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.