The Government has recently announced that it plans to review road traffic laws to tackle dangerous cycling. The review follows the tragic death of Kim Briggs. In February 2016 Mrs Briggs stepped into a road and was hit by Charlie Alliston who was riding a fixed wheel bike which, illegally, did not have a front brake. It was reported that Alliston was cycling at 18 miles per hour, shouted a warning using strong language, reduced his speed to 14 miles mile per hour and tried to steer behind Mrs Briggs. He struck Mrs Briggs who fell to the ground suffering a fatal brain injury.

The Crown Prosecution Service was unable to prosecute Alliston for death by careless driving (defined as a standard of driving below that of a careful and competent driver) or dangerous driving (standard of driving far below a careful and competent driver and obvious that it was dangerous) because this requires the use of a “mechanically propelled vehicle”.

Sections 28 & 29 of The Road Traffic Act 1988 make provision for the offences of “dangerous cycling” and “careless and inconsiderate cycling” which are punishable by fines of £5,000 and £1,000 respectively.

28 Dangerous cycling.

(1)A person who rides a cycle on a road dangerously is guilty of an offence.

(2)For the purposes of subsection (1) above a person is to be regarded as riding dangerously if (and only if)—

(a)the way he rides falls far below what would be expected of a competent and careful cyclist, and

(b)it would be obvious to a competent and careful cyclist that riding in that way would be dangerous.

(3)In subsection (2) above “dangerous” refers to danger either of injury to any person or of serious damage to property; and in determining for the purposes of that subsection what would be obvious to a competent and careful cyclist in a particular case, regard shall be had not only to the circumstances of which he could be expected to be aware but also to any circumstances shown to have been within the knowledge of the accused.

29 Careless, and inconsiderate, cycling.

If a person rides a cycle on a road without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road, he is guilty of an offence.

There are currently no offences of causing death by dangerous or careless/inconsiderate cycling. Moreover sections 28 & 29 relate to the manner of cycling whereas dangerous driving covers both the manner of driving and knowledge that the vehicle was unroadworthy.

The prosecution of Alliston proceeded on 2 counts – (1) manslaughter and (2) under the rarely used section 35 of The Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

“Whosoever, having the charge of any carriage or vehicle, shall by wanton or furious driving or racing, or other wilful misconduct, or by wilful neglect, do or cause to be done any bodily harm to any person whatsoever, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”

It is difficult to secure convictions for manslaughter in relation to road traffic collisions so it is not surprising that Alliston was acquitted of that offence. He was however convicted under section 35 of the 1861 Act.

Sentencing the teenager to 18 months detention in a Youth Offender Institution Judge Joseph QC said Alliston rode the illegal bike for a “thrill” while “shouting and swearing at pedestrians…..I am satisfied in some part it was this so-called thrill that motivated you to ride without a front brake shouting and swearing at pedestrians to get out of the way…..I’ve heard your evidence and I have no doubt that even now you remain obstinately sure of yourself and your own abilities…I have no doubt you are wrong in this. You were an accident waiting to happen.”

The case attracted much media attention. Tabloid newspapers pointed out that Alliston has a skull tattoo behind his left ear and highlighted his ill-considered social media postings in the aftermath of the incident. Richard Madeley on GMB lost his temper with Cycling UK spokesperson, Duncan Dollimore, who was attempting to steer the debate away from a cyclists v motorists issue and to highlight the reduction of roads policing. Adam Boulton writing in the Sunday Times wrote about “our senseless worship of bicycles”, cyclists killing pedestrians and lack of accountability of cyclists.

Following the conviction, Mrs Briggs` widower, Matt, called for the law to be updated so that the offence of death by careless/dangerous driving be extended to death by careless/dangerous cycling where there are tougher sentences. The maximum penalty for death by dangerous driving is 14 years and for death by careless driving it is 5 years.

In May 2014, Chris Grayling MP, the then Justice Secretary, announced the Government’s “intention to launch a full review of all driving offences and penalties, to ensure people who endanger lives and public safety are properly punished”. There are now fears that the new narrow review of legislation relating just to cyclists could displace the wider sentencing review and that focusing on one mode of transport is misguided.

There is a need for a sense of perspective here and for some important facts to be highlighted:

  1. Annually there are about 1,800 road deaths in the UK. Of these on average only one or two are caused by collisions with cyclists, ie about 0.12%.
  2. Duncan Dollimore from Cycling UK is correct to point out the reduction of road policing. Between 2010 and 2014 there was a 27% reduction of specialist road traffic officers – 5,338 down to 3,901. The reduction of roads traffic policing means that irresponsible road users (cyclists and motorists alike) are less likely to be caught and dealt with by the Criminal Justice System.
  3. The Criminal Justice System appears to punish bad cyclists more vigorously than bad drivers. The Evening Standard (2 January 2014) reported that police data for London, 2010 to 2012, revealed that there is only a one in ten chance of a prison sentence following a collision with a cyclist. RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, points out that in England & Wales over 40% of drivers convicted of causing a death do not receive a custodial sentence at all. The problem is well illustrated by the Rhyl cycling tragedy which happened in January 2006. Robert Harris lost control of his car on black ice on a bend colliding with members of Rhyl cycling club who were cycling towards him. Three men and a 14 year old boy were killed. Harris was only convicted for having defective tyres – the nearside tyres had no tread. He was fined £180 and awarded 6 penalty points on his license. He was not prosecuted for causing death by careless driving even though he was negotiating a bend at 50 mph on an icy morning with bald tyres.

The sentencing of Alliston should hopefully serve as deterrent to people riding fixed wheel bicycles without front brakes. Such practice is both illegal and dangerous. Bringing careless/dangerous cycling into line with the corresponding motoring offences is probably appropriate. However the real priority of the Government should be to address the shortage of road traffic officers so that careless and dangerous road users are caught and dealt with appropriately by the Criminal Justice System. Careless and dangerous road users of all vehicle types can kill and injure people. The focus should not be on cyclists alone but on the safety of all road users.