In December 2015, in line with its manifesto promise, the Government published its “British Road Safety Statement” setting out forthcoming actions to be taken in respect of road safety management. These included safer roads and mobility, safer road users and post-crash responses. The expressly stated intention was to reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed or injured on British roads every year. It was intended that there be a series of consultations on specific road safety issues and incorporated into the Department for Transport’s policy.
Following high profile cases involving the deaths of pedestrians following collisions with cyclists in the last couple of years, the Department of Transport this week launched a 12-week consultation to look at whether to introduce new offences for careless or dangerous cyclists where bodily injury or death occurs.
Stringent penalties already exist for careless motor driving resulting in death (with a maximum imprisonment of 5 years) and dangerous driving resulting in death (with a maximum imprisonment of 14 years). These charges only relate to mechanically propelled motor vehicles and are therefore not applicable to cyclists. In a recent highly publicised case, the prosecution had to use a Victorian law, namely the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act for “wanton or furious driving” against a cyclist; the alternative being the much more stringent charge of manslaughter, which was not pursued. This suggests a change in the law is long overdue. Charges for careless and dangerous cycling already exist, but they do not specifically involve bodily injury and maximum penalties are only fines of between £1,000 and £2,500 which do not reflect the gravity of an offence causing death or serious injury occurs.
Some safety campaigners such as BRAKE (the Road Safety Charity) have questioned whether the launch of the Government’s consultation announced this week is already a missed opportunity to review road safety law generally and in particular what they describe as a “fundamentally flawed legal framework” which denies the victims and their families of road accidents recourse to justice, due to lenient sentencing and lack of enforcement of driving bans. Indeed, the theme of this year’s Road Safety Week (19-25 November 2018) is “Bike Smart”, encouraging the public and law makers to consider and to improve the safety of cyclists.
The “British Road Safety Statement” indicated that there would be several consultations and so it is to be hoped that this is the first of many. However, those who represent cyclists have questioned the apparent initial emphasis on accidents caused by cyclists, which represent a very tiny proportion of overall road traffic injuries.
Cyclists themselves are exposed to a far greater degree physically and to well documented risks from lorries, potholes and drivers just failing to see them. Statistics show many, particularly children, are deterred from cycling altogether due to the vulnerability they face from motor vehicles.
Figures from ROSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) published in 2016 illustrate the risks faced by cyclists on a daily basis:
Tragically, 102 adults and children were killed in 2016 and at least 18,477 were injured on UK roads. This is obviously an under-reflection of the problem as there will be many incidents and minor accidents which go unreported.
The proportion of accidents analysed illustrate that 81% involved males and most of the children involved were in the 10-15-year age group.
Fatalities usually occurred at or near a road junction with T-junctions being the most dangerous. Drivers’ failure to look was the most common identified cause of an accident, followed by cyclists entering the road from the pavement. 50% of accidents occurred on rural roads, with a majority of accidents occurring during rush hour times in daylight rather than darkness. This clearly reflects the greater proportion of cyclists out and about in the warmer and lighter months of the year.
In London 20% of cyclist fatalities involved an HGV, most commonly when the HGVs turned left at a junction and as a result of passing too close to cyclists.
Fatalities usually involved major head injuries. Indeed, of those admitted to hospital, 40% suffered head injuries. Whilst wearing a cycle helmet by no means prevents brain injuries, it can lessen the risk of some such injuries and the possibility of skull fractures. Wearing a cycle helmet is still not compulsory in the UK, although the Highway Code and safety charities urge their use.
As the light evenings come to an end and Autumn approaches, whilst the number of accidents decline, casualties figure become higher in the colder months of the year.
ROSPA have urged the adoption within the UK of European times which would put Britain one hour ahead in Winter and two hours ahead in the Summer – in line with central Europe. The problem is well illustrated by the following statistics, provided by ROSPA. In 2016, pedestrian deaths rose from the Autumn onwards as follows with:-
20 in the month of September 35 in October 50 in November 67 in December
ROSPA calculate that simply changing our time would have the net effect of saving a staggering 80 lives and 212 serious injuries a year.
A Bill to change the law was defeated in 2012 on its third reading. ROSPA have recommended a two to three-year trial period of change to our time settings to provide concrete evidence of the anticipated benefits.
Some safety campaigners have called for cyclists to be required to gain a licence by taking an adapted compulsory cycling proficiency or “bike-ability” test. Such a suggestion is unlikely to be implemented. A more acceptable compromise would appear to be a national standard for non-compulsory training across the UK and for cyclists to be encouraged to take part in it, perhaps beginning with education of school age children.
I am no longer a cyclist myself, but during my career I have represented many cyclists who have sadly been catastrophically injured. As borne out by the statistics, the accidents have usually involved collisions with HGV vehicles turning left at a junction, or with cars whose drivers have simply failed to see a cyclist’s approach or have not heeded their presence sufficiently by giving them enough space during an overtaking manoeuvre.
I welcome any review into cycle safety and agree that it should form part of a much broader series of consultations to include cycle and motor driving safety generally, including review of criminal charges and sentencing, use of helmets, greater awareness and training for drivers (as well as cyclists) about the presence of cyclists, which could also be included in a revised theory test.
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