Sep 04, 2013
Last October I was knocked from my cargo-bike in the centre of Newcastle by an aggressive, impatient young motorist who, it has been revealed, has previous, a drink driving offence. Today I was in court as the main witness, and the main victim. But I didn’t feel like a victim, I felt as though it was me in the dock. The crown prosecutor had told me to expect aggressive questioning by the barrister for the defence but I hadn’t expected it to be so aggressive and so anti-cyclist.
I know that our courts use the adversarial system and that the grilling is nothing personal, but it’s tough to remain cool and detached when facing such questioning. It’s far more likely for such a system to work to the advantage of an established culture, such as the norm of driving. Outlier activities, such as transport cycling, are easier to attack. If the type of questioning I was subject to today, and the unfair conclusions in the summing up by the defence barrister, are common in other cases involving motorists and cyclists it’s not surprising so many motorists walk free from court.
Rewind to October…
I was riding a heavy Xtracycle-equipped cargo bicycle and doing everything by the book (that book being Cyclecraft, of course), claiming my lane, looking to see what was behind me and taking my place in a queue of traffic, waiting at traffic lights in a right filter lane, with one car ahead of me (which was inching into the advanced stop line box) and one behind me, a white Fiat Punto.
The motorist behind me had, seconds before, honked his horn as a request to get me out of his way and was shouting something out of his window, perhaps letting me know which of the two users sharing the road at that moment he felt had priority.
I ignored his bellicosity and inched forward when the car in front of me started moving when the light went green. The next thing I knew I was no longer on my bike, I had leg pain and I was facing the white car which had, clearly but surprisingly, deliberately bumped into the rear of my machine.
If you’re going to get shunted by an impatient Boy Racer probably the best bike to be riding is one equipped with an Xtracycle attachment. I was shocked by the rear nudge, but not terribly injured. Somebody on a standard bike would have fared far worse.
I was thrown over the handlebars and I landed on the road. I was bruised and suffered a twisted hip, but there was no blood spilt. The driver got out and accused me of riding erratically and not getting out of his way. I had known he was behind me: I had heard his revving engine and had turned round to give him a shoulder shrug, kind of asking him what his problem was. I certainly wasn’t expecting a punishment tap.
(The tap was so strong the car’s airbag was activated, the motorist, dimly, revealed in court today).
After the shunt I was in shock, but managed to take the pic above on my phone. The driver also took a pic and he called the police, which I welcomed. Five minutes later a police officer arrived.
The young motorist told the attending PC I had been riding erratically and then he had been blinded by the sun at the traffic lights and had accidentally driven into the back of me.
Today in court I was accused of deliberately putting myself in the way of the car in order to cause a confrontation. I was accused of being an aggressive cyclist, weaving in and out of traffic (on an Xtracycle!), going to the right of the defendant’s car window and shouting that I wanted a fight. “You want road rage? I’ll give you road rage,” I was meant to have said. I was then accused of speeding past the Fiat Punto in order to make a point. It was I, not the motorist, who was in the wrong, spat the barrister.
Politely but firmly I told him his claims were fanciful and defied logic. I was greatly helped by the fact the barrister made repeated factual mistakes, including not remembering the accusations he had made just seconds earlier, calling my rear tyre “the car’s bumper” and quizzing why my brake lights didn’t come on after the shunt. I poked holes in his claim that I gave “inconsistent, inaccurate evidence” and said I was defending myself so robustly because he was accusing me of inconsistent inaccuracy.
When he asked what I thought the defendant’s motive had been in giving me a shunt I explained it was very possibly “use of a car as a weapon.”
The barrister audibly laughed at this. I was surprised at his reaction but carried on. Later in the session I reminded the barrister he had laughed at the suggestion the car might have been used as a weapon. The barrister flatly denied he had done so. I asked for the legal secretary to go back to her notes. She did so, told the barrister what had been said, and had been seen by the three magistrates, and he sheepishly backed down. (These guys earn how much?)
The barrister in question was called to the bar in 1990 and is “exclusively defence based”, working for clients accused of murder, rape and fraud. Privately, he also advises clients on the Road Traffic Act, says his online biography. Yet his grasp of what cyclists are allowed to do on the road as part of traffic was shaky to the point of non-existence.
He wanted the magistrates to find for his client because I had placed my bicycle in front of the Fiat Punto and behind the car in front “when Mr Reid should have placed himself in front of the car in front and not ’sandwiched’ between two cars.”
