A Metaphorical Slap on the Wrist

This article was published in 1997, in Newsletter 12.

The following is adapted from a letter sent to the Evening News in April. Following on from Slim’s article last time on the principle of justice (or lack of it) in road casualties, we can see the system in operation in our own city. This is in the same week that a trial of a London bus driver accused of running down and killing a cyclist was halted because of conflicting evidence.

It is not really possible to know all the circumstances behind a court hearing from a newspaper article. However, three things are clear from the report in the Cambridge Evening News of April 2 on the case of the lorry driver who killed Miss Naoka Okada, who was cycling on Cherry Hinton Road:

  • the collision was attributed to a ‘momentary lapse of concentration’
  • the driver was convicted of careless driving, and
  • the result was a nominal fine.

The law does not take the consequences of a collision into account in its sentence. This results in the absurdly low value placed on a human life, here and in a long line of other cases.

In other walks of life, we wouldn’t be talking about ‘a momentary lapse of concentration’, but ‘negligence’. Consider what would happen to a doctor whose inattention led to the severing a patient’s artery, or to a company whose failure to provide safety glasses led to someone losing their sight.

The very word ‘accident’ used in the report, and enshrined in the coroner’s verdict, leads to an offhand way of thinking about road casualties. It goes along with a shrug of the shoulders and a feeling that ‘these things happen’. We need to change our vocabulary.

In some countries, if a driver hits a child with a vehicle, he or she is automatically considered to be at fault, whatever the circumstances. In the USA, speed limits are reduced outside schools and it is an offence to pass a school bus loading or unloading. In Denmark, it is a matter of habit among drivers, backed up by the law, to pause before turning right to allow for cyclists going straight on to pass on their inside.

These are examples of a different attitude to road use. Here we react with a metaphorical slap on the wrist.

Dave Earl

RoadPeace , the organisation campaigning for justice for the victims of road deaths and injury, has a briefing sheet on inquests and their procedure. We sincerely hope you are never in a position of having to ask for it, but it is worth knowing that these resources exist. Copies are available from the Campaign’s stall.