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Starks v Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, Court of Appeal, 9 July 2013

6 September 2013
The issues

Road traffic – emergency services – blameworthiness – mini-roundabouts.

The facts

On 27 December 2007 two cars collided at the junction of Verity Way and Vardon Road in Stevenage. One of the vehicles was a police car. Both drivers were injured but Mr Starks’s injuries were much more serious. Mr Starks brought a claim for damages which came before the judge at the Cambridge County Court when judgment was entered for the claimant to the extent of 55%.

Verity Way was the more major of the two roads running north to south and subject to a 40 mile an hour speed limit. Vardon Road joined Verity Way from the west and was subject to a 30 mile limit. The junction was a T-junction but was configured as a mini-roundabout with a painted roundel surrounded by two concentric circles and directional arrows. All three entrances to the junction were marked with ‘give way’ lines. The accident happened at 5.30 p.m. by which time it was dark. The junction was well lit. Both vehicles had their lights on. PC Richardson driving the police car was approaching the junction along Verity Way from the south intending to carry straight on, the claimant was approaching across the mini roundabout to the junction along Vardon Road intending to turn right. The claimant reached the roundabout first, entered it, and began his right turn taking a line which involved passing over the top part of the roundel. PC Richardson entered the roundabout shortly after him. She did not moderate her speed or course in any way going directly over the middle of the roundel. She struck the claimant’s car in the centre of the junction on the roundel itself. At the moment of impact the police vehicle was travelling at 30 miles an hour and the claimant 15 miles an hour. It was not in dispute that both drivers were substantially at fault but the issue was their relative culpability. The claimant appealed against the judge’s assessment.

The decision

The issue of priority did not receive much detailed analysis at trial. Nor was the issue explicitly addressed by the judge. For the defendant it was argued that provision 185 of the Highway Code should be regarded as a fundamental factor in deciding the question of relative culpability. That section required drivers reaching a roundabout to “give priority to traffic approaching from the right”. It was submitted for the defendant that a driver should not enter a roundabout if doing so would inconvenience any driver approaching from the right and that priority must be given not only to those actually on the roundabout but those who are approaching it and are sufficiently close to be inconvenienced by a driver entering the roundabout ahead of them.

The Court of Appeal did not accept that in the circumstances of this case the question of formal priority had the importance which the defendant sought to attach to it. The distances involved and the speeds of approach dictated by the configuration of such roundabouts were such that drivers approaching it would not normally be ‘inconvenienced’ by another driver entering ahead of them from the next road on the left and that priority therefore would only be a realistic issue as regards vehicles already on the roundabout. In a case where two drivers were approaching a mini-roundabout one being closer but the other travelling faster the rules about priority might not give a black and white answer. Which driver ought to accommodate the other would involve an exercise of judgement on the part of each driver with each being prepared to stop at the give way line if there was room for doubt about the other’s intentions. Issues of formal priority were not decisive.

Considering culpability in respect of PC Richardson, the fact remained that the junction was a mini-roundabout and instead of slowing to go round it in a proper manner had just gone straight across it. This was a plain breach of paragraph 188 of the Highway Code. On her behalf it was argued that the great majority of drivers at this junction behave exactly in the same way. That was not relevant. The rule was emphatic and explicit. The fact that it was often broken was neither here nor there. Although it was not accepted by the defendant the judge had found that if PC Richardson had gone round the roundabout in an orthodox manner her speed would have been reduced to 20 miles an hour. Quite separately she should in any event have slowed down because she should have seen the claimant’s vehicle and anticipated the possibility of his entering the junction. As for the claimant, he likewise could see PC Richardson’s car approaching and should have anticipated by reason of its speed and proximity that it was not safe to pull out. He made a serious misjudgement because it led to him driving out into her path. On the other hand he was entitled to expect that any vehicle approaching the junction would slow down and go round the roundel in the proper way. On the basis of this analysis the judge’s apportionment could not stand. Both drivers were clearly seriously at fault in failing properly to appreciate what the other might do and to adjust their driving accordingly. However in the case of the police officer there was also the fact that she wholly ignored the existence of the mini-roundabout which was a serious additional feature which made her the more culpable. Blame should be apportioned 65/35. Appeal allowed to that extent.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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