Tour of Flanders: Belgian judges investigate Johan Vansummeren crash that left woman in coma - but who was to blame?

Garmin-Sharp's Johan Van Summeren distraught about incident that led to spectator having to undergo brain surgery

by Simon_MacMichael   April 7, 2014  

Tour of Flanders - traffic island.png

Judicial authorities in Belgium are investigating the crash at yesterday’s Tour of Flanders in which Garmin-Sharp rider Johan Vansummeren hit a 65-year-old female spectator at speed.

According to Flanders News.be, both the rider and race organisers could face prosecution if investigators decide there is a case to answer. But a sports lawyer says that while he believes Vansummeren should bear no responsibility, there could be a case against both the unfortunate victim, and the Flanders Classics organisation.

The woman, named by Het Niuewsblad as Marie-Claire M., underwent two operations on her brain yesterday, and remains in an induced coma in a hospital in Kortrijk. Her condition is said to be stable but critical.

The collision happened as the peloton sped past a traffic island where she was standing, along with other spectators, around 60km into the 259km race on Stationsstraat in the town of Wielsbeke.

Vansummeren is believed to have seen the obstacle too late and apparently tried to bunnyhop it, but could not avoid hitting her.

Video footage shot by a fan across the road on a cameraphone and posted to YouTube showed her being knocked of her feet by the force of the impact, and it is understood that she hit her head on a kerbstone.

The rider, winner of Paris-Roubaix in 2011, was also taken to hospital but discharged in the afternoon with facial stitching and a black eye.

Understandably, he was distraught about the incident. “My situation is not my main concern now,” he told the press. “I am more worried about the lady.

“I never wanted this to happen. This could have been a beautiful day, but it turned out to be a nightmare. My thoughts are with her and her family."

At the early stages of an investigation, Belgium adopts an inquisitorial system in which a court, or person acting on its behalf, compiles a dossier into an incident to determine whether there is a case to answer.

That the judicial authorities are carrying out an inquiry into what happened yesterday is therefore nothing out of the ordinary; it would be comparable to a police investigation in England & Wales.

"Was the lady allowed to stand there? Or was it the rider that made the wrong manoeuvre? We have to investigate all this, using the accounts of witnesses, the statements made by Mr Vansummeren and the amateur video that you have probably seen", explained Tom Janssens on behalf of investigators.

It is reported that they will also examine how much warning the riders had been given of presence of the pedestrian island.

He added that it would not be an easy incident to investigate, since it took place while the competition was underway, between the lead car of the race and the green flag signalling the end of it.

“In that case, specific rules apply,” he said.

Following the incident, some people on social networks such as Twitter queried why there was not a flag marshal at the location to warn riders of the hazard.

One reason is may be that the sheer volume of road furniture on the route of the race means it would be impossible to station someone at every single potential obstacle.

However, a Belgian sports lawyer told Brussels-based French language newspaper Le Soir that while he believed Vansummeren was blameless, the spectator and race organisers could both be found liable for causing the incident.

"In legal terms, Vansummeren did not commit an offence," explained Jean-Pierre Deprez, who is based in Charleroi. "It's the same same principle that applies to accidental wounds and injuries. His aim was to get from Bruges to Oudenaarde as quickly as possible . Many crashes happened during the race.

"I'm thinking of [Trek Factory Racing] rider Yaroslav Popovych who fell heavily and abandoned hitting a spectator with his handlebars. In my opinion, the riders have no responsibility for this. But if Johan Vansummeren had taken a shortcut to save time and he knocked down a spectator, of course it would have been his fault."

Asked who's fault it was, the lawyer replied: "In my opinion, the liability of the woman could be criminalised. She was situated in an insecure location in the middle of the road where the group goes at more than 50kph, very close to the spectators.

"She put herself knowingly in danger in what is termed the theory of risk acceptance. Like in rally racing, spectators sometimes take unncesessary risks to enjoy the fleeting moment. But the woman cannot assume sole responsibility."

Questioned whether he was referring to the race organisation, he said: "Very clearly , yes," citing a Belgian law of 1967 relating to bike races that requires signallers to be positioned in "significant and dangerous places."

He added: "But in this case, there was none. Notably, article 3 of the law stipulates that it is the mayor who must determine the number of signallers in cycling races . As it is a road incident involving a vulnerable [road] user, prosecution could happen, but the case looks complicated, given its specific context. "

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Quote:
Following the incident, some people on social networks such as Twitter queried why there was not a flag marshal at the location to warn riders of the hazard.

One reason is may be that the sheer volume of road furniture on the route of the race means it would be impossible to station someone at every single potential obstacle.

I'm not inclined to believe thats the case. Watching the race later on, they had police marshalling singular parked cars along the road for instance, giving the impression they had plenty of marshals.