Remember, the car in front was already ahead of the Advanced Stop Line. It was trapped in the box because a bus had taken longer than expected to turn right. According to the barrister I should not have taken my place in a queue of traffic but should have pushed in front of the car ahead and placed myself ahead of the white line at the lights, away from his client. By being in front of his client I was setting out to entrap him, he claimed, and slammed on my brakes in order to be hit. Bizarre logic. (I said so, asking why a vulnerable road user would take such a huge risk).
The case was won, I think, because of an impartial witness who had seen everything that had happened from his car and came over to see if I was OK. In court, this witness (a retired bus driver) described how the defendant, after the shunt, was shouting at me, effing and blinding.
The defendant also had a witness, a female passenger. She had the same story as the defendant, claiming I had been riding erratically, weaving in and out of traffic.
During cross examination it became plain there hadn’t been much traffic on the road for me to weave in and out of. I had been riding in a ‘no car lane’ on Newcastle’s John Dobson Street and then steered into the right hand lane to take a right hand turn. The witness for the prosecution confirmed that I was standing still just before the collision, had briefly looked over my shoulder to check what was behind, and had moved when the light turned green. The barrister claimed the glance over my shoulder was “an obvious look to see when to jump clear of the bicycle and entrap [my client].”
The barrister also tried to make much of the fact I was in the middle of the lane. Quoting from memory from both from the Highway Code and Cyclecraft (I made a point of stressing this book is official literature, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office), I was able to steer him away from the claim that I was deliberately trying to obstruct his client merely by being in front of him on a bicycle.
The court case lasted three and a half hours, with a break for lunch. The defence barrister had originally tried to free his client with a technicality over minor inconsistencies between the witness statements and evidence given in court (including mine, I had said I had fallen to the ground upon being ejected from the saddle whereas my witness statement said I had landed on my feet; the retired bus driver said I had fallen to the ground; the driver said I merely stepped from my bike). The magistrates left the court room to deliberate on the point of law but were soon back, asking for the case to proceed.
The barrister then had to call his client. Big mistake. With only the gentlest of questioning from the prosecuting barrister the young motorist agreed he had shunted me, confirmed his claim that the sun had blinded him, and when asked whether he’d now give cyclists more room in the future, he said, yes, yes, he would. In which case, asked the prosecutor, why didn’t you leave space for this cyclist who, it has been claimed, was riding erratically? Shouldn’t you leave more space for such a cyclist, somebody who had been weaving about and shouting aggressively into an open car window? The driver agreed he should have left more space for such an erratic and aggressive cyclist. (I didn’t like the fictional picture this painted of me but could see where the barrister was going with the line of questioning).
If the defending barrister, because of the admissions from his client, thought the case was now lost, he didn’t show it. His summing-up painted the motorist as an innocent angel while I was a raging cyclist, deliberately trying to trick the defendant into smashing into my bicycle “setting a tripwire for [the defendent] for a later civil compensation case”.
The shunt was “an error anybody could make,” said the defence barrister, playing the there-but-for-the Grace-of-God-Go-I card.
His final statement must have bemused the magistrates as much as it bemused me: road “accidents” happen all over the world, all the time, and are the fault of nobody, asserted the defence barrister. Just as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two very different things, yet also the same thing, so his client ought to be found not guilty. This animal-world analogy went on for three or more mind-befuddling sentences and, no, I have no idea what it all meant either. I suspect he rolls out the same Chewbacca-defense in many of his cases and sometimes it must work. In this particular case the insect imagery was lost on the magistrates and they found his client guilty.
In their verdict, the magistrates, sweetly, said my evidence had been “cogent and credible” and that my road positioning was not in any way at fault. The motorist was found guilty of driving without due care and attention and will have to pay court costs of £600. The magistrates left the court room to decide on the motorist’s sentence. I didn’t wait but the police officer who had attended the scene said the motorist would likely get a fine of £600 and three to six points on his driving licence. A previous conviction for drink driving wouldn’t be reflected in the sentence. [UPDATE: an email from 'Criminal Justice System' tells me the driver got an awful lot less than expected: his licence was endorsed with just three points and the total of his fine and costs was £352.]
Earlier, as we were waiting for the court to reconvene after lunch, I had heard the young driver’s witness complaining she’d have to “pay a fortune” in car park charges after being in court for longer than she had planned. He’d pay her back, he promised, adding to the costs the case had cost him (he’d got a parking fine back in October after parking on double yellows to wait for the police). I had no parking charges to pay. I had ridden to court on my cargo bike. And not erratically.
Read the rest of "Victim-blaming barrister needs a new insect analogy"...