13 April 2017 – 1:24pm
A three year journey from Regent Street to the Old Bailey
Last week Gail Purcell was acquitted at the Old Bailey of causing the death by careless driving of 70 year-old teacher Michael Mason. On 25 February 2014 Michael, known as Mick to his friends, was cycling along London’s Regent Street when he was hit from behind by the Nissan Qashqai driven by Ms Purcell. He sustained fatal injuries, never recovered consciousness, and passed away in hospital 19 days later.
Unusually, this case was not prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). They didn’t refuse to prosecute, they were just never asked to consider doing so as the Metropolitan Police wouldn’t refer the file to them or ask for advice.There was a trial at the Old Bailey because Cycling UK’s Cyclists’ Defence Fund (CDF) stepped forward to pursue a private prosecution in lieu of any action by a public prosecutor.
I was in court throughout the trial last week, have been involved in this case for much of the last year, and have had numerous conversations with Mick’s family, particularly his daughter Anna Tatton-Brown. Accordingly, in light of the not guilty verdict, I should perhaps explain why CDF chose to pursue this case, why it was right to do so, what the jury heard last week, and the changes that Cycling UK believe are now needed. As you might guess, this will be a long read.
The well-lit street
I will start with the issues which were not in dispute. The collision occurred at around 6.23pm. Mick was cycling north on Regent Street. It was night time, but we know from CCTV footage that both his lights were working. His bike was fitted with the required reflectors and was road legal. He was wearing dark clothing, and his lack of hi-viz or reflective clothing was something the police believed was significant.
The street lights were on and the road was illuminated by lighting from the retail business along both sides of a well-lit street. Ms Purcell was also travelling north along Regent Street. She can’t say what happened, because she never saw Mick.
She didn’t see him as she drove along Regent Street, with the gap narrowing between her car and Mick’s bicycle. She didn’t see him when she hit him, in what the experts described as a linear collision (i.e: the bicycle was directly in front of the car rather than at an angle), which caused damage to the front right hand side of Ms Purcell’s car. She still didn’t see him when a large dent was caused to the right hand corner of her bonnet, in front of her driving position, which the collision experts did not believe was caused by Mick’s bicycle, leaving only one alternative.
A bag of potatoes
“I just didn’t see him”, was Ms Purcell’s response in a roadside police interview under caution. Eighteen days later in a further interview, she explained that she heard an impact to the right of her car, but she “didn’t know if it was a pedestrian or if something had come from the sky, a bag of potatoes”. Ms Purcell repeated that she just didn’t see a cyclist at any time.
Last week, Ms Purcell’s evidence in court reflected what she had said in her original police interview: “I don’t understand what happened”. Mick’s family would probably say the same thing. Unfortunately, we can’t ask Mick what happened, Ms Purcell just can’t explain it, and the CCTV evidence doesn’t tell us what happened in the final seconds before the collision.
CCTV from further south on Regent Street allowed the collision experts to calculate that Mick was cycling at an average speed between 10 and 12 mph, to a point 28 metres prior to the blood stains on the road which marked where he landed post collision. Ms Purcell was estimated to be driving at 25 mph, with a margin of error in the calculations of 2-3 mph either way.
Failure to look or failure to see?
What we do know is that Mick moved across to the outside lane as he passed a bus stop on the inside lane, and that he was in the outside lane when Ms Purcell’s car hit him from behind. The question was, why didn’t she see him, and was that failure to do so careless?
In the absence of CCTV showing what happened in the seconds prior to the collision, and Ms Purcell’s inability to assist, the court heard evidence last week from 11 witnesses, all of them pedestrians on Regent Street at the time of the collision.
Here we move from undisputed facts to accounts which differ. Understandably, most of these witnesses were going about their business and reacted to the sound of the collision. Nobody had a clear view of both bicycle and car in those fatal last seconds, and it has to be acknowledged that there were inconsistencies between the evidence of people who witnessed a brief traumatic event.