Yesterday, Saturday 11 August, I received a call out of the blue from a BBC journalist asking me whether, in my capacity as a cycle campaigner, I’d be willing to appear on breakfast TV to discuss a cycling-related news story that they were considering running today (Sunday 12 August). Satisfying myself that the story was not seeking to manufacture conflict and would explore the issues sensitively, I agreed. I was sent the embargoed press release from the DfT and started preparing. Shortly afterwards I received a phone call telling me to stand down as cycling journalist Laura Laker was travelling from London to do the interview. So here’s a blog post instead.
The issue being discussed was a twelve-week government consultation into matters to make the UK’s roads safer for vulnerable road users (people cycling and walking). This has been in the pipeline for a while and follows a call for evidence phase which concluded earlier this summer. A key plank of this consultation will be the creation of a new offence of causing death by dangerous or careless cycling, which will no doubt grab most of the headlines. Yet there are a few other nuggets in there that are worth a line or two, as well. Now being reported in the media, here’s the original DfT press release in full:
Road users would be kept safer under new government proposals that include changing the law and building better infrastructure.
A new consultation, open for 12 weeks from today, will look at whether a new offence equivalent to causing death by careless or dangerous driving should be introduced for dangerous cyclists.
More is also being done to protect cyclists and pedestrians who use our roads safely, including a push for higher standards for cycling and walking infrastructure across the UK.
The measures follow the launch earlier this summer of a UK-wide initiative to help police crackdown on dangerous drivers who pass cyclists too closely in a two-pronged approach to make our roads safer.
The Department for Transport is also looking at updating parts of the Highway Code, including measures to counter the dangerous practice of ‘close passing’ which puts people off cycling, and would benefit other vulnerable road users like horse riders.
Cycling and Walking Minister Jesse Norman said:
“In recent weeks we have announced a range of measures designed to protect vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians. These include new measures to combat close passing, training for driving instructors, better collision investigation and £100 million in new investment through the Safer Roads Fund.
“Now we are taking further steps. These include a consultation on new cycling offences, further work on national guidance on cycling and walking infrastructure, and improvements to the Highway Code.
“All these measures are designed to support the continued growth of cycling and walking, with all the benefits they bring to our communities, economy, environment and society.”
In 2016, three pedestrians were killed and 108 seriously injured after being involved in collisions with pedal cyclists.
New offence of causing death by careless or dangerous cycling
This has been in the pipeline since the trial and subsequent conviction of Charlie Alliston, over the death of Kim Briggs, with whom he collided in a London street in February 2016 and who subsequently died of head injuries sustained in the collision. This case caused predictable levels of media outrage, with the usual suspects positively frothing with Schadenfreude as the very archetype of the arrogant, inconsiderate #bloodycyclist faced the full force of the English legal system. He was charged with manslaughter and the ancient offence of causing bodily harm by wanton or furious driving, was acquitted of the former and found guilty of the latter, and was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment.
While there is much discussion to be had about the circumstances of that case, we are here interested in the aftermath (for a detailed critique of the way proceedings were conducted, see Martin Porter QC’s Guardian piece written at the time of the trial). What the case demonstrated was that there isn’t a piece of UK legislation that can be used to prosecute the tiny number of reckless riders whose actions cause the death of others, so: fair enough, let’s plug the gap in the law.
However, my fear is that once again this will distract attention from the real issues we face around road safety. The press release ends with some statistics: “In 2016, three pedestrians were killed and 108 seriously injured after being involved in collisions with pedal cyclists.” Now of course, the first question one must ask when dealing with statistics is: “is that a big number?” Well, yes and no. Three fatalities in a year as a result of pedestrian/bike collisions is unusually high. At the same time, a broader look at the figures shows us that the overwhelming majority of road traffic casualties are nothing to do with “killer cyclists” (all figures quoted here from the DfT’s Reported road casualties Great Britain, annual report: 2016). And also begs the question: if this is a consultation on road safety, why exclude statistics of people killed or injured while cycling, or indeed incidents not involving a cycle at all? Surely we need to see the bigger picture for a balanced view? So allow me.
In 2016, total pedestrian fatalities were 448 (so 445 pedestrian deaths not caused by bikes); total serious pedestrian injuries were 5,140 (so 5,022 pedestrian serious injuries not caused by bikes). Similarly, 102 bike-riders were killed and 3,397 seriously injured in 2016. Overall, in that year 1,792 people died on the UK’s roads, and 24,101 were seriously injured. So putting that into context, bikes were responsible for 0.67 percent of pedestrian fatalities, which figure equates to 0.17 of all road fatalities. None of which is to dismiss the severity of each and every one of those incidents, because each one is a tragedy that will affect the lives of the victim’s loved ones for ever. But my concern is: will the media coverage dedicated to the new offence be proportionate to the respective risk posed by people on bikes and those in vehicles? Will we finally have a sober, objective discussion of how to tackle the hostile environment for vulnerable users on our roads? I’m not holding my breath.
