Two coroners in cyclist death cases this week urge highways authorities to review road layouts
Incidents in Leeds and Kettering lead to accidental death verdicts as coroners seek to prevent similar tragedies
Two coroners – one in West Yorkshire, the other in Northamptonshire – who presided over separate cases this week involving the deaths of cyclists have called on highway authorities to amend road layouts that they believe were a factor in those riders losing their lives.
The first case related to 40-year-old nurse Sarah Burwell, killed in Kettering in August last year when she apparently lost control of her ‘motorised bicycle’ – presumably an electric bike – as she rode along a footpath along Rothwell Road, causing her to fall into the path of a passing car.
The court heard that at the point where Miss Burwell came off her bike, where Rothwell Road passes underneath a railway bridge, the footpath was just 97 centimetres wide, reports the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph.
The second, in Leeds, concerned the death last October of 28-year-old mature student Paul Papworth on Elland Road. No other vehicle was involved in that incident, which happened when Mr Papworth clipped a kerb while riding his new Carrera Banshee full suspension mountain bike.
The Yorkshire Evening Post states that after coming off his bike, Mr Papworth struck his head against a bollard positioned to prevent vehicles from cutting through a nearby estate, and died of head injuries.
In each case, the coroner concerned recorded a verdict of accidental death, but both said that they would be writing to the relevant highway authorities to ask them to take measures to prevent the possibility of similar incidents in the future, as they may do under Rule 42 of the Coroners Rules 1984, which states:
“A coroner who believes that action should be taken to prevent the recurrence of fatalities similar to that in respect of which the inquest is being held may announce at the inquest that he is reporting the matter in writing to the person or authority who may have power to take such action and he may report the matter accordingly.”
At the inquest into Miss Burwell’s death, her sister Helen Plowman described how the pair had been riding in single file underneath the railway bridge on Rothwell Road when the fatal incident occurred.
The location, just yards from the Kettering General Hospital where Miss Burwell worked, is not marked as a shared use path on Kettering Borough Council’s cycling map, which does however highlight a “significant” downhill gradient. Google Street View suggests the road itself narrows as it passes under the bridge.
“I saw her cycle begin to wobble and her front wheel went off the footpath and into the road,” Mrs Plowman explained.
“I saw her try to stop it but the back wheel came off the path and she went tumbling into the road.”
Mrs Plowman said that her sister’s fall took her into the path of a Ford Fiesta, and that while driver Kayleigh Gee managed to swerve a little, she could not avoid hitting Miss Burwell, who died as a result of the fractured spine and broken ribs she sustained in the incident.
“I would like to say the car driver was not at fault for this tragic collision,” she added. “It happened because there was nothing to stop Sarah’s wheels dropping off the footpath and on to the road and the footpath is so narrow.”
Miss Burwell’s partner, Neal Campbell, called for railings to be introduced at the site where she died, highlighting another footpath underneath a nearby railway bridge that does have them.
“I observed the other day a little one in front of an adult on a bicycle go under the bridge and he was riding a bit wobbly,” he explained. “I would hate for any other accident to occur.”
While railings may have prevented Miss Burwell’s death, the problem is that they could also create a danger for cyclists riding on the road, a particular hazard at junctions where lorries may turn left – indeed, a roundabout a little further along the road from where she died is equipped with the type of railings that some local authorities have removed.
Kettering coroner Anne Pember, recording a verdict of accidental death, said that she would be asking the highway authority what action could be taken to make the footpath safer, explaining that “If another life could be saved then any action taken would be worthwhile.”
Meanwhile, at Wakefield Coroner’s Court, assistant deputy coroner Mary Burke, also recording a verdict of accidental death in the case of Mr Papworth, commented: “Issues have been raised as to the position of the bollard. I intend to write to the highways authority... and invite them to review the layout. I cannot stipulate what steps should be taken. But if facts come to light that can prevent incidents like this happening then I am happy to do it.”
During the inquest, the court had heard that a variety of factors may have contributed to Mr Papworth's death.
It was revealed that he had a “significant” amount of cannabis in his bloodstream, which according to a toxicologist was “likely to have had a significant and detrimental effect on Paul’s motor and cognitive functions.”
The inquest was also told that he had recently seen his GP about pains in his upper arms and thigh which may also have been a factor in the incident, and that while he his bike, which he had acquired the previous day, had no defects, the responsiveness of the brakes may have caused him to make a misjudgment.
It was revealed that cyclists were in the habit of cutting across the footpath where he died to avoid having to use a busy roundabout nearby, and his mother and stepfather, who said that Mr Papworth had been riding since he was six years of age, was a ““competent and safe road user.”
They added, however, that the bollards that he struck were “useless in doing the job they were intended for.”