Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gary Mason's 'Accidental' Death

On last week's Top Gear, the presenters went out around the test track to prove that you can do other things while driving. Clarkson attempted to drive while sewing a button onto his shirt, and May attempted to drive while in a sleeping bag. All very jocular, tongue-in-cheek stuff, and not intended to be taken seriously.

And it is true to say that the mechanical act of controlling a car - accelerating, braking, steering - is a simple one. However, on a test track, there are few hazards. There is no oncoming traffic, no side-roads, no pedestrians, no cyclists - in fact nothing unpredictable. Even in a race, where you clearly couldn't sew on a button, other drivers' line and speed are for the most part entirely predictable.

Driving safely on the public highway is a very different proposition, because it requires you to read the road ahead and behind, anticipate possible hazards. Pinch-points requiring traffic to merge. Traffic lights that may change. Junctions where traffic may emerge. Cars in front that may change course or speed. Cars behind that may attempt to overtake. Pedestrians that may step into the road. Blind corners. Bad weather. Poor lighting conditions. There's also the need to expect the unexpected: to anticipate in order to avoid collisions caused by other drivers doing stupid or illegal things. Clearly, to do all this, you would struggle to sew on a button whilst keeping the required level of awareness.

Unfortunately, many drivers behave as if they're on a test track rather than a public highway. They behave as if everything on the road is predictable. If it's a road they know, they assume it's exactly the same as last time they drove along it. Because of this, they leave little margin for error. They think that because it is physically possible to drive in excess of the speed limit, then it is OK to do so.

If you believe that when you're in charge of a potentially dangerous machine, you have a duty to do everything in your power to ensure that your machine doesn't cause death or injury, this kind of behaviour is grossly irresponsible. But the law doesn't think so. In law, if a pedestrian steps into the road and is hit by the car, it's the pedestrian's fault for stepping into the road, rather than the driver's fault for failing to anticipate and avoid the collision. In law, you have to prove that the driver was doing something illegal that caused the collision. And that is often very difficult to do.

Take the case of boxer Gary Mason, who was killed last January whilst cycling. At the inquest, collision investigators estimated the driver had been driving at between 25mph and 48mph at the time of the crash, and he had been going at between 36mph and 41mph in the lead-up to the collision. He failed a police sight test on the day of the crash. The light on his speedometer wasn't working.

The junction in Wallington where Gary was killed is a dangerous junction because of people like this driver. They turn from Woodcote Road into Sandy Lane South, and because the junction is at a gentle angle, if there is nothing in Sandy Lane South it's possible to cut the corner and make the turn without slowing down. On a test track, that would be the 'racing line' and the correct thing to do - after all, you're in a race and supposed to be going as fast as you can. Because this is a public road, you're not supposed to do this: there could be pedestrians crossing the road, or cyclists in the road, and at 40 MPH say, you would have little chance of avoiding them if you saw them. And at 6AM on a drizzly, dark morning such as when Gary was killed, you might not see them.  Especially if your sight was defective. The road markings at the junction encourage drivers to make a proper right turn and slow down, and there are hazard lines that you're not supposed to cross. The driver in this case said he would cut across the road markings “eight times out of 10”.

Gary's family, in a repeat of many similar instances of motorists killing with impunity, is not satisfied with the verdict of accidental death. His sister Paulette Stewart said “Gary was a wonderful man and father, well loved by all and was taken from us through the reckless driving of Mr Zanelli...Gary’s death...was clearly avoidable.” The family are preparing a civil action against the driver.

What will happen next? Usually at junctions where there's been a fatality, councils act. They'll perhaps put in traffic islands to make it physically impossible to cut the corner, and slow traffic down. Possibly they'll put in high-viz bollards to stop motorists crashing into the new islands. Maybe they'll uprate the speed cushions along Sandy Lane South. All this will cost money. But there will still be thousands of similar junctions where motorists behave dangerously because they aren't physically prevented from doing so, and there is no enforcement against them doing so. There's two quite close to where I live in fact, at which I've witnessed a couple of near misses.


  1. How can it be accidental if the driver admitted cutting the corner (i.e. driving dangerously), apparently at speed, and with poor eyesight? If the driver had been operating any other machinery than a motor vehicle (a train say, or a chainsaw) he would be charged with manslaughter.

    Maybe I misunderstand the legal meaning of "accidental", my layman's understanding of it is "shit happens". Fine, but when you're behaving recklessly, you're inviting it, and that's not an accident anymore...

    Assuming this is the van driver's view while making the right turn, it would be physically impossible to follow the route indicated by the white paint.
    The centre lane tapers to about 4 or 5 feet wide, and you have to make a 90-degree turn in the width of the oncoming lane. (like you would a 3-point turn in one lane)
    Looks like it was designed by a cycle-lane designer !