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Legislation would make drivers look out for cyclists, says world champ - but road safety minister disagrees

World champion Mark Cavendish has said that the UK should introduce laws similar to those in the Netherlands and Belgium that place a presumption of liability on motorists involved in a road traffic incident in which a cyclist is killed or injured. Road Safety Minister Mike Penning has responded by saying that such legislation would be “unfair” on responsible drivers.

Cavendish was speaking to The Times, giving his backing to its Cities fit for Cycling campaign, and was asked to give examples of countries where he believed there was a greater culture of safe cycling than in the UK.

“In Holland and Belgium the actual law is if the driver of a motorised vehicle has an accident with a cyclist, unless the driver can actively prove it was the cyclist’s fault it is the driver’s fault. There is an assumption of guilt on the driver,” he told the newspaper.

“I would like to see it examined, for sure. Cyclists can be in the wrong a lot of the time. They have got to ride within the law… but if people know there is a problem if they hit a cyclist they will look more, they have to be more aware of cyclists.”

The Team Sky rider also revealed that there are times when he is afraid to cycle on Britain’s roads – echoing comments previously made by other of the country’s leading cyclists, including world and Olympic track champion, Victoria Pendleton.

“It is not any deliberate hatred towards cyclists, there is no hatred towards cyclists,” he said – an observation that some might argue with – “but we are still a developing country in terms of cycling being embedded in the culture so it is just the awareness of bikes. People don’t realise that a bike might be coming up.”

The world champion therefore sees the introduction of presumed liability as the single most important thing that could be done to improve the safety of the country’s cyclists, saying it would lead to “The realisation that a consequence will come without looking out for cyclists.

“If you hit a cyclist there is a life gone. If it is embedded in your culture that cyclists are around it just raises awareness. It has got to be an evolution over time.”

Mr Penning, however, said that the government had no plans to introduce such legislation.

“Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame,” he explained.

Presumed liability, which exists in some form in most European Union member states – the exceptions are the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, all of which largely follow the English legal tradition rather than the continental model.

Supporters of the principle, who include road safety campaigners and members of parliament, might argue that Mr Penning’s language shows that there is a cultural obstacle to be overcome before any such measure could be implemented here.

The concept as adopted elsewhere is emphatically not about blaming the driver, or apportioning guilt on them – it is more that the larger, heavier vehicle is presumed to be at fault, unless the driver can demonstrate otherwise.

Referring to the Netherlands and Belgium, Cavendish said: “That is the point. They don’t do it to penalise drivers over there. They do it so that drivers have to look. Ultimately in Belgium as well if a cyclist jumps a red light there is a severe punishment. I believe I am the first to stand up and say cyclists have to be more responsible as well. Cutting a red light might just aggravate someone who will take it out on a general cyclist.”

Cavendish, speaking about the Cities fit for Cycling campaign, said that the newspaper’s call for lorries to be fitted with sensors as well as additional mirrors to help make drivers aware of the presence of cyclists was one concrete step that could be taken to improve the safety of riders.

“It is easy enough to do on lorries,” he maintained. “The blind spots on lorries are incredible, and the biggest cause of accidents with cyclists is between cyclists and lorries. I really think it is a good thing.”
 

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.