Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dangerous and Reckless Cycling (Offences) Bill

There's a 10-minute rule bill attempting to make progress through the Commons which seeks to create new offences of 'causing death by dangerous cycling'. The Bill is being submitted by Andrea Leadsom, Tory MP for South Northamptonshire, who is, apparently, a cyclist.

She gives an account of the tragic death of Rhiannon Bennet, who was killed by a cyclist riding dangerously. Because there are limited options to the CPS, he was charged with 'dangerous cycling', for which the only punishment is a fine. This is a scenario that will be depressingly familiar to many family and friends of pedestrians and indeed cyclists who have been killed by motorists, where the charges brought don't reflect the gravity of the offence and even with such watered-down charges the killers often walk free from court. Leadsom acknowledges as much, but points out "in the case of a motorist killing a cyclist there is, at the very least, the possibility of a motorist being severely punished. Causing death by dangerous driving carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison".In fact there was a successful prosecution in 2009 under the Offences against the Person act, in which a cyclist was jailed for killing a pedestrian. Other cases are difficult to find for the simple reason that they are very rare.

It can't be argued that cyclists who kill by cycling dangerously do not deserve to be punished as severely as a motorist who kills in similar circumstances. However, it could be argued that there two significant problems in the law as it currently stands:
1) the 'dangerous driving' law at the moment is too specific (it refers to 'driving' dangerously), which excludes cycling and many other actions;
2) the 'dangerous driving' law is too vague (it is very difficult to prove a case of dangerous driving because of the subjective way the law is worded).

The bill fails to address the first problem because it simply creates another specific (and very rare) offence. Why not create a general offence of 'acting dangerously'? In effect, this seems to be the aim of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Maybe it just needs updating. It seems to me that anyone who is skateboarding dangerously, hitting golf balls dangerously, owning a dangerous dog, or indeed any activity that could endanger the public should also have the possibility of severe punishment available to the courts. Why pick out cycling? It's not as if the probability of being killed by any cyclist, let alone one that is cycling dangerously, scores very high on the list of everyday risks. Unlike being killed in a motor vehicle crash, which is the leading cause of death for young people. What is the point of a Bill which in Leadsoms' words attempts to bring "equal protection and the potential for equal punishment" yet so obviously fails to do so, by continuing to exclude all manner of dangerous behaviour and singling out one very unusual cause of death?

The bill fails to tackle the second problem because it fails to address the reason the families and friends of many victims of dangerous driving do not feel that justice has been done: it is just too easy for the perpetrators to wriggle out of the charge of causing death by dangerous or careless driving. There is simply insufficient duty of care required when operating a motor vehicle. How is it possible for a driver whose van "ploughed into the cyclists before plunging down an embankment", who "failed to maintain proper control of the vehicle" and whose "actions have been careless" (according to a police report), to walk free from court? Or how about a £110 fine for the killer of a cyclist who was "hit from behind and killed by a black Audi A4 estate car"? For more examples you can browse through Freewheeler's list of fatalities. I fail to see why Leadsom's bill is not simply going to create a new difficult-to-prosecute offence, and lead to more cases where dangerous behaviour goes unpunished courtesy of good lawyers, occasionally sloppy police work and under-ambitious CPS people. Leadsom protests, "I sincerely hope that all road users are held accountable to the full extent of the law". But the problem is the law and the fact that it gives too many rights to drivers and requires not enough responsibilities, the fact that it is not enforced and the fact that when it is the penalties are often laughable.

There is one further danger of the Bill. There is a feeling that motorists when hauled before the courts benefit from the sympathetic ears of the judge and jury, who are usually fellow drivers, and many of whom drive excessively fast, use handheld mobiles whilst driving, and worse. The judge and jury in dangerous driving cases may feel that "there but for the grace of God go I". Because relatively few people in Britain cycle, a cyclist on a similar 'dangerous' charge would be unlikely to feel the love. So Leadsom's bill, far from equalizing the justice system, may actually make it less equal, because it fails to address the fundamental problem I've alluded to above, of leaving a massive grey area to be exploited by wily lawyers. So while dangerous cyclists who can't afford a good lawyer may find themselves in jail, well-heeled cyclists and drivers will likely continue to escape justice.

In summary, I totally support the idea of cyclists who kill facing justice, but don't believe this bill will make it much more likely, and I certainly don't believe it will make the roads a safer place. The Bill, instead of addressing the fundamental problems in road traffic law, goes out to solve a totally different and very obscure problem, by bringing it within the scope of the same existing, totally inadequate law. Andrea Leadsom is best advised to look at Roadpeace's manifesto for some better ideas.


  1. I cannot find it within me to believe that Andrea Leadsom's claim to be a keen cyclist is true. Perhaps she owns a bicycle, and she may have ridden it on a road. But I just cannot believe that she rides regularly on the road in traffic. Her bill is so badly thought-out that as far as I can see, to me I can't help suspecting it's more about self promotion and little to do with Public safety, which it purports to be. Your suggestion about a wide-ranging alteration to road users' responsibilities is much better.

    But it's bound to go down a storm in the House of Commons.

  2. Of course, without more than one party imposing a three line whip your idea would be dead in the water. Which makes me believe even more that what I perceive as a completely pointless and futile proposition is just a cynical publicity stunt that panders to the road lobby.

    Or perhaps just it's me who's being cynical.