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.
Transport for New Homes
An aspiration of recent governments has been to promote new developments that encourage more physically active and less isolated lives, reduce congestion on the roads and promote a low carbon future.
Transport for New Homes is a project reviewing the new homes being built. They have seen some good examples where residents can use a combination of walking, cycling or public transport to go about their daily lives. However, most new developments, particularly those built on large greenfield sites on the edges of towns, are designed for travel by cars. They have plentiful car parking, but limited or no access to public transport, limited facilities and services together with a lack of safe pedestrian or cycling routes to town centres or the surrounding area. New ‘urban extensions’ and ‘garden villages’ by their very location away from large conurbations promote car-based living.
Visits were made to a wide range of developments, from large scale greenfield housing on farmland, to urban schemes on brownfield sites. To see how others do it they visited the Netherlands to compare their builiding of whole new suburbs built around new railway stations, rapid transit, cycling and walking with the new building in the UK. In summary their recommendations are:
- develop a national framework setting out where to build new homes, based on provision of sustainable transport, and aiming to meet economic, social and environmental needs;
- build new housing in existing large urban areas well connected by public transport, walking and cycling;
- Plan land use and transport together;
- Invest urgently in urban and suburban public transport to serve expanding satellite towns and new suburbs. It must be made easier for Local authorities to provide new railway stations and services.
- Use urban brownfield and regeneration sites.
- Plan for higher densities but less area wasted on parking. Build modern apartments and town houses with wide appeal. Curtail car parking to allow more attractive places with more space for greenery and better public realm.
- Look at the lessons from Poundbury, a new town is built at a human scale around walking, not cars, and employment and retail are integrated into the walking environment. An interesting public realm with limited car parking contributes to its social success, economic viability and attraction for a variety of people and age groups.
The full report can be found at goo.gl/J9Dv4y .
The latest National Travel Survey (England) suggests that, on average, people are clocking up more cycle mileage and leisure riding is attracting more interest.
Conversely, the number of cycle trips/stages, and their share of journeys by all modes, isn’t showing much improvement. Also there’s nothing to suggest that more children are cycling to school, or that girls and women are embracing cycling on anything like the scale that males do (which isn't up to much in the first place anyway). NB the proportion of children in Year 6 (10- to 11-year-olds) with severe obesity has reached an all-time high, according to Public Health England.
In short, we’re miles off cycling becoming, to quote the Government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS, England) , “… a normal part of everyday life, and the natural choice for shorter journeys”.
Active Travel Alliance
An alliance of major organisations dedicated to promoting active travel, has published a vision of a future where everybody in the UK can live, work and play in places that are ‘healthy, vibrant and that make walking and cycling the natural choice for short journeys’.
The alliance, made up of the Bicycle Association, Cycling UK, the Ramblers, British Cycling, Living Streets and Sustrans, has outlined five first steps it would like to see the Government take:
- Speed: reduce default speed limits to 20 mph for most roads in built-up areas and 40 mph for most minor rural roads;
- Space: adopt and ensure consistent application of existing ‘best-in-class’ infrastructure design standards;
- Safety: revise the Highway Code to improve safety for people walking and cycling, particularly at junctions;
- Priority: prohibit pavement parking to create safer and more accessible streets;
- Culture: provide cycle training for all primary and secondary school children, and embed a culture of walking and cycling throughout the school curriculum.
Poor Perception of Cycling
The DfT's latest 'Public Attitudes towards Transport' (see goo.gl/vnk9Dr ) suggest that two thirds of the British population believe road conditions are not safe enough for cycling:
- 62% agree or strongly agree that “It is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”. This is the average level since the question was first asked in 2011.
- Although more people are willing than unwilling to switch to cycling journeys of less than two miles, combined agreement / strong agreement with cycling short distances has declined, from 44% in 2006 to 38% in 2017.
- … there has been little change since 2011 in the frequencies per week with which people cycle.
GB cycle traffic up by 3% in a year
Statistics released for 2017 show that pedal cycle traffic in Great Britain crept up by around 3% over a revised estimate for 2016.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen a 4.4% increase – not much, but at least it’s something.
Car traffic in 2017, on the other hand, rose by only just over 1% compared to 2016, and by 6% since 2013.