The UK is set to review the criminal laws and safety issues relating to cycling. This announcement came shortly after 20-year-old Londoner Charlie Alliston was found guilty on the little known charge of “wanton and furious driving”, having collided with 44-year-old pedestrian Amanda Briggs causing serious head injuries, which led to her death in 2016.
This was, for several reasons, an odd case. Historically, the offence was used to prosecute drivers of horse-drawn carriages. It stems from a Victorian act of parliament, which predates the invention of the penny farthing bicycle. Yet it does carry a sentence of up to two years in prison, and has been used in the modern era (notably in 2008 and 2009) to convict cyclists who have killed pedestrians as a result of riding on the pavement.
If Alliston had been driving a motorised vehicle, he could have been charged for causing death by dangerous driving, which can attract a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. Although cyclists can face a charge of dangerous cycling under the Road Traffic Act 1986, this offence only carries a minimal sentence: a fine of up to £2,500.
Taking the view that these charges would be too lenient, prosecutors were left with few alternatives but to charge Alliston with manslaughter and the lesser charge of “wanton and furious driving”. Alliston was eventually acquitted of manslaughter, but found guilty on the lesser charge and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
That prosecutors had to rely on such an outdated legal provision shows that the law is in need of modernisation, so the UK government is right to update it. Yet, of the 400 or so pedestrians killed on Britain’s roads every year, only about two are the result of collisions with bicycles. So creating new crimes to punish cyclists may seem an odd place to start improving pedestrian safety.
In fact, there is a strong argument for a wider review, which overhauls the way that the law balances the rights of all road users. Research shows that UK law is out of step many other more cycle-friendly European nations. In the UK, only about one per cent of journeys are made by bicycle, in comparison with 27% in The Netherlands, 19% in Sweden and ten per cent in Germany.
This has been achieved through investment in cycle infrastructure, education and the provision of pro cycling road laws which has had the effect of normalising cycling as a mode of transport.
Under UK civil law, the burden of proof is on an injured cyclist to show that a defendant driver is liable for his or her injuries. While a similar principle is at work in Malta, Romania, Cyprus and Ireland, the majority of European jurisdictions have some version of a “presumed liability” principle.
This is where the driver of the more powerful vehicle is presumed to be at fault, unless they can prove otherwise. For example, Article 185 of the Dutch Wegenverkeerswet (Road Law), introduced in 1994, presumes the liability of a motorist in a collision with pedestrians or cyclists.
Campaign groups such as RoadShare argue that bringing UK civil law in line with most European jurisdictions would improve the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists. But this move has so far been resisted by successive UK governments. They have argued that the European model undermines an important legal principle in English law; that the defendant is presumed not to be at fault until proven otherwise – or innocent until proven guilty in a criminal context.
Yet concerns have been raised over whether UK law provides enough protection for cyclists who, along with motorcyclists, are the group most likely to be injured on the road. A Freedom of Information request by the BBC demonstrated that only around 40% of car drivers who killed a cyclist received a prison sentence.
The evidence suggests that making roads safer for vulnerable users does come at a cost; the Dutch spend around £20 per head on cycle related projects per year, whereas the UK spends only £7 per head. But the health and economic benefits seem to justify this spending.
So, although a review of UK cycling law is a welcome opportunity to modernise the laws around cycling, it needs to do much more than create further criminal offences for cyclists.
Hugh McFaul, Lecturer in Law, The Open University Law School