Fatal distraction: Drivers, and cyclists, need all their attention for the road

A cyclist was killed last year by a driver who was adjusting her sat nav
  • @susborne

There can be no starker warning to all road users to concentrate than the awful case of Victoria McClure. The 38-year-old former paediatrician and mother of two had been fiddling with her sat nav last September for 18 seconds, unaware that she was approaching Anthony Hilson, 46, a cyclist riding in the same direction. She saw him too late and killed him.

McClure is now waiting to find out if she will be sent to prison after being convicted this week of causing death by dangerous driving, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. She sobbed in the dock at Reading Crown Court as the verdict was read out. “For the cyclist, for his family, I don't stop thinking about it and I feel very sorry,” she said.

One life ended, several more rattled, including McClure’s and, depending on her sentence, her children’s, too. While nobody would remotely justify such bad focus on the road - or feel anything but great sympathy for Hilson’s family - how many of us can honestly claim never to have been driven to distraction by technology, and not to feel a tiny bit sorry for McClure?

Four years ago I stepped into a driving simulator at the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire. Studies had shown that as many as three in four crashes are caused by distraction. Top of the list of causes was texting, something 40 per cent of people in one survey admitted to doing while driving. Other research had shown the reaction times of drivers fiddling with gadgets were 50 per cent slower than normal – and 30 per cent slower than while driving drunk.

Sure enough, I was a terrible (virtual) driver while intentionally distracting myself with a sat nav, phone, while texting and cueing music on an iPod.

What has changed even since I wrote that story, is the number of cyclists on the road who, inevitably, are harder for even the most attentive drivers to spot than other cars. Bradley Wiggins discovered this to his cost last year when he was knocked off his bike by a driver who simply hadn’t seen him (controversially, I expressed some sympathy with that driver, too).

My brother, Patrick, one of dozens of recent converts to road cycling I know, suffered an almost identical fate last month when a driver pulled out into his path on a quiet country lane in perfect visibility. Patrick even remembers making eye contact with the man before he was launched head-first across his emerging bonnet. Thankfully, he sustained only scratches and battered knees. The mortified driver offered only that familiar defence: “I just didn’t see you”.

That cyclists can be rendered invisible even in the eyes of focused drivers only reinforces the importance of good attention as the number of cyclists on our roads continues to soar - along with the temptations that come with our technology. Should McClure ever find herself behind the wheel again, one suspects she will pull over before adjusting her sat nav. In the meantime, we should all do the same lest we ruin more lives - including our own.