St Leonards, East Sussex. Collision with orange Ford Focus on the A259. Four arrested on suspicion of various offences including causing death by dangerous driving.
Collision with car driven by Sophie Whitmarsh, on the A334 at Curdridge, Hampshire. Logan approached a junction where a side road joins, from which Whitmarsh proceeded across the give way line. This left Logan unable to avoid a collision and sending him across the car, injuring him fatally.
Whitmarsh was charged with causing death by careless driving and pleaded not guilty. The trial, at Southampton Crown Court, began on 20 April 2015 and Whitmarsh was found guilty on 24 April. Notably, the judge notably aired comments from the jury regarding the nature of the junction and the rate of recorded incidents at the location.
On May 12 2015, Whitmarsh was sentenced to a 12 month community order with six months supervision, a 100 hour unpaid work order and an 18 month driving ban, and was ordered to pay £1,000 in costs.
This case illustrates a few points. Firstly, the contributory factors of a high-risk location and substandard driving are not mutually exclusive (as queried by the first comment on the report of the verdict): it is quite unreasonable to expect all junctions to be optimal—indeed it is unreasonable to expect any to be perfect—and it should be reasonable to expect drivers to deal safely with sub-optimal junctions.
Secondly, we see again the phrase “a momentary lapse of concentration” (common in no small part due to its explicit mention in the sentencing guidelines), which is in most cases—and I intend no specific implication in this case—a euphemism for “a momentary lack of luck when doing something habitually unsafe”. This is often attributable to the third point…
Thirdly, the scenario described in reports of the event is one which can often be caused by lack of awareness of saccadic masking and other visual-cognitive issues. It is my firm belief that any education for road users, particularly users of fast and/or heavy (ie almost all motorised) vehicles, should place significant emphasis on making students aware of natural shortcomings, and teaching and enforcing techniques which address them. In other words: looking more than once, moving one’s head, and so on.
Other than where drivers are wilfully distracted by phones or other means, the incidence of “Smidsy” collisions can only really be reduced by the habituation of such techniques. Note, particularly, that Whitmarsh said “I looked absolutely everywhere I could. I couldn’t have done more.” It’s easy to wonder whether “looking everywhere” did indeed involve looking everywhere from multiple head positions, or whether it was just glancing in each direction once. If one isn’t aware of the cognitive shortcomings that we all share, then of course there is no reason to suppose that one “could have done more”. In other words, if you think looking in any given direction means you see everything in that direction—whether or not your retina receives the necessary photons—then you’re inevitably going to think that’s all that’s required. It’s not, and people need to be not just informed of this but habituated to address it.
In short: The system allows well-meaning people to believe that a certain degree of diligence is safe when in actual fact it is not. Whilst there is culpability in carelessness of this nature, the only useful way of addressing it is to address the system, because—as described in the article linked above—our individual brains are wired to misrepresent our perception of a scene.
As a final note, although this appears not to have been a factor in this incident, this highlights the need for cyclists—in the absence of good-quality infrastructure—to have the full width of the lane available when approaching and passing a junction. The intrusion of a vehicle from a side road, even at low speed, can have fatal consequences if it is not possible to swerve to avoid it. It is best for a cyclist to move towards the centre line on approach, but this option can easily be made unavailable if drivers behind are passing, or are close enough—or approaching rapidly enough—to suggest that a pass is imminent. It is important to note that a junction of any kind is a potentially hugely dangerous place to pass a cyclist even if the road ahead is entirely clear.
Brown was struck from behind by Michael Rollason on Warrington Road, Bold Heath at around 0635 on 18 February 2014. It was dark at the time but the road was well lit, and Brown was equipped with a flashing red red light and a high-visibility jacket. Brown sustained multiple injuries from which he died in hospital later that day. His bike was split in two by the force of the impact and was found on the top of a hedge.
Rollason fled the scene and parked his car with the damage obscured from view. When arrested on 18 February he claimed that he thought he had struck a wheelie bin which had been blown into the road, as he did when speaking to his insurance company the day before, when he also apparently claimed that the collision had occurred on 17 February.
It was noted that Rollason had a previous criminal record, including drink driving and other motoring and theft offences.
One aspect of this case is particularly notable, and that is the prosecution’s pursuit of the dangerous driving charge (Rollason pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving at the start of the trial) and—more interestingly—the jury’s guilty verdict for it. This is notable because, from reports, it seems that there was relatively little evidence that explained exactly how the collision occurred: Rollason “chose not to give evidence in his defence and has offered no explanation as to what actually happened, leaving Mr Brown’s family without answers.” This prompts comparison with numerous other cases, notably R v Sinden (2015) where forensic evidence indicated a similar nature of collision, with likely exacerbating factors, in which a not guilty verdict was returned.
From Rollason’s sentence it would appear that the judge considered the offence to be level 2 with aggravating factors (previous offences, failing to stop, and perhaps also consideration of the attempts to cover up the incident).
Given the success of the more severe charge in this case, it is perhaps worth digging further to see whether specific aspects of forensic evidence led the court to determine that this was a level 2 dangerous driving offence, or whether this was largely governed by circumstantial and character evidence.