548 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the supposed safe haven of pavements or verges in the last 13 years, with the oldest and youngest in society disproportionately at risk, a new analysis of collision data can reveal.
Between 2005 and 2018, 8.6% of the 5,835 pedestrian deaths in England, Scotland and Wales occurred on pavements, the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, a new academic think tank, has found. The majority (542) involved motor vehicles, with six pedestrian-cycle footway collisions.
The research uncovered examples of some of the most dangerous driving on Britain’s roads over the past 15 years, as well as momentary lapses by drivers, both with tragic consequences.
Analysis of historic STATS19 data, a road traffic collision form used by police to log crashes, found most fatal collisions on pavements took place in fine weather, on well-lit streets, with no hazards on the road. Most were clustered in built-up areas on urban roads, some on rural roads, with people walking on verges.
In 2017 Richard Frost embarked on an 18-hour drug-taking binge before a prolonged bout of dangerous driving in Cambridgeshire, travelling at up to 117mph, using laybys and hard shoulders to undertake, as well as overtaking into oncoming traffic. Mr Frost hit 19-year-old Thomas Fletcher and Thomas Northam, 22, from behind on a verge on the opposite side of the road, killing them both. Mr Frost drove another 50m along the verge, before abandoning the car in a field and fleeing with £72,000 of stolen money in a briefcase. Police found him that night asleep at his mother’s home. Although police described it as the worst driving they have seen, or will probably ever see, Mr Frost will likely drive again, receiving a ban of just 11 years and 7 months, as well as a prison sentence of 12 years and one month1.
In Birmingham a nurse, Gaynor Thomas, fell asleep at the wheel for a moment, ploughing into father of eight, Dahir Yasin Mohammed, at 38mph, crushing him between his parked car and a tree outside the family home, killing him instantly. His wife and some of his children found him, and tried to resuscitate him. Childhood sweethearts, he and his wife had moved from Somalia to the UK in the hope of a better life. Thomas was banned from driving for three years2.
The oldest and youngest in society are disproportionately affected by drivers on pavements, with 28.1% of pedestrian deaths of under-fives occurring on pavements. Five-year-old Lennon Tolland was killed in 2016 by a van driver who mounted the pavement near his school in Glasgow to access an ‘unofficial’ entrance to a makeshift car park. The boy, who had run ahead of his father, died at the scene. The family say they lost all faith in the criminal justice system after the Crown Counsel in Scotland concluded, two years later, there should be no criminal proceedings3.
A van driver ushered four-year-old Esme Weir and her pregnant mum across the road in Liverpool in 2016, before mounting the pavement to park, killing Esme. The driver said he didn’t see Esme, and was cleared of any wrongdoing4.
The highest number of pedestrian fatalities, 104, was among those over age 75. Young people were next highest, with 77 16-25 year-olds killed on pavements. The age groups 46-55 and 56-65 saw 150 pavement fatalities.
Donald Sharpe was 89 when 24-year-old Sian Phelps reversed her Land Rover Discovery Sport out of her drive across the pavement, hitting and then reversing over him, only stopping when she drove forward 10 metres and saw other motorists gesticulating at her and sounding a horn. She had checked her mirrors and looked both ways but didn’t see Sharpe, she says. Mr Sharpe, a well-loved man known for helping others, died six days later in hospital. Sian Phelps was cleared by a jury of causing death by dangerous driving5.
Young drivers aged under 35 were overrepresented in collisions. Males are far more likely to be killed as pedestrians on our roads than females – in 15 years 3,902 male pedestrians were killed, compared with 1,943 females – however pavement fatalities were split evenly between genders, with 273 males and 275 females killed in 15 years.
The research found road and weather conditions were unlikely to be a factor in most collisions. Almost three quarters (395) of fatal crashes where drivers hit pedestrians on pavements occurred in daylight, a further 128 in darkness but on lit streets. Most were on dry roads (391), and on fine days with no winds (479). Three quarters were in 30mph zones.
71% (391) of collisions involved just one vehicle but 97 involved two vehicles, some of them parked cars. 283 collisions resulted in one pedestrian death, but a quarter of collisions killed two people.
One crash caused 21 pedestrian casualties, including the death of one 16-year-old girl, when a young man, Ben Gemmell, was driving at 47mph in a 30mph zone in Southend on Sea, and swerved at a group of 30 school children he recognised, to frighten them. He lost control of the vehicle and ploughed into the group. One boy was in a coma for five months and had to learn to walk again6. Friends of 16-year-old Lisa Jermy, who died that day, produced a video trying to encourage safer driving7. Gemmell was jailed for six years for causing death by dangerous driving, and banned from driving for ten years.
None of the examples examined so far has resulted in a lifetime driving ban, and the research arguably raises questions around driving bans. In a report released last year RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, found driving bans have dropped by 54% since 2008, with 70% of bans for drink or drug driving. Just five lifetime driving bans were given in 2018.
Victoria Lebrec, Campaign Coordinator for RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, said: “It’s hard to comprehend how a driver who kills someone who is walking on the pavement does not receive a lifetime ban. However the reality is that if a driver is convicted of death by dangerous driving, this rarely happens.
“In fact the mandatory driving ban for dangerous driving is only two years. RoadPeace believes that driving bans are a punishment that truly fit the crime. Families who are bereaved cannot understand how the person who killed their loved one is allowed back on the road in such a short time.”
Dr. Rachel Aldred, Director of the Active Travel Academy, said: “We want more people to walk: walking is healthy, it gives life to our towns and cities, and helps keep other people safe. Project Pedestrian highlights the need to do more to protect people on foot. Pavements are meant to be safe space for walking, yet one person is killed by a driver on average every week while on a footway or verge.”
Tanya Braun, Head of Policy and Communications, Living Streets said: “The number of pedestrians who lose their lives on our roads each year is too often over-looked even though we all use our streets; we are all pedestrians at some point.
“We need to see many more measures which protect pedestrians, particularly the most vulnerable groups, like children and older adults, where we have seen increases in pedestrian fatalities in recent years. Lower speed limits in urban areas, more time to cross at light-controlled crossings, better street maintenance and constraints on pavement parking will keep people walking safe. Last year we won a revision of the Highway Code to make our roads safer for people walking and cycling. These changes can’t come soon enough.
“However, that isn’t the whole story. The current justice system is simply not an effective deterrent to dangerous behaviour. We need an urgent review of how the justice system deals with mistakes, carelessness, reck-lessness and deliberately dangerous behaviour by all road users.”
The research was carried out as part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long collaboration started in January 2020, between the Active Travel Academy and journalist Laura Laker, investigating pedestrian safety on the roads. Throughout the year research and analysis will reveal where and why pedestrians are at risk, and what some of the solutions are. The aim of the project is not to scare people off walking but to raise awareness and seek a way to safer roads.