Road Traffic Accidents: Accidents not crimes

A few weeks ago I noted the slight rise in road deaths in NI during 2013. I also noted the worrying tendency to regard all accidents as someone’s fault: often criminally someone’s fault. Hence the inappropriate change in routine terminology from Road Traffic Accident to Road Traffic Collision.

A couple of tragic cases have recently pointed to the overenthusiasm of the authorities to prosecute those involved in accidents and in one case the good sense of the general public (and amazingly a judge).

In East Yorkshire in February 2013, Jennie Stone pulled out of a line of cars to overtake a lorry. Unfortunately by freak chance her sister Rosie-Ann pulled out at the same time further up the line. This resulted in Jennie Stone’s car hitting a tree and her death. The Crown Prosecution Service decided to prosecute her.

The prosecution barrister outlined the “evidence” against her:

“admitted she did not check over her shoulder before pulling out and had not adjusted her door mirrors ever since she bought her car a month before”.
He added: “The defendant, quite simply, had not looked behind her before she began her manoeuvre.”

Even if the prosecution version of events were wholly accurate this sounds much more like momentary inattentiveness and a tragic accident rather than criminal liability.

To defend herself this unfortunate young woman then had to describe her sister as a “speed demon” which although no doubt true feels like being forced to speak ill of the dead (and a relative) to defend herself.

Fortunately the jury had the good sense to find her entirely innocent and the judge subsequently revealed that:

“Before the start of the case, I expressed concern with the Crown Prosecution Service that it was not in the public interest to have a trial.
“The CPS was consistent saying that it was. It was their decision, not mine.”

Rather pathetically the CPS tried to justify their decision to prosecute:

“Weighing up all the considerations we concluded that, on balance, the public interest factors tending towards prosecution, outweighed those tending against and that it was in the public interest to charge Rosie-Ann Stone and for the court to decide on her culpability.”

Northern Ireland is unfortunately far from immune to such nonsense: though our PPS seem recently to have given in to good sense and true justice slightly earlier in the process (though longer in terms of chronology).

On the 15th April 2011 56 year old Saintfield man Michael Caulfield was killed at the junction of Annadale Embankment and the Saintfield Road when his bicycle was in collision with a lorry. The driver of the lorry 52 year old James Thompson from Tandragee was charged with causing death by dangerous driving. This was downgraded to causing death by careless driving. The incident was reported on the “Road Justice” cycling charity website. However, after the jury had been sworn in on the 13th of January 2014 (nearly three years later) the PPS decided that it would offer no evidence and Mr. Thompson was found innocent.

Mr. Thompson clearly had his liberty threatened for 3 years because of an accident. (From the BBC)

The lorry driver said he found it “nerve-wracking” to be standing in the dock of a court, with a jury having been sworn in, adding that he was not expecting the “last minute” decision that spared him from facing a full trial.

“Many a time I wished I could, but I had no power to change the outcome of that accident and unfortunately, people’s lives were going to be changed forever”
“The Director of Public Prosecutions had a third look at the evidence and realised that there was no way they could charge me with anything. Basically there was no evidence at all whatsoever,”
Mr. Thompson said.

Clearly there are collisions where someone is criminally at fault. However, there seems now almost a presumption that if an accident occurs someone must be at fault and if it is a serious accident someone must be criminally at fault. Possibly these two recent legal debacles which seem travesties of justice will prompt a rethink in the prosecution of accidents and maybe even a return to recognition that there are such things as Road Traffic Accidents.

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