Hopefully the woman will make a full recovery and this doesnt haunt Vansummeren too much.

This photo shows his front rim badly smashed so I guess he hit the kerb

posted by zanf [420 posts]
7th April 2014 - 22:09

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zanf wrote:

I'm not inclined to believe thats the case. Watching the race later on, they had police marshalling singular parked cars along the road for instance, giving the impression they had plenty of marshals.

Reactive following what happened maybe?

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posted by glynr36 [271 posts]
7th April 2014 - 22:16

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I saw the footage from the side of the road that was mentioned, it was horrific, there really should have been a marshall there. Even if those spectators hadn't have been there, the speed Vansummeren hit that island it would have still been bad.

posted by mrkeith119 [85 posts]
7th April 2014 - 22:23

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Health and safety gone mad.

It's a road race with cyclists travelling at great speed. If you're the sort of fan that watches from the middle of the road, you almost certainly know that and are accepting of the risk that poses.

Surely this has to go down as a racing incident with no one to blame, despite what the ambulance chasers think/hope.

Thoughts are with the lady concerned for a full recovery.

posted by TheSpaniard [42 posts]
7th April 2014 - 22:25

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It was this picture that got me. Both lying there, she's KO'd with her eyes open, that shows how quick things are happening.

Garmin guy is looking over JVS but looks more concerned about the woman.

I can't apportion blame to the women or Johan. Things happen, but yes, there should have been a marshal there

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posted by Gkam84 [8683 posts]
7th April 2014 - 22:27

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The Dutch versions have a quote from the procurator which is not in the English version from deredactie.be. :

“Omdat het om een aanrijding van een zwakke weggebruikster gaat, volgen er eventueel ook vervolgingen.”

→ "As it involves a collision with weaker road-user, there may be a prosecution in due course."

Also, the building visible in the background in the video / screenshot seems to be the Quickstep factory in between Ooigem and Wielsbeke.

posted by Paul J [556 posts]
7th April 2014 - 23:05

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Awful. I hope both make a full recovery. The blame game can start after.

Airzound

posted by Airzound [202 posts]
7th April 2014 - 23:07

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Paul J wrote:
The Dutch versions have a quote from the procurator which is not in the English version from deredactie.be. :

“Omdat het om een aanrijding van een zwakke weggebruikster gaat, volgen er eventueel ook vervolgingen.”

→ "As it involves a collision with weaker road-user, there may be a prosecution in due course."

Also, the building visible in the background in the video / screenshot seems to be the Quickstep factory in between Ooigem and Wielsbeke.

Thanks for that adding that, Paul; the reference to a "vulnerable [road] user" further down was my translation from the French, but I think gets the same point across.

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7900 posts]
7th April 2014 - 23:38

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Ah "vulnerable" - I was looking for a better phrasing "weaker road user", and that of course is it. Smile Oh, note that the dutch quote is from the procurator who is responsible for investigating this and deciding on whether to proceed with a case.

posted by Paul J [556 posts]
8th April 2014 - 1:35

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TheSpaniard wrote:
Health and safety gone mad.

It's a road race with cyclists travelling at great speed. If you're the sort of fan that watches from the middle of the road, you almost certainly know that and are accepting of the risk that poses.

Surely this has to go down as a racing incident with no one to blame, despite what the ambulance chasers think/hope.

Thoughts are with the lady concerned for a full recovery.

Looks like you didn't read the article at all then. Belgian law doesn't really allow for a no-fault accident or complaint like this without an investigation first. It does lead to some strange situations but it would be investigated in the UK, they just wouldn't be as open that it was being investigated.

Thoughts go with the woman and her family and friends, hopefully she will be fine but I have to say, I'd not have stopped on the traffic island to watch.

posted by atlaz [152 posts]
8th April 2014 - 6:30

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"In my opinion, the liability of the woman could be criminalised. She was situated in an insecure location in the middle of the road where the group goes at more than 50kph, very close to the spectators"

Hmmm no....... This is part of the beauty of cycling, fans can get within yards of the race and observe it close up. The woman was within a point of refuge, behind an item of street furniture, how could she foresee what happened.

This is an sad accident but I do not see how she can be liable, nor Vansummeren. As far as I see it it comes down to whether the island should have been marshalled, and if so liability lay with the organisor no-one else.

posted by andycoventry [109 posts]
8th April 2014 - 9:07

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Hold Vansummeren liable??! WTF! At best the organisers if it was not flagged. Sadly, a very vulnerable position to be standing but it could still happen if a rider gets forced to the road side...I certainly wouldn't have had my child on that traffic island. Very tragic.

posted by southseabythesea [65 posts]
8th April 2014 - 9:53

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This is awful, really hope she recovers fully and quickly.

