Eighteen months ago, Christian and Niggy Townend were out cycling when they were run over from behind by a coach and killed. Last Thursday their family suffered a further shock and devastation when a jury acquitted the driver of causing their deaths.
Failure to hold drivers to account is a problem at the core of our transport and justice system.
At RoadPeace we see this again and again. Like after the death of talented art curator Daniel Cox who was killed whilst cycling by an HGV, when the police decided no charge was justified despite the lorry missing a mirror and encroaching upon the advanced stop line box by several feet (both admitted by the driver).
And like the case of Karl Austin, an acclaimed long distance cyclist, where the police had to appeal to the CPS before they agreed to prosecute the lorry driver, and then the family had to campaign to get the sentencing heard at the Crown Court.
This time though (although we don’t have all the facts of the case) it appears it was neither a failure of investigation or lack of prosecution that failed the Townend family. In the deaths of Christian and Niggy, the CPS charged Robert Wightman with Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, a decision which the judge tellingly supported at the end of the trial.
During the trial, Wightman, a professional coach driver, said that he had not seen the two cyclists whilst other drivers testified seeing them cycle in single file. Wightman had left his prescription sunglasses at home and had then failed to stop and clean his windscreen after the windshield wipers froze in the below freezing weather. He testified at the trial that he was only able to see some 20-30 metres ahead of him and agreed, as his speed at the time of the crash was 48mph, that he would not have been able to stop in that distance even if he had seen them.
And yet the jury decided this did not qualify as dangerous driving. Nor did they even consider the lesser charge of careless driving (they had been instructed by the judge that they could have returned an alternative verdict of Causing Death by Careless Driving).
So a driver, even a professional coach driver, does not need to ensure that he can see out of his windscreen where he is going or drive at a speed at which he can stop? He can run over and can kill two young men and a jury of his peers then acquits him? What is it about our society that makes it so hard to hold drivers accountable? Why is it that the jury found it easier to relate to the driver, than with the two young men he killed?
“Cyclists Beware! There is no Justice” were the words thatCynthia Barlow (now RoadPeace Chair) posted on 7 June 2001, on the first anniversary of her daughter Alex’s death, at the site where she was killed. Alex was crushed by a left turning lorry as she cycled to work. Magistrates had acquitted the lorry driver of Careless Driving on account of a blindspot, despite the police testifying that this did not affect his ability to see Alex.
Cynthia’s words have applied to many others in the eleven years since, and now also apply to the killings of Christian and Niggy.