year into how such cases are handled.
That followed representatives of the two cycling organisations as well as RoadPeace meeting with former justice minister Helen Grant in December 2012 to raise their concerns.
But the Standard says that no charges will be brought in respect of two fatal incidents last year in which cyclists were killed – Dr Katharine Giles, who died at Victoria, and Alan Neve, killed on Holborn. The inquests in both cases will be heard in the coming days.
Martin Porter QC, who specialises in personal injury law, is chairman of Thames Velo and blogs as The Cycling Lawyer, told the Standard: “The chances are that if you run down a cyclist you will not be prosecuted.
“Not a single insured driver convicted of causing death by careless driving was imprisoned in London over this period [2010-12]. Large numbers will not get onto bicycles whilst driving behaviour that endangers them continues to go almost wholly undeterred.”
He added: “The criminal justice system continues to have a motor-centric bias. Too often there is far more focus on whether or not the victim was wearing a helmet or hi-viz tabard rather than on whether greater care from the motorist could have avoided the collision.”
Besides his professional background, Porter himself has first-hand experience of how difficult it can be to persuade the authorities to take action in a case in which the cyclist is the victim.
In January 2012, motorist Scott Lomas was convicted of a public order offence after threatening to kill Porter, who was riding to work. The case only went to court after the lawyer, who had captured footage of the incident on his helmet camera, twice complained about the lack of action being taken by the police and the CPS.
Opposition politicians at the Greater London Assembly expressed concern about the way the law operates in such cases.
The Green Party’s Baroness Jones said: “It seems as if the criminal justice system goes soft and applies completely different rules to death and injury once you get behind the wheel of a vehicle.”
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon commented: “All the evidence does suggest that far too often lenient sentences are being handed down to motorists and lorry drivers who have been convicted for careless driving which has contributed to the death of a cyclist.”
The Standard says that the longest prison sentence imposed on a driver in relation to the death of a cyclist between 2010 and 2012 was the four-year jail term handed down to 28-year-old Barry Normah last year.
He had been convicted of causing the death in March 2012 of 17-year-old Olatunji Adeyanju, known as TJ, in Deptford Church Street. Normah paused before driving away from the scene, and subsequently dumped his car.
In another case during the period, Aleksander Preslavski, aged 22, was sentenced in July 2011 to two years and seven months in prison for causing the death by dangerous driving the previous July of 34-year old father of two Rajendra Ramakrishnan on the Uxbridge Road. Police said that Preslavski was travelling at twice the speed limit.
However, in the majority of cases, no action is taken, with the Standard citing several deaths of cyclists in which no charges were brought against the motorist, including that of former champion boxer Gary Mason in January 2011.
Where a conviction is secured, typically a non-custodial sentence is imposed or, rarely, a suspended prison sentence, as happened in the case of lorry driver David Cox who pleaded guilty in July last year to causing the death through careless driving of Brian Dorling in 2011.
Cox received a 24-week prison sentence suspended for a year, but Mr Dorling’s widow Debbie said at the time that jailing him would serve no purpose.
“You can see he’s remorseful and see that he’s haunted. He is a broken man,” she said. “Putting him in prison is not going to achieve anything.”
Commenting on that case, Sara Dowling of RoadPeace told road.cc: “Causing death by careless driving is a charge that rarely results in a custodial sentence, in fact less than 30 per cent of drivers charged with causing death by careless driving get a custodial sentence. And RoadPeace would argue that increased use of longer driving bans is a much more appropriate response to careless driving than prison.”
She added that too often, the charge of causing death by careless driving was brought when the more serious one of causing death by dangerous driving was warranted.
"The real issue here is the misuse of the careless driving charge – time and time again we see it being used for cases that should be considered dangerous,” she added.
“In this case the driver went through a red light, surely falling far below the standard of a careful and competent driver. But yet again the CPS shifts towards the more lenient charge. A guilty plea means no trial and fewer costs.
"But even with a causing death by dangerous driving charge a longer driving ban would be unlikely as the courts are very reluctant to ‘punish’ drivers in this way – nearly half of drivers who kill receive no disqualification (12.7% endorsed, 33.6% need to retake test so can drive with a qualified driver)."
The longest jail term we are aware of in connection with the death of a cyclist in London is the seven-year jail term given to lorry driver Denis Putz after he was found guilty of causing the death by dangerous driving in June 2009 - the year prior to the period analysed by the Standard - of cyclist Catriona Patel. He was also banned from driving for life.
Ahead of his trial, the CPS rejected a guilty plea from Putz to the charge of causing death by careless driving, maintaining that he should stand trial on the more serious charge, its decision based on its belief - which turned out to be correct - that he was over the drink-drive limit and was using a mobile phone at the time of the fatal crash.
That seven-year sentence is still just half the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving of 14 years in jail.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.