Cyclists, busses and the unsettling death of Jayne Helliwell

TfL busses in central london

About 10 to 20 cyclists die on the streets of London each year. Almost all of them are killed by motorised vehicles. Quite often, the drivers are charged with dangerous driving and have to face an inquest. The results of these inquests, however, are frequently very depressing.

The latest example is the death of Jayne Helliwell, a 25 year old student who died on Oxford Street last April. She was crushed to death by a TfL double decker because the driver incidentally hit the accelerator instead of the break. (There are two heart breaking orbituaries written by friends and colleagues of her: here and here.)

And guess what? He was recently acquitted. The case against the driver named Carlton Lewars was dropped after it was revealed that Lewars suffers sciatica. According to a report in the Evening Standard, he claimed that he suffered a “sudden pain” immediately before his bus hit Jayne. Allegedly, this pain was the reason why he used the wrong pedal.

I’m not expert in law, generally I do trust the British judicial system and I think the presumption of innocence rightly has to be applied if there are any reasonable doubt left. So let’s assume that the “not guilty” decision by the judge was correct.

Nevertheless the whole case is deeply unsettling. The company employing Carlton Lewars – Metroline – knew about his illness but allowed him to stay behind the wheel anyway. The “Evening Standard” quoted a Metroline spokesman stating that Lewars had been declared fit by his GP and the illness did not revoke his bus driving licence.

To me, there seems to be a significant hole in the system. How is it possible that an illness does not render somebody unfit to do his job, but when he makes a grave mistake due to this illness, he’s not responsible for his behaviour?

Either his GP (hughly unlikely) , Metroline and/or Transport for London has to take responsibility, in my humble opinion. Metroline employed an ill man who was unfit to drive a bus safely and hence killed an innocent cyclist.

Looks more scary then they are - if the driver is fit.

The “Evening Standard” quoted the Metroline spokesman saying how deeply sorry they are about the death of Jayne. Well, fair enough.

But how about putting your money where your mouth is? Because of your hiring decisions and employment policies, you’re indirectly responsible for the death of Jayne Helliwell. You knowingly employed somebody who due to his illness wasn’t able to do his job properly.

Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to blame TfL bus drivers in general. In fact I do have a very high opinion about them and thing the vast majority of bus drivers in London are doing an amazingly good job. My personal experience as a cyclist is that almost all TfL busses are driven in a very considerate and careful manner (of course, as always in life, there are exceptions).

LCC’s “London Cyclist” magazine has recently done an interesting story on the cyclist awareness training for bus drivers. I think this is really paying off.

According to my statistics on severe cycling accidents in London only two other cyclists have been killed by TfL busses since 2006 (a male cyclist on Park Lane in February 2008 and Dorothy Elder on Southampton Row in November 2009. The driver who killed Dorothy was also acquitted, later. Freewheeler wrote a good post on that disturbing decision, and I commented on his post.)

This compares to a total of 82 cyclists, the big majority killed by lorries and vans. The low numbers of cyclist killed by bus drivers is even more remarkable given the fact that TfL busses probably significantly outnumber lorries on the streets of London, the job is very stressful and the pay isn’t fantastic.

Nevertheless, Jayne’s death and the revelations from the inquest are deeply unsettling. Hence, I urge Metroline and TfL to take responsibility for Jayne’s death. Pay a comspensation to her family and donate some funds to the London Cycling Campaign. However, even more important is a tightening of the employment rules. Otherwise, the message to any driver in London is straightforward: Convince your GP to diagnose you with sciatica. That’s the perfect insurance policy against any possible wrongdoing.

Update: On 2 November 2011 there was in inquest into Jayne’s death. The “Camden New Journal” published a brief report.

8 thoughts on “Cyclists, busses and the unsettling death of Jayne Helliwell

  1. Shreds

    Or perhaps sciatica was just an excuse, driven by lawyers to get their client ‘off’?

    Why cant folk be responsible for their actions regardless of their ‘excuse’.

    Problem with society generally really.

  2. LindaH

    Urgent change needed to cyclists’ death trap

    Yesterday morning, yet another cyclist was the victim of a horrific accident, this time on Cavendish Road SW4. The accident took place just after 11am on Sunday 31 July. I cycled by minutes later, as passersby were applying emergency chest compressions, and as ambulance and police crews arrived on the scene. I have not been able to find out further details, so do not know whether the woman cyclist survived. I do know, however, that the South Circular was closed off until at least mid-afternoon.

    The accident happened on a particularly dangerous section of the South Circular for cyclists in Lambeth. It is just east of Clapham Common, where Cavendish Road curves and then turns into Poynders Road. Traffic moves through here often at ridiculous speed and, because of the turns, drivers are less likely to see cyclists than elsewhere. Incredibly, a blue cycle route directs cyclists onto this very section of road where, coming up Cavendish Road from Tooting Bec Common, they have to maneuver across 2 lanes of fast moving traffic, stop in the road on the bend to wait for oncoming traffic to pass, cross that lane and turn into Abbeyville Road, where frequently there is traffic impatient to pull out into the main road. This short section of ‘cycle route’ has long been a death scene waiting to happen, and I hope that yesterday’s accident has not already earned it this terrible title. The cyclist involved was on the ground, with her bicycle smashed to bits several yards away, in exactly this spot as I passed by.

    This is a heavily used cycle route, and this accident is the most graphic, tragic evidence of the need for urgent change to this spot. The solution is clear: a cyclists’ crossing is needed at this turning, taking them up onto the very wide pavement on the opposite side of the street, with a ramp into Trouville Rd SW4, leading to Elms Crescent rather than Abbeville Rd. From Elms, cyclists can continue on into Narbonne Avenue, which is already on the cycle route. As is clear from today’s events, this small change to the route is needed urgently, and will undoubtedly save many more injuries and lives. I hope today’s tragic accident at least can be the spur to correct this terrible situation.

    Last night I wrote to my local Lambeth councillors, who copied me in on their resulting chain of emails. As of this evening, Caroline Pidgeon AM, Chair of the Transport Committee of the London Assembly, has written to me pledging that she and her Lib Dem group will take this up with TfL straight away. I also wrote to Lambeth Council Leader Steve Reed, London Mayor Boris Johnson, MP Chuka Umunna and Transport for London but have yet to hear from any of them.

    I will be following up with all of them on this, and hope others across the area will do the same.

    In the meantime, thanks for your very informative blog, Olaf. I’m just sorry that my first response means adding to your grim statistics.

  3. Pingback: Cyclists’ death trap on Cycle Superhighway in Lambeth? « Cycling Intelligence

  4. Pingback: Death trap in Lambeth – TfL in full denial – help needed « Cycling Intelligence

  5. Craig Labbett

    Your blog is very honest & passionate, I totally support your cause & hopefully your voices of common sense & compassion will be heard by someone who can do something to help to stop incidents like this happening, equally important when they do happen justice prevails & responsibility is taken for any misconduct.
    Metroline should be ashamed. Not to show any form of remorse to the family is disgusting, no human compassion what so ever.
    Keep up the good work with your cause.
    Jayne is my cousin & is missed beyond words by her parents, sister family & friends.

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