Accidental Death of a Cyclist and Unenforced Laws

9 01 2010

Category: Law, Criminal Law, Cycling

© Danny McL

Maria Fernandez, 24, was crushed to death in June 2009 when a bin lorry which had driven onto the cyclists advance stop box failed to spot her. (click to see report on her inquest)

It’s always bothered me that there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement of the advanced stop lines and, as a result, very little observance of the rule. In my time as a criminal barrister (including for the Crown Prosecution Service) I never once came across anyone being prosecuted.

I recently decided to find out more about it and made a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police – click for copy of the questions I asked.

I got a very friendly phone call from Jon Plant of the Metropolitan Police who told me what I suspected i.e. – they don’t keep any figures. He also tried to tell me that many of the drivers one sees in the advance stop space drove there as the lights change rather than after. Personal experience suggests different.

Just to be clear, drivers who enter into the advanced stop space when the light is red are, legally speaking, driving through a red traffic light – see Highway Code Section 178.

The death of Maria Fernandez brings an opportunity to improve the safety of all cyclists in London. There are a number of options that could increase awareness and maximise publicity:

  1. Prosecution

A private prosecution could be brought against the driver whose lorry killed Maria, solely for failing to stop at the advance stop line. The driver was questioned by police and released without charge. Prosecuting him would be a cost-effective way of getting a great deal of public attention to this issue and bring focus on the police for failing to uphold the law in this area.

2. Awareness

I doubt many people are aware they are breaking the law by driving onto the advance stop area. No-one is made aware by police they are doing anything wrong. So, let drivers know. Write out on laminated sheets what the law is and zip-tie them to lamp-posts by advanced stop boxes for cyclists. There may be a law I’m not aware of against doing this but by using zip-ties there is no damage to the post

3. Enforcement

Small video cameras are now available of high quality for little money. These can be used in two ways:

a) Go to a particular junction and simply observe car after car (and motorcycle) failing to observe the advance stop line. These can be put on a youtube channel with a video for each junction.

b) A more assertive approach would be for a team of cyclists (enough to be safe, not so many as to be intimidating) to use a video camera to record individual vehicles breaking the law and then forward that video evidence with sworn statements to the Metropolitan Police asking them to prosecute. They are very unlikely to. The police can then, very publicly, be asked why they are not. The matter can either be left there or private prosecutions could be brought, or the police’s decision could be judicially reviewed

4. Judicial Review

A more ambitious (and probably less effective) approach would be to judicially review the police’s failure to a) prosecute in relation to breaches of advance stop rules and, b) keep any relevant records.

The advance stop line regulations, and the failure to enforce them, is emblematic of the government’s rush to react to everything with yet another law. If there is a bewildering array of laws they simply cannot be effectively enforced.

A law that is unenforced is worse than not having a law. Once people perceive laws as either ridiculous, arbitrarily enforced, or not enforced at all, it has a corrosive effect on the observation of all laws and of faith in a police service which fails to uphold laws. It undermines the legal system and rule of law essential in a democracy.

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