Leading motoring charity, The RAC Foundation has hid out at remarks by an MP who wants police and prosecutors to get tougher with motorists who kill or injure cyclists. The charity described the comments by Cambridge MP Julian Huppert during a commons debate on road safety as “trying to establish a hierarchy of righteousness” among road users and an RAC Foundation spokesperson went on to say that his stance “risks widening the divide” between motorists and cyclists.
Dr Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, who is himself a keen cyclist – he is currently recovering from a broken arm sustained while cycling in Australia earlier this month – said: “Driving with a reckless disregard for the safety of fellow road users should be treated very seriously,” in the Commons debate, reports the website Cambridge News.
He added that the introduction in the UK of a rule of “proportionate liability,” as applies in some countries on the Continent and elsewhere, and which places the onus in the event of an accident on the larger vehicle, “would protect cars from trucks, bikes from cars and pedestrians from bikes.”
Dr Huppert said that the implementation of such measures would help eliminate the likelihood of drivers claiming that they hadn’t seen a cyclist, as highlighted last year in national cyclists’ organisation CTC’s Stop SMIDSY campaign.
He also urged that the driving test should include more of a focus on driver awareness of cyclists and pedestrians.
However, a spokesman from the RAC Foundation criticised his remarks, saying: “Mr Huppert’s motives might be honourable, but rather than encouraging harmony between cyclists and drivers he risks widening the divide.
“The reality is there are reckless elements among all groups of road users.
“He is right to say tough action needs to be taken against offenders, but wrong to seek to establish a hierarchy of the supposed righteous.”
Substitute the word “righteous” with the word “vulnerable,” however, and it’s easy to understand the logic behind Dr Hubert’s proposals; while there are cases of pedestrians killed by cyclists, they are few and far between, with just one recorded in England, Wales and Scotland in 2009 according to Department for Transport statistics, with a further six pedestrians seriously injured.
Compare that to the 51 cyclists killed and nearly 2,000 seriously injured in accidents in which a car is involved, or the 29 killed and around 250 injured in accidents involving a coach or goods vehicle during the same year, and it’s clear that the bigger the vehicle, the more damage it is likely to inflict on road users further down the hierarchy.
During the debate, the full text of which is reported by Hansard, Dr Huppert told Minister of State for Transport, Theresa Villiers, that “a commitment to reducing road danger is needed.
He continued: “Nearly three quarters of people agree that the idea of cycling on busy roads is frightening, partly because road safety policies have for too long focused on making cycling look dangerous – for example, by excessive advocacy of cycle helmets – when we should be addressing the source of the danger. Slowing traffic is one way to do that; reducing traffic volume is another; and more cyclists lead to safer cycling.”
Dr Huppert went on: “Perhaps the Minister will also consider prosecution, sentencing, liability and awareness issues. In far too many accidents, the ready-made excuse, "I just didn't see him, guv," is invoked and too readily accepted.
“We must encourage the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to be more ambitious in the choice of charges and the decision to prosecute, so that judges and juries can decide whether an excuse is good enough.
“Driving with a reckless disregard for the safety of fellow road users should be treated very seriously. Will the Minister consider the use of proportionate liability?
“Putting the default onus on the more dangerous vehicle in a collision would protect cars from trucks, bikes from cars and pedestrians from bikes.
“The frequent use of the ‘Sorry mate, I didn't see you,’ or SMIDSY, excuse also points to a lack of awareness among drivers. Many cyclists must simply feel invisible at times. Even in Cambridge, the lack of consideration shown by some motorists is shocking.
“Will the Minister consider including a cycling and pedestrian awareness element in the driving test, for example, that goes beyond the occasional video clip during the theory test?
The MP added: “Taking away the stigma attached to cycling by making our roads safer would be a positive step in encouraging those who would like to try it but feel intimidated or frightened,” which he said would help build on initiatives designed to get more people cycling such as CTC’s workplace cycle challenges.
Dr Huppert also used the opportunity of the debate on cycling in England to address other issues of concern, including calling for stricter enforcement of mandatory cycle lanes, “so that the presence of a vehicle in a cycle path or on a footway be taken as evidence that it was driven there, rather than appearing magically, as seems to be assumed at the moment?”
A spokesman for Cambridge Cycling Campaign endorsed Dr Huppert’s call for a system of proportionate liability to be introduced in Britain, telling Cambridge News: “On the continent, it has helped foster a culture of respect among road users. Experience has shown it improves the awareness of those who have responsibility for the most vulnerable of road users.”
The debate over whether to introduce what is often termed a “no fault” system of liability in the UK is a longstanding one. In the 1970s, the Pearson Commission recommended that a no-fault insurance scheme be instituted in the UK for victims of traffic and work-related accidents, based on a similar model operating in New Zealand, but successive governments have failed to adopt such measures.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.