Woman, 38, sentenced to 18 months for killing cyclist while distracted by...

Woman, 38, sentenced to 18 months for killing cyclist while distracted by satnav for 18 seconds

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Scales of justice

Achieving the correct balance between mercy and punishment is difficult

On The Telegraph website on Saturday 7 September, the following headline appeared above a story about death by dangerous driving:

It took satnav 18 seconds to tear two families apart

The article reported: “I hate the word ‘accident’,” says the victim’s widow, her eyes red with grief. “She bloody murdered him as far as I’m concerned.”

It continued:

Mrs McClure, 38, was found guilty at Reading Crown Court of causing death by dangerous driving and is now starting an 18-month prison sentence.

The article is powerfully written. Describing the collision, it states:

“The prosecution would later say she had at least 18 seconds in which to see him and make a slight adjustment to go past.

One, two, three, four, five… She was looking down at the satellite-navigation system in the car instead of at the road, according to her own statement.

Six, seven, eight… She was travelling at 40mph or more, and he was getting closer, fast.

Ten, 11, 12… She was trying to make the satnav zoom out for a better map, she told the police.

Thirteen, 14, 15… Tony was dressed in a bright-red cycling vest and silver helmet.

Sixteen, 17, 18… she saw him at the very last moment, the judge and jury at Reading Crown Court heard in July. There was no time to swerve.”

Mrs McClure’s trial

We know nothing of the facts (save for what was reported by The Telegraph) however, we can make some (fairly safe) assumptions based on what we know.

The fact that she was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving may suggest that she had offered to plead to the lesser offence of causing death by careless driving (maximum sentence 5 years – many receive community orders). This is common in such cases and the prosecution (in consultation with the victim’s family) has to make a decision as to whether that was appropriate. It may be that it was deemed inappropriate and so the case went forward to trial on the count of death by dangerous.

With no plea (and therefore no basis of plea – a written document setting out the facts as claimed by the defendant, often used to restrict their culpability) the sentence has to be based on the prosecution’s case as found by the jury.

This, according to The Telegraph, is as outlined above. There may be more to it that has not been reported.

Personal situation

We know little about Mrs McClure’s personal situation, other than she is aged 38, married and has two young children. The effect on the children – particularly if she is the primary carer for the children – is highly relevant.

It can be assumed that she has no convictions.

Guidelines

The Telegraph reported:

“Judge Nicholas Wood said she was “avoidably distracted” by the navigation system. Sentencing her at Reading Crown Court last Friday, he said: “This case is a tragic loss of life and shows the potential dangers of looking at a satnav while driving, even at an average speed.”

The judge said Mrs McClure had “failed to have a proper regard for a cyclist, a vulnerable road user”.

Considering the guidelines, that would suggest that the judge placed the case into level 3 – driving that created a significant risk of danger . The guideline suggests a number of scenarios which may fall into level 3, one of which is:

•             Driving whilst avoidably distracted

It is arguable that the length of time during which she was distracted warranted an increase from the level 3 starting point (3 years).

It is unclear as to why the sentence was below the starting point. The judge should have given his reasons for this when sentencing. It may be that the remorse, the help given at the scene and the previous (assumed) good character warranted a reduction.

Divided views

In another article on The Telegraph over the weekend, Mic Wright wrote about the case:

No one who kills with their car as a result of that kind of gross negligence just “makes a mistake”. A speeding motor vehicle is a weapon in reckless hands. It doesn’t matter if that driver is a nice woman who bakes cakes and cares about her community. Fiddling with a satnav as you move down a road at 60mph is inexcusable. It is too easy to say: “But it could happen to any of us”.

That is certainly a view shared by many.

The views of the victim’s family in this case – that the sentence should have been longer and that death by dangerous driving is akin to murder – are completely understandable.

However, from a (necessarily) dispassionate view point, one might ask what would be achieved by imprisoning Mrs McClure for 3 years, or 6 years or 9 years. No sentence can adequately mark the loss of life, not even a life sentence.

The sentence must reflect the factors of the offence – this was a piece of seriously bad driving. Had the victim been 1 minute earlier, or Mrs McClure been 1 minute later, then the collision most likely would not have happened. It is for that reason that many see death by driving cases as misfortune, and that can ‘happen to anybody’.

