August 13, 2018

This new ‘dangerous cycling’ law is distracting government from the real priority: making our roads safer

The Department for Transport has launched a 12-week consultation into whether there should be new ‘death by dangerous cycling’ and ‘death by careless cycling’ laws brought in. Laws in this area have been under the microscope since the Charlie Alliston case, in part because there aren’t equivalent cycling offences for causing death by ‘dangerous’ or ‘careless’ (motor) driving. In fact, Mr Alliston was charged and jailed for causing bodily harm by ‘furious and wanton driving’ – a law dating back to 1861.

The result of any careless or reckless behaviour of cyclists on our roads is rarely death or injury to other road users. If a cyclist is careless or reckless then they are generally putting themselves rather than others at risk, given their vulnerability on our roads. Statistically, you are in more danger of being struck by lightning than being killed by a cyclist.

So what happened to Mrs Briggs is very, very unusual. Why the attention, then? I imagine that, in part, the reason the case received such widespread media attention is that it is such a rare occurrence.

Sadly, cyclists and pedestrians being killed by motorists aren’t all reported in the national news, the investigation and prosecution are rarely followed, even where motorists have been distracted by using a phone, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, uninsured or banned from driving. As a society, we seem to accept these tragedies as a part of motoring in this country. That is a very different backdrop to the way in which Mr Alliston’s trial was reported and followed.

This knee-jerk reaction to one case – I challenge you to find many other recent examples – is wide of the mark in terms of addressing the real issues that our road safety policies should address; the government is prioritising a law change that won’t make our roads safer and will rarely be used in practice at the expense of more meaningful road safety changes.

It’s hard to see how the introduction of these new laws will make our roads safer for pedestrians. If cyclists are treated as leniently as motorists, the changes are unlikely to have a significant impact on sentencing on the odd occasion that the laws are applied.

When I last wrote on dangerous cycling I was trying to demonstrate that we’re barking up the wrong tree by even having this on the agenda, so I delved into the stats on this issue because they clearly demonstrate this law change is unjustified. However, if statistical evidence on the causes of avoidable road deaths isn’t persuasive enough, I will join campaigners in identifying a few examples of cases where dangerous driving has killed vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists to show how leniently the motorists are dealt with.

How dangerous driving laws are failing to stop accidents

If the logic behind a new dangerous cycling law is that it will stop or deter cyclists from behaving dangerously, then it’s clearly misguided because that isn’t a problem that needs addressing in the first place.

If the logic is that there is a gap in the law that needs plugging, then let’s look at how similar laws are already being applied to motorists. Remember, motorists are responsible for killing and seriously injuring over 99% of pedestrians on our roads. The most recent study I could find comes from 2013; shockingly, only 40% of drivers who killed cyclists on our roads actually went to jail, 26% of drivers weren’t even banned. Is this how the new laws would be applied to cyclists?

If you’ve got the time or inclination, it won’t take you long to find stories online of cases where pedestrians or cyclists have been killed by motor vehicles. It happens every day. There were 550 pedestrians and cyclists killed on our roads in 2016. It’s also easy to find a number of cases which might make you question Charlie Alliston’s 18-month sentence.

For example, this van driver who mounted the pavement and killed a four-year-old girl was cleared of dangerous driving. He was found not guilty and received no punishment, even if he has vowed to never drive again.

The Guardian reported here on a driver who killed a cyclist whilst driving a 32-tonne truck. The lorry driver couldn’t see clearly because he wasn’t wearing his glasses.  He wasn’t prosecuted for dangerous driving, and neither was he banned from driving.

Looking closer to home, a driver in Bristol – who had previous convictions for drink driving – was only given a community order this year after killing a cyclist on a roundabout in 2016. He didn’t slow down or stop so that he could keep a proper lookout, costing a husband and grandfather his life.

Finally, another incident that has probably given most road cyclists sleepless nights seen here showed a driver plough into a group of cyclists instead of overtaking them safely. By now you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the charge of dangerous driving was dropped and he was ordered to pay just £20 as a victim surcharge. You can make up your own minds about that one.

There are many other cases where drivers have been let off lightly for killing or injuring vulnerable road users, too many to list here. What we should learn from the current situation is that it is time for a general review of the laws applicable to all road users, and to single out cyclists as some sort of menace or risk to pedestrians paints a very misleading picture.

What should be done instead?

There are many other things that the current government could do in the meantime to reduce the number of needless deaths of pedestrians and cyclists on our roads. Ahead of new legislation on ‘causing death by dangerous/careless cycling’, efforts would (in my view) be better directed as follows:

  • focusing on motorists as the road users who pose the greatest danger: stamping out careless or dangerous behaviour around pedestrians and cyclists could be achieved by applying our existing laws without such sympathy for motorists, e.g. introducing presumed liability for drivers who hit pedestrians or cyclists.
  • improving infrastructure to separate motorists from vulnerable road users.
  • increasing mandatory training (around cyclists and pedestrians) for motorists before they are licensed to drive on our roads.
  • prioritising alternative transport options instead of motor vehicles for the benefit of our health, air quality and pollution, congestion in city centres, healthy and active living, and the burden on the NHS.

If the government wants to improve road safety, then this new dangerous cycling law should be at the bottom of this list. It is a distraction from the real issues that need to be addressed.

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