THE THOUGHT of that knock on the door haunts us all. We all know that a police officer walking up the garden path is hardly likely to be a bringer of good tidings. But for Christine Mangat, what happened immediately afterwards made the experience of losing her son in a road accident even more painful.

When she answered the door one Saturday evening, the policeman said, 'We have some bad news for you, very bad news. You'd better sit down.' He proceeded to say that her son 'Colin', whom the officer believed she hadn't seen for a long time, had been involved in a motorbike accident and had subsequently died. Mrs Mangat's son, however, was called Jonathan, rode a bicycle and regularly kept in touch with her.

When the policeman mentioned 'bad news', Mrs Mangat had first thought of her husband and daughter. Now she was certain that it was a case of mistaken identity. The policeman asked to use the telephone - after 10 minutes he came back into the room. 'My mistake,' he said. 'It was your son.'

Because of the confusion, Mrs Mangat wanted to see the body straight away: she was still unconvinced that it would be Jonathan, and was already angry since it had taken the police a day and a half to find her, when Jonathan had plenty of identification on him. But the policeman told her that it would have to be cleared with the coroner and that no visit would be possible until Monday morning. After much persistence Mrs Mangat was allowed to go to St Bartholomew's Hospital on Sunday afternoon. There she found that her son had indeed been killed.

Jonathan died in June 1987 and I happened to see his last moments. I was cycling along Farringdon Road in central London, on the way to work one morning when I saw him lying on the road, surrounded by a group of people. He appeared to have just been knocked off his bicycle, and an ambulanceman was trying to resuscitate him with cardiac massage. The skip lorry that was involved in the accident was parked a couple of hundred yards down the road. Jonathan was taken to Bart's Hospital, but he arrived barely alive and died within minutes.

It is because Mrs Mangat is still campaigning about the events surrounding Jonathan's death and its aftermath that I came across her, six years later. She is one of the driving forces behind Roadpeace, a group of relatives of road accident victims that is campaigning for more attention to be paid to the toll of death (4,200 last year) and injury on the roads. She is also a member of a Home Office-supported Road Deaths Working Party, which includes representatives from the police and road safety organisations, and is drawing up a code of practice to improve the way police deal with the families of road accident victims.

Mrs Mangat was to suffer further indignities. The inquest did not take place until January 1988, more than six months later. A police officer told her at the inquest that the lorry driver would face charges under the Road Traffic Act the following month. The inquest heard that the driver had overtaken Jonathan in a tight situation, knocking him over as he cut back in. But, to Mrs Mangat's lasting anger, the summonses were not laid within the six-month deadline and no case was ever brought.

Mrs Mangat sums up her experience with a calmness she clearly has to work hard to maintain: 'Jonathan's death was never taken seriously. The police never phoned me, never kept me in touch with what was happening. Anything I found out was on my initiative. They just didn't take it seriously, which they would have done if it had been a violent death such as a murder.'

Geoffrey Markham, assistant chief constable of Essex Police, sits on the same working party as Mrs Mangat. He accepts that the police have not always handled these matters well. With the force's head of traffic, Superintendent Des McGarr, he has drawn up a written strategy to deal with accidents, which will soon be published as part of the force's aim of producing 'service delivery standards'. The most important message the force has learnt from Mrs Mangat and her fellow lobbyists is that road accidents must be taken seriously, even if it is only a minor offence that has been committed.

Mr Markham says: 'We investigate accidents thoroughly and ensure that people are kept in touch with developments. However, this does not mean that we should raise people's expectations about judicial retribution. A minor error in motoring can cause horrendous results, but that doesn't mean we can prosecute: or we may only be able to charge the driver with a minor offence. This is not an evaluation of the deceased person's worth.'

Because of the imbalance between the seriousness of a death or serious injury and the seemingly trivial nature of any subsequent charges, relatives are anxious to be given the full results of any investigation. To keep people informed right from the beginning, Essex Police tries to ensure that a police officer who was at the scene of the accident is sent to inform relatives.

Sue and Brian Wells, whose 10-year-old son, James, was run over, have certainly benefited from Essex Police's policy of sensitive handling. The policeman responsible for their case, Keith Whiting, has kept them abreast of developments and been prepared to answer all their queries.

James was in intensive care for 10 days and PC Whiting visited regularly during that time. Mrs Wells recalls: 'He always first asked about James, then about us, and then would say, 'Have you any questions about the accident?'.'

PC Whiting helped to sort out traffic arrangements at the funeral, which he attended on his day off, and he came to see Mrs Wells at her parents' home, where she was staying after the accident, to explain the procedure of a coroner's hearing.

This was in sharp contrast to the experience of Mrs Mangat, who never received a second visit from the police. Supt McGarr says that his staff does not receive any specific training for dealing with these situations, 'because that could make them inflexible as each situation is different'. But he says that the traffic police all have at least five years' experience in the force, which ensures no junior officer will turn up at the door.

Like most bereaved families, the Wellses wanted to be able to blame someone for their child's death. 'I just wanted to murder the driver, but PC Whiting was able to explain the circumstances,' says Mr Wells. 'I began to understand that the driver had no chance because James obviously had a lapse in concentration. In the end, I had to accept that there would be no prosecution.'

Mrs Wells's father had similar feelings about the accident and kept on saying he was not satisfied. One of the investigators took the trouble to visit him to explain the circumstances. 'He feels 100 per cent better about it now,' she says, adding that she was so impressed with the police action that she wrote to thank them for their help.

There is, however, a human cost for the police. It was probably easier for them in the bad old days when the police refrained from becoming involved. Mr Markham recollects that during his days on the beat he used to be good at informing relatives of such tragedies, until one day he had to tell someone about two children who had been decapitated. He was never so detached after that.

The new, more caring approach may mean added stress for the police, but that is a small price to pay for an institution that these days is more used to brickbats than bouquets.

The author is Transport Correspondent of the 'Independent'.

(Photograph omitted)