Road Safety Laws in need of review
Based on a Cycling UK article
Four years ago the Government recognised that our road traffic laws weren’t working and promised a full review of traffic offences and penalties. Following this announcement little has happened, although an estimated 1,800 pedestrians have died on our roads since 2014, with 99.4% of pedestrian deaths on Britain’s roads involving a motor vehicle.
Now, instead of the full review, the Government has announced they will look just at cycling offences. This limited review is a wasted opportunity to examine road traffic laws and the way the justice system deals with irresponsible, careless and dangerous behaviour by all road users.
The distinction between ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving depends largely on whether the magistrates, judge or jury believe the standard of the driving fell ‘below’ or ‘far below’ what would be expected of a ‘competent and careful driver’. Yet the expected standard of a ‘competent and careful driver’ is entirely subjective. Even greater variability is likely to arise in cycling cases. While most jurors will have some experience of driving many will have little or no experience of on-road cycling.
Research shows that drivers who do not cycle are more likely to think that cyclists are acting irresponsibly when in fact they are riding perfectly correctly. The law therefore needs to define these terms objectively.
At present, the legal distinction between ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ offences is supposed to be based on whether the defendant’s actions objectively caused danger that ought to have been obvious to a competent and careful driver or rider. Yet the continued use of the word ‘careless’ gives the impression that the defendant’s state of mind is still a relevant factor, despite its removal from the legal framework in 1991. The inconsistencies and weaknesses in how these offences are used, by both prosecutors and the courts, causes immense distress to both injured and bereaved victims of road collisions. A comprehensive review is long overdue.
The consultation does not invite comments on whether or not any new cycling offences should be based on the hopelessly flawed definitions of the core motoring offences. Nor does it seek views on possible remedies for several other glaring injustices and discrepancies in the current framework of road traffic offences and penalties. These include:
- ‘car-dooring’. At present the only penalty available for this potentially lethal offence is a maximum fine of £1,000.
- Tougher penalties for ‘hit and run’ drivers who leave the scene of a collision where they knew, or ought to have known, that the collision was likely to have resulted in serious or fatal injury.
- Closing the loophole which routinely allows offending drivers to evade bans by claiming that this would cause ‘exceptional hardship’.
On a more positive note, at the same time as it launched its cycling offences consultation, the DfT also announced plans to revise the Highway Code so that it gives clearer advice to drivers on how to overtake cyclists safely.
The DfT has also promised new design guidance for local authorities on planning cycling infrastructure. This is an equally vital move: at present, the confusing plethora of often-contradictory design guidance is clearly failing to ensure safe and sensible designs.