Inquest on the death of a Cambridge cyclist

The inquest into the death of sixteen-year-old cyclist Elizabeth McDermott, a student at Long Road Sixth Form College, was held at the Coroner’s Court in Huntingdon on 15 May. I went to the hearing with committee colleague James Woodburn on behalf of the Campaign. We felt it was our duty to find out what had happened, report back and comment on the process. Cycling in Cambridge is usually very safe and we wanted to try to understand this rare occurrence. Prior to the hearing our only knowledge was the limited detail available in press reports of the incident.

Beth was riding her mother’s bike – a Batavus with a large wicker basket. It had dynamo lights and the police concluded that they were, on balance, probably working.

The crash happened just before 7pm on 12 December 2013 near the junction of Milton Road with Birch Close. It was damp, having rained earlier in the day, but was not raining at the time. It was dark but there was street lighting. The driver of an Audi heading northbound on Milton Road saw a cyclist wearing a light-coloured bobble hat. She was on the verge / driveway area that is between the road and the pavement cycleway. She was visible to the driver side-on, and was standing on both pedals. The driver was 30-40 yards from her when she moved to cross the road. The driver had to brake to slow down.

She had crossed the path of the Audi and into the other carriageway when she was struck by the front offside of a southbound Peugeot 307. Testimony from the collision investigation officer described how samples taken from the front bumper and the fractured offside wing were compatible with the fabrics Beth was wearing, that the dimpled bonnet and broken windscreen were consistent with a collision with her body and that damage to the number plate and broken headlight units were consistent with hitting her bicycle.

The impact threw Beth back towards the Audi, striking the top offside part of its windscreen. She came to rest on the road in front of the Audi in the northbound lane. The bicycle ended up back on the same footway area from where she had started, a little farther down the road.

In addition to the investigating officer’s report, evidence was heard from three drivers. First, the driver of the southbound Peugeot said that he had not seen the cyclist and that he’d only become aware of an object after his vehicle had struck it. A short statement from his female passenger was read out saying that she was not aware of any obstacle until the incident occurred, but that as a passenger she was not focused on the road.

The Audi driver said he’d already slowed down when he first saw the cyclist move into the road, and so was able to stop quickly after the impact. His wife got out of the car and called the emergency services.

The third driver to testify was in another car behind the Audi. She said she’d also seen the cyclist move into the road in front of the Audi ahead of her.

The purpose of an inquest is to determine the identity of the person who has died and when, where and how the death happened. Given this, the Coroner was able to conclude that Beth died as the result of a collision with motor vehicles and that was recorded as his verdict.

An inquest does not determine criminal or civil liability, but it is the first time that details of an incident are recorded publicly. Hearing the oral testimony and listening to the Coroner’s own analysis, it is natural to try and piece together a picture of what happened and raise questions that seem unanswered. Beth’s father did ask the driver of the southbound vehicle why he had not seen the cyclist. One suggestion offered was that she was hidden by the offside windscreen pillar. The driver could not help further with that.

Recent changes in legislation now mean that inquests must take place within six months of the event. The investigating team must decide within about two months whether a file should be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. That decision is based on evidence they have collected and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Given the testimonies we heard there was no prospect of a prosecution in this case.

The hearing was a public event and we are able to report on anything presented there. However, the full police report was not available to us and is difficult to obtain. We were advised that only parts of it might be available and that they could cost several hundreds of pounds. The family had only received their copy two days before the inquest. We also felt that in order to make the proceedings more open to the public there should have been a screen on which the maps and photographs referred to could have been projected.

As an organisation having no direct connection with the case we are forced to place our trust in the investigating team. The process of deciding whether to prosecute does rely heavily on them and does not appear to be open to public scrutiny. We have to assume they have done a thorough job of collecting the evidence, asking the right questions and reaching balanced, independent conclusions. Although we had several questions about matters which we felt were not as fully explored as they could have been, we were not invited to speak in spite of indicating our wish to do so. But we had told the Coroner’s Officer before the proceedings that we were there as observers and had at that point given no indication that we might wish to speak. If we had seen the report in advance we would no doubt have been in a better position to frame possible pertinent questions. After the inquest we had an informal discussion with the police representatives and it became clear that they had collected more evidence than was revealed at the inquest.

As is usual at an inquest, the procedure stressed the importance of the event and the gravity of the decisions that the Coroner has to make. Everyone stood up as he entered the room and at the end when he left. The atmosphere was formal and all the witnesses swore on a religious book before testifying. We thought the Coroner’s conduct of the proceedings was efficient and appropriately sensitive to the feelings of all involved.

The end of the inquest marks the end of the police investigation and the case is closed unless new evidence emerges, which in the present case is very unlikely. Two questions remain unanswered, one forever: why Beth chose to cross the road at the time she did and why the driver of the southbound vehicle did not see her.

Simon Nuttall