August 7, 2010 12:45 am

First Person: Cynthia Barlow

 
Cynthia Barlow

Cynthia Barlow has forced construction companies to fit new indicators on their lorries, and to train their drivers to be more sympathetic to cyclists

When my daughter died after being struck on her bike by a cement lorry, I found the inquest a complete nonsense. I went into a deep depression and could have given up entirely. Instead, I got angry and thought, “No, I am still her mother and the system is not going to treat Alex this way.” So I bought shares in the company that owned the lorry that killed her. It was the only way I could think of to get them to face me in person and listen to what I had to say.

Alex was 26 years old when she died, 10 years ago last month. She had a masters degree and a new job with a legal firm in the City, where she had met her boyfriend. She was cycling to work when it happened. Her life was just beginning when it was taken from her.

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I bought £500 worth of shares in Readymix, or RMC as it then was: enough to give me the right to ask questions from the floor at their AGM. The meeting was at a very grand hotel near Park Lane. I was very nervous, but a friend thrust my hand into the air at the right time, and I read out what I had prepared. I wanted to know what had happened, why it happened and how they could stop it happening again. Everyone went quiet. Then the chairman asked the board member responsible for health and safety to contact me. To my surprise, he did; he came to London and we began working together.

If you go through the statistics, it is the construction industry that is killing cyclists – concrete mixers, tipper lorries, skip lorries. There are several factors in this: vehicle design, driver training, and behaviour and attitudes. But I have done a lot with Cemex, as the company is now known. First, we made a training video for drivers, to get them thinking about vulnerable road users. Then I took up every point that was made in the police report on my daughter’s death.

Alex was an experienced cyclist on a familiar route along London Wall, and she was wearing a high-visibility sash. She was alongside the lorry for a considerable distance and the police evidence found that she was visible in at least one of the driver’s mirrors the whole time. He pulled out to the right at a junction in order to turn sharp left, cutting across her path. He didn’t know he’d run her down. The noise of passers-by alerted him and he stopped.

I was never allowed to see her at the mortuary. I wasn’t even offered the chance of holding her hand. I know now that they were protecting me from the sight of her, but I wish they had told me that, or given me a choice.

We have made a lot of changes to the lorries. The driver only indicated to turn left when my daughter was already alongside, so she wouldn’t have been able to see the indicator. The company has since put an extra indicator at the front of every vehicle, one that someone riding alongside can see. There are also extra mirrors and four new proximity sensors along the side of the lorry. These activate an alarm in the cab that tells the driver there is someone alongside, and where they are. It also sets off a voice box which says, “Caution, truck turning left.”

Thanks to the adaptations we have made, Cemex lorries have stopped killing people. I hope that what I have done has saved a lot of lives. There are, however, still cases involving other construction companies.

When my daughter was killed, I was working at the University of London. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to work, but I knew that having to face the world in the morning was probably the right thing. I’m very grateful to my employers: they supported me through all of this.

When I retired, in 2007, I intended to spend my time painting. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, I became the chair of a charity called RoadPeace, whose mission is to empower and support the families of those who are killed and injured on the roads. Would Alex be proud of me? I hope she would. She was my friend – a good, talented, lovely person who would never have wanted me to give up.

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