The blame game, meanwhile, is silly. The riders aren't obliged to travel at a safe speed and give consideration to other road users in the way you would on an open road; it's closed, for the specific purpose of allowing him and a bunch of others the opportunity of travelling as quickly as possible. The only responsibility you could apportion is to the requirement for marshalling.

As said above, this is a lot like watching the rally cars - you take your position, but there are risks involved.

If I could have, say, 6 bikes, would it stop me drooling over others that I don't have?

posted by notfastenough [2938 posts]
8th April 2014 - 10:11

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The video is nuts, it's as if the guy in the red shirt didn't notice it at first. I can only assume there was a bit of shock involved and it took them a few seconds to process it through.

posted by farrell [1289 posts]
8th April 2014 - 10:25

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It does look like from the video he just didn't see where the island was, I'd guess due to the speed and bulk of pack of riders and he couldn't move back in or across. The spectators look reasonably safe where they are, it's not like rally where you're often feet away from tons of metal doing 60/70mph, this just looks like pure bad luck.

posted by nicholassmith [55 posts]
8th April 2014 - 11:04

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Spectators should not have been there on the traffic island in the first place...end of story. Johan not at fault.

posted by Roberj4 [184 posts]
8th April 2014 - 11:34

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The article comment that the victim of the collision should be found liable takes the p*ss. It was a raised kerb traffic island in a hatched marked road immediately after a roundabout.

It was a vulnerable spot for cycling savvy spectators in light of the common rider practise of bunny hoping over, across, hazards which is why organisers/marshals should have foreseen the risk, cordoned it off and warned the riders of the hazard. The fact that they didn't does not in my view justify blaming the victim who would reasonably assume that riders would stick to the road even when racing.

Sudor

posted by Sudor [179 posts]
8th April 2014 - 15:00

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A sorry situation but a well-written article I thought, well done. Interesting to read the Belgian legal perspective. And the varying carefully-reasoned legal opinions in the comments, of course.

posted by vbvb [219 posts]
8th April 2014 - 16:12

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Poor woman, looked a daft place to stand but more worrying was the young child stood on the island

HMCC

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posted by Beefy [107 posts]
8th April 2014 - 17:31

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The question surely is; why was the woman allowed to spectate there, in such a precarious place, with the peloton speeding past inches away?

Surely a case to answer for bad safety practice, on behalf of the organisers?

posted by Karbon Kev [667 posts]
8th April 2014 - 18:10

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I wonder if the spectators standing on the island disguised the fact that there was an island there. Tooling along in a pack that's dividing and you see people in front of you might well, with a moment's inattention be seen as other riders in front of you.

Best wishes for speedy recoveries to both.

posted by Tony [66 posts]
8th April 2014 - 19:40

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@zanth, mrkeith, nicholassmith: The video can be paused to reveal that Van Summeren bunny hopped: he did not crash into the island. It can also be seen that he moved out of the stream of cyclists onto the hash markings many metres earlier.

@ notfastenough: "The riders aren't obliged to travel at a safe speed and give consideration to other road users in the way you would on an open road"; true, but they are obliged to follow the rules of racing, and the rule about remaining on the road, and not hopping across kerbs, has received particular emphasis this season. The rule might be much ignored, but breaking it still greatly damages ones defence against culpability charges if an accident occurs while the road is being broken. Few drivers stick to the 30mph limit on most of our roads, but if it can be established that they were in excess of that speed at the time of an accident, they cannot claim a "no fault" accident.

It is difficult to conclude that this is not a calculated risk on Van Summeren's part that was miscalculated: riders aim for marginal gaps all the time, so what he did is not very different from what many riders do in any race you care to mention.

Racing without risk is impossible: it comes down to risk management without changing the nature of the sport and the spectator experience so much that they are no longer attractive.

When the 2007 TdF passed through Kent, I watched at Tunbridge Wells: for the whole morning, crossing was only possible on controlled crossings about half a mile apart, and there were barriers. This degree of shepherding is not going to be acceptable mid-route in countries more deeply imbued with cycling tradition. But equally, where interest is higher, elbow pressure to get a good viewing point is higher, and organisers must assume that any advantageous point that is not expressly forbidden, or physically obstructed, will be utilised.

Riders surely have hefty insurance cover (even CTC membership carries £10m worth of liability cover), so hopefully this lady's future needs can be met. For such funds to be accessed, presumably culpability must be ascertained. But culpability does not have to lead to sanction, and nothing is to be gained by seeking to sanction Van Summeren here.

The UCI has contributed to this tragic accident everytime it has ignored kerb jumping and footpath use, and everytime it has licensed a race that is insufficiently marshalled: that should be the starting point for investigations that will have real consequences.

posted by Armchair Cyclist [14 posts]
9th April 2014 - 11:01

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