There has to be a balance. Custodial sentences for seriously bad driving are necessary, because, driving a vehicle on a road comes with great responsibility. The consequences of mistakes or poor decisions are all too apparent. However, the other side of the scales, to achieve that balance, is that no one sets out to kill someone when they get into their car. To advocate lengthier sentences above those currently imposed, would be to unduly ‘skew’ the sentencing system and result in disproportionate sentences for people who, often, have made a terrible error of judgement.

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Lyndon is the General Editor of Current Sentencing Practice and the Criminal Appeal Reports (Sentencing)

20 COMMENTS

  1. I have always thought it anomalous that use of a hand held mobile phone while driving is automatically an offence, whereas using a satnav only becomes an offence if you have an accident, and then not necessarily so. I find them at least as distracting as a mobile, and they aren’t totally hands free if you need to make adjustments as you are going along. However, they are now widely used and there but for the Grace of God go many…..

  2. Why would the judge take a level 3 starting point? To me, 18 seconds is a clear case of “Gross avoidable distraction such as reading or composing text messages over a period of time” which is level 2 (from the next entry piece this blog).

    • I think ‘a period of time’ is substantially longer than 18 seconds and refers to a text conversation over a number of minutes.

      • Next time you are a passenger in busy traffic shut your eyes for 18 seconds and see how much has changed when you open them.

        Keep your mind on the driving, keep your hands on the wheel, and keep your beady eyes on the road ahead!

      • In 18 seconds at 30 mph you cover around 800 feet, at 40 it’s over a thousand feet. I can’t believe the sentencing guideline don’t regard that as ‘a period of time’ (although ‘period of time’ is a hopelessly vague term).

        • I think the context is an on going text message conversation which would of course be a much longer period than 18 seconds, even to type and send 1 message, and receive a reply.

  3. “failed to have a proper regard for a cyclist, a vulnerable road user” It’s a shame cyclists fail to have proper regard for themselves as vulnerable road users they do stupid things. Just this evening one shot across a roundabout, well aware of my car manoeuvring it, at the same time, my right of way, he avoided eye contact as though that somehow made him safe. Shame he didn’t have his helmet camera on I’d have love to seen him in court to discuss the longevity of fuckwittery. Signed by an unrepentant car lover and cyclist hater. Also not excusing bad driving use of sat nav as described above however almost all cyclists are victims because of their own utter utter sanctimonious stupidity.

    • I am both a cyclist and a motorist (plus a pedestrian). |In all these roles I witness people doing daft, dangerous and selfish things. It is people who are at fault, and their choice of vehicle is incidental (except that cars can do a lot more damage in stupid hands than a bike can), so I find the blanket condemnation of ‘cyclists’ an unacceptable piece of bigotry. However, such hate filled comments coming from ‘Sisterhood’ do not surprise me.

    • “… almost all cyclists are victims because of their own utter utter sanctimonious stupidity”

      Are you absolutely sure about this? Seems absurd to suggest almost all the 100+ cyclists killed in London over the last year were somehow culpable.

      I was hit from behind in circumstances almost identical to those described in the Telegraph article in 2007. In my case, the distraction wasn’t Sat Nav but the in car radio. Thankfully, the speed was lower so I survived with minor injuries but a totally mangled bike. The officer in attendance from Dorset Police said he had no grounds to prosecute as it was “one of those things” (sic). Brilliant! It was only because I wrote to his superior any action was taken against the driver.i was travelling in a straight line. Visibility was clear. How could my actions have contributed in any way? I look forward to your helpful explanation.

      I suppose I should just be thankful, eh?

      • I said almost all cyclists are victims of their own utter utter sanctimonious stupidity you asked me whether I was sure. Yes I am. Happy to help and clarify.

        Don’t bother to paint cyclists as the knights of the road they are menace driving without lights, jumping red lights, ignoring the rules of the road. They do so because they are rarely caught and then even less likely to be held accountable with no insurance and registration details to trace them.

        These idiots, who are entirely vulnerable, see a car and behave as though it is invisible relying on drivers to swerve or slam on brakes to avoid them rather than sensible cycling and road use, and or that they are invincible. No sympathy most of you lot get exactly what you deserve. Car drivers pay the price for the stupidity of cyclists.

    • No, they’re really not. That’s not to deny that there’s some downright idiotic riding out there, we’ve all seen it, but read up on the seven or so people killed on bikes in London this year – you’ll find they don’t fit the stereotype of your anarchist fixie boy-racer at all well. Please don’t hold all cyclists collectively responsible for the stupidity of a few – unless that is you’re the type to hold all Muslims collectively responsible for acts of terrorism or black people collectively responsible for street crime, in which case kindly crawl back under your rock.

