A reader who attended court has criticised my story on the trial of truck driver Luke Stevens who was found not guilty of causing the death of cyclist Richard Pollett. Here’s her response
I got an e-mail last week from final year law student, Fiona Thatcher, taking me to task for the article I wrote back in May, Are cyclists ‘mere obstacles’ to motorists?, about the death of Qld cyclist Richard Pollett. Mr Pollett was run over by a cement truck driven by Luke Stevens.
Mr Stevens was subsequently charged with dangerous driving causing death and was acquitted by the jury. The decision was widely condemned by cyclists as the comments on the article show. It led directly to calls for a mandatory one metre minimum passing distance and was a key factor in the Qld Parliament’s decision to set up an Inquiry into cycling issues.
Ms Thatcher thinks it’s disgraceful that the media (and presumably cyclists too) are “braying for Stevens blood when he objectively did nothing wrong”. She says my commentary was ignorant of both the facts and the law.
You can’t write about topical policy issues without copping criticism from time to time, so I’m used to that. I’m happy to put an alternative point of view on an important and emotive issue like this. What’s significant about Mr Thatcher’s perspective is she says she observed much of the trial first hand. Here with her permission is her letter (my comments follow):
I realize this letter is overdue, but I was unaware of the news articles on the death of Richard Pollett until today, when my fellow students and I were discussing the court case surrounding the incident on Moggill rd in 2011.
I am a final year law student at QUT. For our Evidence class, we were told to visit the District or Supreme Courts and write up a court report. As you may have already guessed, many of us chose the R v Stevens case, which is why I’m writing to you today. It was eagerly noted by the Courier Mail at the time that the courtroom was packed — but that was only the result of the timing of that particular Evidence assignment. That, to me, marked the beginning of the highly misleading way in which the media would cover the case.
I should add that not only did I sit through the entirety of the prosecution’s case, but I did well on that assignment, so I consider myself somewhat able to comment on the matter.
I would like to point out, first and foremost, how grossly your articles have represented that entire situation. The acquittal of Luke Stevens was the proper and just outcome, for several reasons.
Your commentary was ignorant, if not merely of the facts of the case, but of the law. I’ll quote one particularly offensive part of your articles — “It’s time the law stopped treating cyclists as mere obstacles to motorists.”
These are the facts:
- When approaching Pollett on Moggill rd, Stevens was surrounded by several cars, one of which was impatiently following him closely behind. To his immediate right were other cars. He was described as being ‘boxed in.’
- He noted Pollett, took his foot off the accelerator, prompting the exhaust brake. He then moved into the far extremity of his lane.
- It was the middle of the day, the sun was out, Stevens was not tired, had no alcohol in his system, and was in good spirits. He was travelling well below the speed limit at the time of the collision.
- When Stevens moved to pass Pollett, the latter was cycling confidently. He did not appear intimidated by the truck beside him. Pollett in fact had an opportunity to turn out of Moggill road when the truck was beside him but chose not to do so.
- The road narrowed at some point between where Stevens first saw Pollett and when the collision occurred. There was no way for Stevens or Pollett to know that the road would narrow. The road has since been widened by council.
- It is unclear how Pollett came from his bike. While the cement truck may have toppled Pollett, it is equally possible that Pollett fell of his own accord, ie struck the gravel on the road or hit the gutter.
- As causation could not be established, the prosecution essentially required the jury to convict on the basis that a driver of a vehicle — any vehicle, should drive so far away from a cyclist passing that even if a cyclist were to fall of his own accord, no damage would come to the cyclist. This is an impossible proposition to assert and would very probably be rejected upon appeal even if the jury were to convict.
- The jury had no real alternative but to acquit. It was the logical and right response.
Not having been at court to watch the case unfold, you were at a serious disadvantage when it came to reporting the truth. You did not see Stevens, the pale horror on his face when images of Pollett’s tarp-covered body were displayed to the court. You did not listen to expert testimony, which pointed out the flaws in the road’s design.
You did not watch the judge roundly criticize the prosecution, who struggled with what was clearly a hopeless case.
When he realized he had struck Pollett, Stevens pulled over at a road stop and ran back to the site. He tried to run to the body but was held back by witnesses before collapsing. He was choked and tearful during the police interview. Since the incident, he has gained weight and looks much older. Undoubtedly, his life is irreversibly affected. For journalists to be braying for Stevens blood when he objectively did nothing wrong is disgraceful. That is a real person you are talking about. He could have been any one of us. He was driving carefully. He was aware of Pollett and took precautions. I just can’t properly express my disbelief at the damning tone the media has taken about this case.
Pollett’s family were in the court that week. They were obviously beyond distraught. It was a terrible tragedy that took their son — but an accident, and no more.
It is a disservice to our justice system to make uninformed, sweeping remarks about particular cases. I think it is so important for the integrity of journalism that writers read court transcripts and judgments prior to reporting on cases. It would be better for Crikey, and other news sites, to employ staff with legal backgrounds who can engage in the often complex court process, so as not to gin up ‘outrage’ where none is warranted.
Let me say first up, as I indicated in the article, the judgment wasn’t available at the time I wrote the article. Nor do I see much in Ms Thatcher’s version of the events that wasn’t covered in the article or in the links to the media coverage I provided (the Courier Mail’s on-line coverage was quite detailed).
Her account of the salient facts raises a number of questions in my mind e.g. couldn’t Mr Stevens see that the road narrowed from his elevated position? However these questions were no doubt aired in Court and the jury decided that Mr Stevens was not guilty of the charge.
I don’t think cyclists are after Mr Steven’s blood (or that my article was couched in that way). The comments here and in other forums indicate many think he made a bad decision. Some think he might lose a civil action for negligence if one were brought.
But he was behaving within the law as it stands and was acquitted of the charge. It’s the law that needs to change.
What outrages cyclists is the verdict confirmed it’s legal for a large truck to overtake a cyclist in the same lane. It’s consequently legal to overtake so close that the vehicle might inadvertantly “topple” the cyclist (see point 6). It’s legal to leave so little clear space that a minor wobble on the cyclist’s part could possibly turn into a catastrophic accident, let alone enable the vehicle to avoid the cyclist in the event he or she should have a sudden unforeseen spill.
The verdict says motorists need not take special care around cyclists despite the latter’s vulnerability. In short, it says roads are for drivers, not cyclists. It prompts the perfectly reasonable question: are cyclists “mere obstacles”?
I think most cyclists want something like what Ms Thatcher calls an “impossible proposition” (point 7): that drivers should be obliged to leave enough space when overtaking such that the liklihood of a serious injury is minimised. That’s the idea behind the proposed one metre minimum rule.