Friday 3 November 2017 15.12 GMT
A man was sentenced to 27 months in jail, ordered to pay £5,000 in damages, and banned from driving for three years for deliberately driving into and injuring another man, who was cycling, before threatening to repeat the attack.
Clifford Harper hit Peter Corfe with his BMW in central London earlier this year, after the two traded insults in slow moving traffic. Witnesses then saw Harper get out of his car and tell Corfe: “I’ll do it again.”
Corfe was left with a fractured spine, and was in hospital for nine days after the collision.
Southwark crown court heard that prior to driving at Corfe, Harper had temporarily “lost his mind”, over mounting pressure in his personal and work life. The maximum sentence was five years in jail, but the judge accepted the incident was out of character and gave Harper a shorter term.
The facts of the case will strike fear into anyone who uses a bike to get around, and has been on the receiving end of a driver’s rage. However, the light sentencing is more likely to provoke numb recognition of a much wider trend.
Driving is the most dangerous thing the average person will do, and yet public attitudes to it are remarkably relaxed – backed up by a legal system that fails time and time again to deal seriously with actions while driving that could kill or maim.
More than 10,000 drivers on our roads have more than 12 points on their licences (which would usually result in a ban), including more than 100 with 24 points, and one with 51 points. To stay driving, many plead mitigating circumstances, such as needing their vehicles for work. The implication is, unfortunately, that our “right” to drive is greater than our responsibility not to hurt or endanger others while we do so.
The demonisation of cyclists, however, is commonplace. The myth that cyclists are a homogenous aggressive, law-breaking group justifies, for a minority of bad drivers, treating people on bikes with contempt or outright aggression.
Those of us who cycle who haven’t been deliberately hit by an angry driver (I, unfortunately, have) will have experienced so-called “punishment passes”, or tailgating, or blase indifference to our safety by a minority of drivers: often terrifying incidents that tend to worsen after a media blitz on cyclists.
It will be interesting to compare the media coverage of Harper with that of Charlie Alliston, who collided with a pedestrian while on a fixed-wheel bike with no front brake, killing her. Alliston was cleared of manslaughter, but found guilty of causing bodily harm by “wanton and furious driving”. He was jailed for 18 months. The case received countless column inches, and prompted an urgent government review. I very much doubt Harper’s case will be treated with the same outrage, either from the government, or the media – although it’s part of a much wider problem.
While only 1% of driving offences result in a prison sentence, and just 57% of the 419 drivers convicted of causing a death by driving in England and Wales in 2016 were jailed – a “wide-ranging” review of road traffic offences took the government more than three years to publish, in a curtailed form. This proposed minimum driving bans, life sentences for causing death by dangerous driving (affecting one or two of the worst driving cases a year) and introducing the penalty of causing serious injury by careless driving – none of which affect cases like Harper’s.
For causing serious injury, the maximum sentence is currently five years, which poses a problem.
As Cycling UK’s Roger Geffen puts it: “What [Harper] did could have caused death, and that death would have been caused deliberately. In this case he’s given two years [and three months] for driving that’s about as dangerous as you can get.
“The government has consistently said that the legal framework is supposed to reflect the culpability of the driving, but it’s more weighted upon the seriousness of the outcome rather than the seriousness of the offence.”
Given that most jurors are drivers, there is an element of “there but for the grace of God go I” and an acceptance that road “accidents” are somehow an inevitable part of driving, rather than a direct result of our choices.
The Harper case is yet another example of our legal system failing vulnerable road users. In three years he could be back on the road, after an extended retest.
What sort of message does this send to other drivers who don’t take seriously their responsibility to vulnerable road users, don’t like cyclists, are easily riled, or all three? At the moment, it’s no message at all.
- Laura Laker is a freelance writer