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Gary Mason death junction: Sutton council shrug their shoulders

Just over one year ago, my first ever post on this blog was about the death of Gary Mason, who was hit by a van at a poorly-designed junction in January 2011. Sutton Borough Council, the local authority responsible for this deadly design, have decided that their roads aren’t in any way responsible for this tragic incident, and there’s no need to change the junction. I disagree.

Let’s recap.

It was early on a dark winter morning when Mason was struck by a van driven by Piero Zanelli, who was travelling north along Woodcote Road and turning right into Sandy Lane South.

It isn’t known whether Mason was on his bike turning right at the junction (i.e. about to turn north along Woodcote Road), or if he was crossing on foot while pushing his bike.

The junction at the location of the accident is dreadfully designed. In the image below we can see my rough diagram of what happened.

A photograph of the junction where boxer Gary Mason was killed. A green line shows the path which vehicles turning right should take, but the junction's poor design allows drivers to cut the corner, which is shown in red.

Drivers turning right should follow the green line, but it’s easier to cut the corner along the red line. Approximate location of Gary Mason shown. (Photo: Google Maps)

We can see the path which vehicle drivers should follow in green. But as the whole junction is one huge swathe of tarmac with only paint for guidance, there is nothing to stop a driver from following the desire line and cutting the corner. (Why is the striped area not a raised island?)

Here is another view, from above:

An aerial photo showing the dangerous nature of the junction of Sandy Lane South and Woodcote Road.

The same junction, but from above. Green line is legal path, red line is common short cut. Yellow star shows approximate location of collision. (Photo: Bing Maps)

So what is Sutton council’s response to the death of a human being, for which their road layout is clearly responsible? Surely any idiot can see that this design is dangerous?

“The Metropolitan Traffic Police and the Council’s traffic engineer carried out a joint inspection of the site soon after the accident and have assessed the site in relation to the accident you have mentioned in your email. I can confirm that no highway related factors have been identified by the inspection as being a contributory factor in relation to the said accident.”

That’s right. London’s finest have looked at this and somehow decided that there’s nothing which can be done to make this junction safer. (And people wonder why traffic engineers are so often lambasted on blogs like these? I know they’re not all bad, but honestly, I’d love to meet the traffic engineer who decided that this junction is just tickety-boo.)

This FoI response makes me so fucking angry. Here’s a highway authority ignoring a man’s death on their roads, for reasons I can only hazard a guess at. Are they not human? Don’t they have loved ones? Can they not empathise with Mason’s family? Do they never cross a dangerous road on foot?

Danger in the design

While I can’t excuse Zanelli’s driving, I can’t honestly condemn him either. People take their cues from their environment. We’ll never get 100% of people to follow all the rules all the time. To err is human, and so is taking a short cut. If following the desire line is “common at the junction“, then surely it’s easier to change the junction than the entire population. A simple raised island would do the job.

I’d be amazed if many drivers turning from Woodcote Road into Sandy Lane South follow the painted markings (unless there are cars turning right from Sandy Lane onto Woodcote Road, which would prevent the short cut manoeuvre). I expect that the red line is followed thousands of times a day, by a significant proportion of drivers. (Zanelli even admitted cutting the corner “eight times out of ten” if he thought the road was clear. Yet despite this clear admission of failure to follow driving rules, he was not prosecuted.)

Road design should be clear and explicit to prevent dangerous manoeuvres. The road design here is vague and permissive, with nothing to prevent people from taking a dangerous short cut.

Wider perspective

There’s a wider traffic engineering issue here too. Where was Zanelli going? If he had business on Sandy Lane or the streets around it then fair enough, but I suspect that most drivers turning right here are using the residential street as a short cut and a rat run, to avoid the junction of Woodcote Road and Stafford Road. Why do we allow what should be quiet, living streets to be used as main through-routes for thousands of motor vehicles?

Zoom out and you’ll see that Woodmansterne Lane and Sandy Lane can be used to avoid two junctions and knock half a mile off the route through the area. Why are these minor roads available to people who are merely passing through? What’s the point of those orange and green roads if not to carry the through-traffic? Why are Sutton council fiddling around the edges of the dangerous Woodmansterne Lane/Woodcote Green junction, rather than closing them to through-traffic altogether?

In conclusion: Nothing.

This incident has all the ingredients of the UK’s failed road safety mixed together. Dangerous junctions, excessive speed, rat running, poor planning, and the failure of the justice system after the event.

It seems that the official word is that Gary Mason’s death is just one of those things, nobody’s fault, nothing to be learned, nothing to be changed. Chalk it up to chance.

The only lesson seems to be that everyone should just drive everywhere all the time – in short, the UK’s roads policy since the 1950s.

Nothing to see here. Just fill your tank up and move along.

 


 

Update: Thanks to Charles Martin for his comment which reveals that Sutton are finally considering some changes to both this junction and the one further north (only two and a half years, impressive!). They’re far milder than I’d like (these minor roads remain open to through traffic, and there’s awful-for-cycling road narrowing) but they’re a small improvement on the current situation at least. Take a look for yourself (PDF).

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