  4. In the early days of mobiles I occasionally used mine hand-held; I don’t think we realised then how dangerous that could be. But I never texted.

    And my satnav is a plug in job and I leave it on the passenger seat upside down or covered with a book or a coat so that I can hear it but I can’t see it and I am not tempted to look at it. And if that makes it less useful, that’s JTB. I don’t claim to be an angel, but anyone with enough brain to programme a satnav can see that looking at it is dangerous. And as for the dashboard-mounted sort: don’t get me started.

    I share your frustration with the two-wheels-and-pedal brigade, sisterhood, are we both wrong? The ones who piss me off are the ones who don’t stop at red lights and endanger pedestrians. They don’t want to lose momentum and that too is JTB.

    Sisterhood, it’s been a long hard day, we’ve both had our rant; at the risk of being seriously misunderstood: Let’s to bed!

  5. I don’t agree that in the context of the guidelines this was ‘seriously bad driving’. If it is then what’s killing someone while you’re trying to get away from the police or racing your mate off the pub car park. I’m constantly being distracted by my SatNav. Let he who hasn’t cast the first stone. The sentence sounds right to me. It’s a pity she couldn’t have been given a SSO but obviously one has to bear in mind the punitive aspect of the sentence and the deceased’s family. Tragic. Read the section on causing death by dangerous driving in Lyndon Harris’ sentencing guide if you think messing with your SatNav’s bad.

  6. That didn’t come out right. Obviously don’t read his book while you’re driving. Read it for examples of bad driving.

  7. Sisterhooduk said: “… No sympathy most of you lot get exactly what you deserve. Car drivers pay the price for the stupidity of cyclists”

    This is an incredible thing to say. Are you seriously suggesting that most cyclists willfully and deliberately put themselves at risk of death and serous injury? If so, why would they do this? In no other aspect of daily life does a particular group in society willfully place themselves in harm’s way. It goes against the survivalist instincts we all have. If you’re right (you’re not) could you name another instance of such lemming-like behaviour in humans? Such a cruel and bizarre thing to suggest.
    I’m a driver and a cyclist. I can only assume you don’t ride a bike? You should give it a whirl someday… might change your perspective on life , reduce your blood pressure and make you a better person! 😉

    Good night, drive safe

  8. A very interesting piece. I agree that lengthy custodial sentences don’t work in cases where people don’t expect something to happen where they end up killing someone through their (in)actions, especially when it’s something as “mundane” as driving a car. (By the way, I don’t consider driving mundane at all – it’s a very serious responsibility because a car is in effect a weapon). However, in my opinion, what might work better is more stringent policing and sentencing of lower order road crimes, such as speeding or talking on your hand held mobile, etc. This might work better as a way of reminding many drivers of their responsibility to drive with due care and attention that a significant minority of drivers seem to have forgotten.

    Separately, chapeau to earlier commentator for pointing out the non-existence of “collective responsibility”. I am not responsible for a stranger in a public space whether they be driving a car, riding a bike or walking along. The idea of collective responsibility is nothing but a stick used by bigoted individuals to beat up what is usually a minority “out group”.

  9. What’s astonishing here is the relatively short driving ban. Those who kill through careless or dangerous driving should never be allowed to drive again.

    • What an interesting discussion.

      I’ve cycled, but not in city centres. I’m too scared to do so. I’m also a driver and yes, getting into our cars is the most dangerous thing we do on a daily basis. I have a sat nav built into my car which to be honest, I don’t use. I like maps and globes and it’s not often I drive to places I don’t know. If I am going to a city, I use the train.

      In terms of the sentence, I do think it was fitting considering the crime. I don’t think it’s akin to murder at all. However, I can see why the victim’s family would possibly think this way. It’s not murder, it’s a tragic accident. Would you take off the road for 18 seconds? No. I still see young drivers sitting at traffic lights texting on their handhelds. I put my phone in my handbag and most of the time it’s on silent anyway – the damn thing would ping, whistle and bleep at me all day were it not.

      18 seconds and a life is wiped out. If anything, that should be a lesson to all.

      • It may not be murder but here in Virginia it would be “negligent Homicide” with a potential sentence of a lot miore than 18 months – to say nothing of liability under civil law. Also the real possibility of the driving license being taken away for a very long time, perhaps permanently. As the state reminds us often driving is a privilege not a right.

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