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A Case Against the 'Dangerous Cycling' Law

Last week, it was reported that the government is expected to announce a new legal offence: causing death by careless or dangerous cycling, which could result in life imprisonment.

The proposed policy will be a result of a two-horned review into cycle safety, which began last September and was originally spurred by the tragic death of Kim Briggs, who died in 2016 after being hit by a cyclist.

I wrote about the peculiar case earlier: in short, the bicycle didn’t have a front brake, which made its use on a public highway illegal. The cyclist, Charlie Alliston, had to be charged with ‘wanton and furious driving’, a somewhat archaic offence which was initially introduced to prosecute the drivers of horse-drawn carriages.

In response to the case (and the ensuing media frenzy surrounding it), the government launched an ‘urgent review into cycle safety’, which outlined two main goals:

1. Analyse the case for creating a new offence

2. Conduct a wider public consultation on road safety issues relating to cycling

Last week we received a much-awaited update on both points, with most media attention unsurprisingly veering towards the first.

Pumping the Breaks

The proposal has already been staunchly criticised by cycling campaigners, lamenting the perceived double standard and pointing out the ongoing and (statistically) larger road safety issues that should have taken precedent:

“Adding one or two new offences specific to cyclists would just be tinkering around the edges, when what’s needed is a full review of all road traffic offences and penalties, something the government promised back in 2014 but have yet to deliver.” said Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns.

Indeed, this whole regulatory review seems like the government pandering to the media circus that engulfed the Charlie Alliston case. As I wrote about back when the review was announced, there is nothing wrong with creating a new, more adequate offense for these fringe cases. But they are just that - incredibly fringe.

Out of 400 pedestrians that are killed on UK’s roads each year, only two are killed by cyclists.

As Guardian's Laura Laker points out, that means that over 99% of all pedestrian collision deaths include a motorised vehicle: “Because cars dominate our streets, we are blind to just how dangerous they can be.”

The case of Kim Briggs is undoubtedly tragic, and it’s impossible to fault her widower for leading a nationwide campaign for reform. But cars remain the biggest danger on UK’s roads by a mile. And given the government’s finite and already stretched resources, it is difficult to justify its zealous focus on this issue, as it inevitably puts other road safety concerns - with greater societal impact - on hold.

“It's a question of priorities.” says Peter Walker, Guardian’s political correspondent: ” Parliamentary bandwidth is very limited, and this law probably isn't in the top 100 changes that could actually improve road safety. If this happens, other more useful ideas are dropped.”

In short, the media coverage of the Charlie Alliston case, and the government reaction it elicited is greatly disproportionate to the everyday road realities. Very few pedestrian deaths caused by motor vehicles spur a similarly fervent national conversation. In the end, it feels like it’s precisely the innate novelty of this case, paired with a growing disdain for cyclists in the UK - rather than its overarching societal impact - that's behind the story’s mainstream appeal.

Lawyers Chime In

Very few legal experts analyzed the proposal for this new cycling-related offense when the review was initially announced (or maybe I looked in all the wrong places). This time around, it’s a different story.

For starters, Cyclist did a long and highly insightful interview with a lawyer and cyclist Martin Porter last week. Other than believing that the proposed bill “would not be remotely likely to save a single life”, Mr. Porter also had a very interesting take on if the new offense would even impact the Charlie Alliston case:

“It is unlikely that even Alliston would have been convicted of either proposed offence as the tragic death of Mrs Briggs related not to his manner of riding but to his breach of Construction and Use Regulations.”

Mr. Porter also believes that the jury system is intrinsically broken, “with motorists getting too much sympathy from a jury that is derived from their motoring peers.” Perhaps that’s part of the reason why just 57% of those convicted of causing death by careless or dangerous driving in 2016 received a prison sentence.

Anyway, it’s a great interview, and you should read it.

Elsewhere, Mr. Edmund Smyth of Kingsley Napley law firm also expressed concerns about the upcoming bill. Particularly interesting is that Mr. Smyth doesn’t even believe a new offense is needed:

“Adverse comment that the offence Charlie Alliston was convicted of is “over 150 years old” conveniently ignores that the same statute (the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) is applied without difficulty on a daily basis in other cases of criminal bodily injury.”

In fact, according to Smyth, the Charlie Alliston case isn’t proof that the law is archaic and unusable - instead, it shows the exact opposite: ’What the Alliston case best illustrates is that bad cycling can be successfully prosecuted; removing a central plank of the argument for legislative change.’

If the main concern is in fact appropriate levels of sentences, Smyth concludes, those issues could be rectified by the Sentencing Council, rather than mobilizing the entire parliamentary apparatus to solve a problem with little practical effect.

Finally, Mr. Neal Sargeant of Olliers Motor Law has an issue with the ‘life imprisonment’ part (intended to mimic the prescribed penalties for causing death by dangerous driving):

“Motorists are expected to have a higher duty of care towards other road users. The potential damage that a motor car can do compared to a bicycle is significantly greater and it is a question of power and responsibility as well as cause and effect.”

As motor vehicles inherently pose a greater danger to the public, Sargeant argues, equating the penalties for dangerous cycling and dangerous driving fails to acknowledge the varying threat levels and responsibilities of different road users.

And there you have it. It would appear that there are pragmatic, analytical as well as legal concerns over a hotly-anticipated new offense of dangerous cycling. And yet, it’s perfectly understandable why so many people would have such strong opinions about this issue.

As the Guardian recently put it: “hard cases make bad law”.

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