We don’t think there’s a cyclist in the country who hasn’t been appalled by the sentence handed down today to the driver who knocked Mrs Fyfe off her bike – just community service plus a five year driving ban. Whatever the legal questions behind the sentence itself, the fact that a driver can, through carelessness, kill two people in separate incidents and not permanently lose their driving licence tells us something about the priorities we have in Scotland today. A ‘momentary lack of attention’ on the part of someone at the wheel of a dangerous piece of machinery meant that a mother, grandmother, wife and friend was taken from her family.
We hope that the sentence will be reviewed – and that this puts more impetus behind Road Share’s campaign for strict liability which might go some way to making sure that some justice, if only in the civil courts, will be done for vulnerable road users even if they aren’t around to put their side of the story. But more importantly we feel that this makes it more urgent than ever that steps are put in place to make the roads safer. Better road design, slower speeds, more cycle paths, and better driver education – all points in our manifesto – would mean that, even if as a nation we’re not prepared to take drivers who kill not once but twice off the roads, then at least cyclists will be able to find more space where they are out of harm’s way.
Pedal on Parliament this year, like last, will start with a minute’s silence in remembrance of everyone killed and injured on our roads, including Mrs Fyfe, and Andrew McNicoll, also killed in Edinburgh last year. Our sympathies will be with their families and the families of everyone affected by dangerous driving. And we urge you all to join us in calling to make cycling safer for everyone in Scotland, young and old.
We have joined with the family of Mrs Fyfe in lodging our objection to the sentencing and the sheriff’s remarks with the Procurator Fiscal’s office. Our submission is as follows:
Pedal on Parliament would like to record its objections to the sentence (particularly the length of the driving ban) and the sentencing remarks made in this case.
On the matter of the driving ban, we note that the first time Mr McCourt was convicted of causing the death of a young man in 1986, he received a ten-year ban and it seems indefensible that he should be given a shorter ban for a second offence. Our position is that once any driver has been convicted twice of causing death through their driving, the presumption should be that they be removed from the roads permanently. We would make the analogy here with firearms licences: were someone to negligently discharge a shotgun and kill someone even once, let alone twice, it is unlikely that they would ever be allowed to own a firearm again. Cars are just as lethal in the wrong hands as guns. We therefore support Mrs Fyfe’s family’s call for Mr McCourt to be banned for life.
While we accept that Mr McCourt may genuinely feel remorseful and traumatised by the event, it’s clear that his standard of driving is not high enough to permit him to be in charge of what is essentially a piece of dangerous machinery in a complex environment like a city street. He must have felt similar remorse after he caused the first death, yet this did not make him more careful in 2011. Similarly, he must have sat his driving test since then (since he was driving without a licence in the earlier case) and yet this has clearly not made him a better driver able to cope with even an experienced cyclist like Mrs Fyfe. With cyclist numbers rising in Edinburgh year on year, when he regains his licence in 2018 he will be encountering large numbers of cyclists daily. We don’t believe that this is an acceptable risk for society to allow him to take.
We would also like to object to Sherriff Scott’s remarks during sentencing to the effect that Mrs Fyfe’s failure to wear a helmet meant she had contributed in part towards her death, even though he accepted that she had played no part in causing the accident in the first place. It may seem paradoxical, but there is very little conclusive evidence that cycling helmets actually improve safety in the event of a crash of the sort that killed Mrs Fyfe, certainly not enough to make a confident statement of the sort Sherriff Scott made. Whether or not a helmet would have saved Mrs Fyfe’s life should be a matter for the inquest, based on proper evidence. We note that Mrs Fyfe was reported to be on Warfarin at the time of the collision, increasing her chances of a haemorrhage, and that she was hit so hard she ‘somersaulted’ onto the road. It is unlikely that a cycling helmet would have made much of a difference in this case.
By placing some blame on the victim in this case, the sheriff has reinforced the perception that cycle safety comes only through personal protective equipment, and that anyone who does not wear a helmet is acting recklessly even though there is no legal requirement to wear one while cycling at any age in the UK, for good reason. If a judge these days were to suggest that the way a rape victim was dressed had contributed to the crime there would, rightly, be an outcry. We feel that Sheriff’s Scott’s remarks were equivalent in their offensiveness.
More generally, we believe that remarks of this sort, as well as affecting the sentencing in the case in question, set a dangerous precedent for cyclists and society as a whole. Encouraging people to wear helmets, whether directly through compulsion or even indirectly to avoid claims of contributory negligence, have been shown to reduce cycling levels dramatically. As a result, more people are likely to die of heart disease, strokes, diabetes or other illnesses related to inactivity, without significantly affecting rates of head injuries overall.
If anything, the courts should look to the layout of the road in question and ask whether that contributed anything towards the outcome. Mr McCourt has claimed that he was unable to see Mrs Fyfe until the last minute, suggesting that the junction design encouraged excessive speed, as well as poor sight lines for drivers turning right. If every fatal accident were to lead to proper enquiry into whether it had been exacerbated by the design of the road, then we would have massively improved road safety. We urge the Scottish justice system to follow the lead of aviation and medical practice and use each fatal accident as an opportunity to prevent the next. Only then will we see real and sustained improvements for vulnerable road users such as Mrs Fyfe.