The family of Karl Austin, an experienced and safety-conscious cyclist killed when he was hit by a lorry, have described how their hopes for a stiff sentence to "send out a signal to other road users that more care is needed" have been dashed.
The father-of-two was taking part in a club time trial on the A50 in Derbyshire in June last year when he was hit from behind by a 26-tonne truck driven by Michael Bray. Bray admitted causing death by careless driving and was yesterday sentenced to 24 weeks in prison, suspended for two years, at Derby Crown Court.
He was also given an 18-month supervision order, a four-month tagged curfew between the hours of 6pm and 5am, and a two-year driving ban. He'll have to pass a re-test to have his licence restored.
In a letter to BikeRadar, Karl’s father, Keith, said: "It was an evening of bright sunshine and Karl, being a very safety-conscious cyclist, was riding with a very bright pulsating red rear light, an Exposure Flare. He was very experienced and during a racing career lasting 35 years had covered over 60,000 miles in time trials alone, plus well over 200,000 more in training, leisure and utility miles without an 'accident'.
"According to the police, Bray had a distance of about 1,180m – or 45 seconds – to have seen Karl on the wide and relatively straight A50 dual carriageway, yet failed to. He struck him without either swerving or braking and was speeding, doing 56mph along a road where for lorries the speed limit is 50mph. Part of his defence was that the sun was bright and posing a problem to him; he had lowered his sun visor and was 'thinking of pulling in and putting on his sun glasses'. Yet a police questionnaire sent to 300 drivers using that road on that evening found that most had no real problem with the sun."
Mr Austin said he was surprised by the sentence handed down by Circuit Judge Michael Fowler . "During the hearing the judge appeared not to accept much of the defence’s arguments," he said. "However, in his summing up he took a much more lenient line and seemed to be swayed by the defence plea that Bray was 'elderly' – at 62? I'm 72 and don’t think of myself that way – and in poor health. It seemed to have escaped the judge’s notice that Bray was considered young enough and fit enough to have been driving a 26 tonne lorry when he struck and killed Karl.
"Naturally enough, we – including my wife Joyce, Karl’s widow Linda and their two children, Simon and Katy – are quite appalled that the sentence is so lenient, although we've been quite prepared for something similar all along, such is the ludicrous state of ‘British justice’ when it comes to dealing with road deaths."
The case highlights what national cyclists' organisation CTC see as the ease with which motoring offenders' excuses are readily accepted by the courts and juries. They launched their SMIDSY campaign (‘Sorry mate I didn’t see you’) in 2009 to combat what they see as a growing problem.
To quote from the SMIDSY website: "Looking but failing to see a cyclist at a junction or overtaking a cyclist too closely is inherently dangerous and should be recognised as such by the legal system, whether it was intentional or not and however serious the consequences are. It is, however, common for drivers to be convicted of careless driving where it would appear, at least from the published description, that most people would describe the standard of driving as 'dangerous'."
CTC are urging cyclists involved in traffic incidents to report them via the SMIDSY website so they can form a picture and help cyclists involved in the most serious cases. The aim is to gather evidence and compile it into a document outlining the scale of the problem. This will be made public and also put before government ministers.
The offence of causing death by careless driving was introduced in 2008, and critics say it has led to a reduction in the number of motorists being convicted of the more serious offence of causing death by dangerous driving in cases involving cyclists.
CTC policy co-ordinator Chris Peck told BikeRadar: "We've been tracking a lot of these cases for the past few years and we've noticed that the increase in charges of causing death by careless driving has occurred at the same time as a substantial reduction in cases of causing death by dangerous driving, which suggests there's been a move to less severe sentences.
"Indeed, over several decades it seems to have become harder and harder to secure convictions against drivers because in court; the defence makes them out to be otherwise law-abiding, ordinary citizens and they can be empathised with. The proportion of drivers who are found guilty of a serious motoring offence and who receive a custodial sentence has collapsed in the past couple of years purely as a result of this new offence of causing death by careless driving."
CTC opposed the guidance which the CPS issued on how to decide which charge to bring (death by careless driving or death by dangerous driving). Their application for judicial review of this guidance was unsuccessful.