Higher standards for cycling and walking infrastructure
How many column inches do we think this will garner as opposed to the dangerous cycling law? I suspect it’ll be similar to the above graph. However, this reference to infrastructure appears to be an acknowledgment that national standards are long overdue, and also a tacit recognition that much existing cycling and walking infrastructure has been built to a standard that renders it worse than useless. I’m sure we’ve all seen bike lanes that end just when things get particularly hairy, or circuitous, unappealing walking routes around more direct and pleasant vehicle thoroughfares (dank subways under roundabouts, anyone?). Infrastructure is of course key in rebalancing, in civilising the road environment and removing the conflict that’s currently designed into our motor-centric roads.
So: from where we are now, raising standards isn’t difficult. Raising them to a level where they will make a substantive difference, however, most definitely is. In fact, Greater Manchester is in the process of drawing up an ambitious set of standards as part of the Beelines vision, whereby any scheme desiring a Beelines mark will need to be suitable for use by a notional twelve-year-old. Any national standards will need to be equally ambitious, or else we’ll just get more of the same bitty bullshit.
A further consideration here is that walking and cycling infrastructure needs to be subsumed into the broader definition of infrastructure. That is to say, walking and cycling should be included in any transport scheme as a matter of course, and not, as has historically been the case, as bolt-ons when separate little bits of money become available. Recent developments suggest that this may not yet be the case. Take for example July’s parliamentary meeting about the integration of cycling provision into the £56 billion HS2 project, where MPs were frankly clueless about many basic issues around planning for cycling. Or transport investment programmes that make no mention of cycling/active travel. I’m not sure that our current government is anywhere near as enlightened as it needs to be in this respect.
Police crackdown on dangerous drivers who pass cyclists too closely
Now this is potentially good news. Originally pioneered by West Midlands Police, close-pass initiatives have been adopted by a handful of others across the country (we looked at GMP’s Operation Considerate initiative here). As well as infrastructure, enforcement of traffic laws and specifically offences against people cycling is a key factor in civilising the road environment to facilitate greater levels of cycling, and WMP’s approach has been shown to reap rewards. Rolling that out nationally so that we can rely on the police having our back no matter where we’re riding can only be a good thing.
Updating parts of the Highway Code
This definitely needs doing. Currently Highway Code Rule 163, for example, states that drivers should “Give vulnerable road users at least as much space as you would a car”. Even with the accompanying picture (see below), this stipulation is potentially confusing. After all, if you can squeeze past a parked car with a just a couple of millimetres’ clearance, it’s not going to potentially wobble and fall into the road in the path of another vehicle, as may happen when passing a bike-rider without enough clearance. So firming up the rules with more precise language (as in the close pass image above) is urgently needed to clarify matters.
And while they’re tinkering with the Highway Code, they may as well shore up the guidance on avoiding left-hooking vulnerable road users as urged in British Cycling’s Turning the Corner campaign.
£100 million in new investment through the Safer Roads Fund
This is a scheme aimed at reducing the risks on certain of the country’s most dangerous roads. For those interested, there’s a report right here.
With the press release embargo having been lifted at midnight, the story has now broken, and predictably the dangerous cycling aspect is attracting the most attention. Some examples include the Metro story: “Anger over plans for death by dangerous cycling laws“; the BBC’s “Death by dangerous cycling’ law considered” or – back to Martin Porter – “Death by dangerous cycling law ‘not remotely likely to save a single life’, says QC” in Cyclist magazine. So, as feared, the focus of the discussion is on the perceived dangers posed by people on bikes and not broader safety issues, and the other parts of the consultation (dangerous passes etc.) are being all but ignored.
Of course, pitting bike-riders against motorists and pedestrians is a conflict that’s manufactured by the poor road designs that prevail across much of the UK and perpetuated by hostile sections of the media, opportunist politicians and sundry vested interests. It’s absolutely key that we recognise that we’re all pedestrians, many of us drive and quite a few of us ride bikes, too. These aren’t mutually exclusive tribes: we’re the same people, and it’s important to resist any such tribalisation in discussions around road safety. There is more to this consultation than the new cycling offence, and it’s crucial that we resist it being reduced to that.
Because if we do, given the unnuanced, blunt times we live in, there is a real risk that a disproportionate focus on dangerous cycling may ultimately have the opposite outcome, chipping away at the little respect there already is for people who cycle on our roads and put us at even more risk. Who’s looking forward to tomorrow’s commute?
The consultation can be viewed and responded to here.