Ashok Sinha: Why is the law so inconsistent when it deals with cyclists hurt on the road?

London Cycling Campaign chief executive Ashok Sinha ponders the inconsistencies in the law following a number of controversial trial verdicts

Wlodzimierz Umaniec is an artist. He is also now a jailed criminal. Founder of the ‘yellowism’ movement, Umaniec was given a two-year prison sentence for deliberate damage of a Mark Rothko painting at Tate Modern. Unimpressed by the argument that this was an act of artistic expression, Judge Roger Chapple sent Umaniec down with the following reproach: “It is wholly and utterly unacceptable to promote [yellowism] by damaging a work of art which is a gift to the nation.”

Some find Rothko’s ‘colour field’ paintings mesmerising and sensuous. Others are left cold by their unflinching abstraction. Yet almost everyone will surely agree that there is no reasonable excuse for causing Black on Maroon £200,000 worth of damage, requiring 20 months’ of restorative work, as well as precipitating security reviews which will “distance the public from the works of art they come to enjoy”. Tate Modern expressed its satisfaction with Umaniec’s jailing, saying that it was “pleased that the court had recognized the severity of this incident”.

The day after Umaniec was sentenced, two other court verdicts attracted the eye. In the first Kenan Aydogdu walked free from the Old Bailey, cleared of manslaughter. It is not contested that his car, parked on a Holloway Road bus lane, had material added to its windows that reduced their transparency to 17 percent. Aydogdu admitted that he had opened his door “only a little” to check whether it was safe to exit the car. No-one disagrees that Sam Harding, cycling along that same bus lane, struck the open door, subsequently falling into the path of the bus travelling behind him which then crushed him to death.

Speaking movingly and with extraordinary dignity about the trial outcome, Sam’s father Keith said: “The only charge the police could bring against Aydogdu was manslaughter.

Other than that, it was a fixed penalty notice, the equivalent of being caught speaking on your mobile. It is a legal lacuna — a massive gap in the law which doesn’t cater for the criminal behaviour that led to my son’s death.”

Insulting verdicts for cyclists
The second verdict was in the case of TheTimes journalist Mary Bowers, who is still only ‘minimally conscious’, with little hope of recovery, following a collision with a tipper lorry a year ago. Lorry driver Petre Beiu was cleared of ‘dangerous driving’ but fined £2,700 and banned from driving for eight months. The Times reported that jurors had concluded that Beiu had been ‘too engrossed’ in a telephone conversation with a work colleague, on a hands-free mobile kit at the time of the collision. Nonetheless this was only sufficient in their eyes to convict on the lesser charge of ‘careless driving’.

Beiu, with a number of previous tachograph offences, including driving for 20 hours in a single day when the maximum is nine, was clearly remorseful saying: “Maybe I didn’t look properly enough. This is what I will regret for the rest of my life.” Peter Bowers, Mary’s father, described the verdict as an insult.

It’s an easy device to compare the outcomes of one type of trial with another so as to evidence the old canard that the law is an ass. It isn’t. The law is instead an inevitably complex web of prohibitions and punishments arising from centuries of legislation and precedent. That it contains inconsistencies and leads occasionally to perplexing results is probably inevitable, and let us not gainsay jurors who have staggeringly difficult choices to make. My intention is not a howl of tabloid-style outrage.

But the comparison between these cases does disturb, even if the machinery of justice as currently constituted operated quite properly in delivering such contrasting results.

It is quite right that the law should be firm in deterring those who do serious damage to valuable cultural items. Yet should it also not act as a strong deterrent to even a moment’s irresponsibility, whether intended or not, when the consequence could readily be the death or serious injury of others? Although surprised, I am prepared to accept that Umaniec’s incarceration is proportionate to his crime. But it strikes me that the increasing number of children, women and men who are choosing to cycle — and who are rightly being encouraged to do so — deserve better protection under the law.

Without question we need far better physical facilitation of cycling. But the law must also be changed to fully recognise that the privilege of using a motor vehicle — and therefore inherently presenting potentially lethal danger to others — is granted on the basis that the sanctions against irresponsible behaviour are of a severity that reflects the human tragedies that can result.

He may not know it yet, but Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has an urgent job to do to make our roads safer for cycling.

This article first appeared in the Feb-Mar 2013 issue of London Cyclist magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months