Published: 13 November, 2009
The grieving family of a cyclist who died on Arran in August 2008 spoke of their disappointment after the driver charged with causing her death walked free from court.
Elspeth Kelman, 59, was struck by a van driven by Nick Underdown, 28, who was cleared on a not proven verdict of causing death by careless driving. The case was the first of its kind in Scotland.
Mrs Kelman, a widow, had been on a cycling trip around the island in memory of her late husband, Ronald. Two of her sons were on the trip with her.
The college lecturer’s family condemned the verdict and insisted the tragedy could have been avoided.
Frances Downie, Mrs Kelman’s sister, said: ‘The shocking and violent nature of her death caused horror, anger and agitation.
‘We were very disappointed in the jury’s verdict and feel that Elspeth’s death was a tragedy which could have been avoided.’
Mrs Kelman, a mother-of-three from Glasgow, was on an annual cycle ride to honour her husband Ronald, who died from cancer in 1994.
Fellow members of the congregation at Wellington Church in the city’s West End were with her on the ride.
The church’s retired minister, Rev Leith Fisher, 67, was also badly hurt in the crash on the A841 Brodick to Corrie coast road near Cladach in August 2008. He has since died of natural causes.
Underdown had just rounded a bend when his Seat Inca ploughed into the cyclists before plunging down an embankment. Mrs Kelman was pronounced dead at the scene.
The road – part of the Sustrans national cycle network – was slightly damp but light and weather conditions were good, Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard.
Mr Underdown of Corrie was a reporter for the Arran Voice newspaper and was off-duty at the time. He had denied the charge.
PC Euan Thomson, a crash investigator, said the van had mounted the verge then spun onto the opposite carriageway before hitting the cyclists.
The Highway Code instructs drivers to reduce speed when approaching bends and to be aware of vulnerable road users including cyclists, PC Thomson added.
The police accident report blamed Mr Underdown for the accident, finding he ‘failed to maintain proper control of the vehicle’ and concluding ‘his actions have been careless’.
An investigator also stated in the report that ‘there was no wrongdoing on the part of the cyclist’.
But Mr Underdown’s defence counsel, Jamie Gilchrist QC, argued successfully in a legal debate that the jury should not see those parts of the report.
The jury later returned a majority verdict of not proven and Mr Underdown was acquitted.
The case was the first in Scotland where a driver stood trial under recent legislation of causing death by careless driving.
Mrs Downie said the loss of her sister should not be in vain and urged motorists to drive more carefully.
She added: ‘Drivers should have a radical rethink in how they drive and be aware that it takes just seconds to kill someone.
‘The consequences of a road death for the bereaved and we believe for the driver are devastating, widespread and long lasting.
‘The sudden loss of Elspeth – mother, daughter, sister and friend – has had a huge impact upon our lives and this will continue as we live through new experiences, new joys, new difficulties without her love, support and energy.’
Alan Beasley, 57, of Corrie, attended the trial and said he was devastated at the not proven verdict.
Mr Beasley, a member of the road safety campaign group SCID whose 14-year-old son Sam died after being struck by a car while cycling on the same road six years ago, said figures revealed eight people had been killed on the road in Arran since 2003.
He added: ‘The local police and other agencies on the island have been working very hard to prevent loss of life and serious injury on the road.
‘This verdict could send out the signal that to skid on a wet road through inappropriate speed is acceptable by the courts. Motorists should be driving to local conditions.
‘There is a complacency on Arran that this place is unique but it is not – and the law is the same as anywhere else in the UK.’
Mr Underdown was unavailable for comment.