An accident is something unexpected and unintended. Often, it cannot be avoided, and does not result in the individual responsible being held accountable for the outcome. Broadcasters and other media outlets will often refer to crashes as ‘accidents’, irrespective of the degree of negligence involved. RoadPeace argues however that a crash arising from negligence should not be described as an ‘accident’ because it is surely not unexpected when negligent driving results in a crash, and possible injury or death. If anything it is the expected consequence of such acts.
If the use of the word ‘accident’ was confined to the media, we might rest assured that following a crash (and in spite of the circumstances and any common perception of the causes of crashes) there would be always be a thorough investigation by the police and prosecution, where necessary, by the CPS . Unfortunately this is not the case. The use of the term ‘accident’ is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the perception of crashes and their causes, and this perception taints many criminal investigations and ensures that bereaved families are all too often left without the justice they both expect and deserve.
Many, the vast majority, of crashes in the UK can be avoided, as can the thousands of deaths on our roads each year (1,901 in 2011), but to do so requires a concerted effort from the government, police, CPS and the Coroner. Road crime must be treated as real crime by the police, and allocated the resources it warrants by politicians. It should not be surprising that as resources are taken away from roads policing, the death toll on our roads is increasing. What is shocking is the failure of police, when investigating a crash, to adequately carry out the duties incumbent upon them to ensure that an efficient and effective investigation is carried out. Identifying witnesses in a timely manner, and gathering evidence so that the CPS is able to reach a decision based upon fact, rather than a tainted perception of the circumstances. All too often the police fail in this duty, as was the case with the investigation into the death of Jake Thompson.
Jake, as per the Coroner’s verdict, died in an ‘accident’. His death, so suggested by the verdict, was unexpected and unintended. While it is likely that the latter is true, it should not be considered unexpected that a speeding HGV (38mph) in the course of allegedly racing a red light, would crash and kill a pedestrian. In the investigation following Jake’s death, the police failed to locate witnesses and did not interview those they had located until well after the crash. The CPS then failed to charge the driver. At Jake’s inquest the Coroner heard that the tachograph in the HGV had recorded the vehicle traveling at 38mph (in a 30mph zone), she heard that there was no evidence of an emergency brake being applied and that it was possible that the HGV had been driven through an amber to red/red light. The Coroner was also told that the driver had previous convictions for speeding. Despite this, the Coroner opted for an accidental death verdict. No report was written, and despite the opportunity to give a ‘narrative verdict’ – as requested by the family and not queried by the police solicitor – a verdict which would not apportion blame but which would provide an explanation, if brief, of the circumstances of Jake’s death, the Coroner chose to opt for a verdict of accidental death. Denying Jake’s family its request for a moment of justice, having already been failed by the criminal justice system.
The complacency of the police is now under scrutiny. Agreeing there was a failure to adequately investigate Jake’s death, the IPCC have upheld an appeal, and the outgoing Chief Constable for Avon and Somerset Constabulary has apologised to the family. On 19 December the family will meet with the police to learn the outcome of their new investigation, and the CPS are in the process of now reviewing their decision not to charge the driver. Irrespective of the outcome and whether the driver will be prosecuted, Jake’s family has had to fight to ensure that justice is done. They have struggled against the criminal justice system’s failings, as too many families have done before and, until a systemic change, will continue to do so. It should not take an inquest, appeal to the CPS, appeal to the police force and appeal to the IPCC before a thorough investigation is carried out. This should happen automatically and without prejudice following a crash. Those who are killed and seriously injured on our roads, and their families, deserve better.
Until road crime is treated as real crime there will continue to be cases such as Jake’s, where vulnerable road users are killed by negligent drivers who face little or no consequences for their actions, and who continue to drive without due care or dangerously with impunity; safe in the knowledge that a death on the roads is not given the adequate weight, consideration or priority as one occurring anywhere else.
In our response to the APPCG Get Britain Cycling inquiry RoadPeace called for an end to complacency around road death