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Spanish cyclists demand asylum at European embassies following helmet law

Spanish national traffic authority has made list of new regulations

Cycling advocacy groups are demanding asylum at embassies in Spain over plans to force all cyclists to wear helmets.

Cyclists have approached a dozen European embassies and consulates, meeting representatives from the embassies and consulates of Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and France and delivering letters requesting asylum.

Cyclists carried banners saying ‘We are Europeans. Stop anti-cyclist law’ in Spanish, English, German and French.

Spain's national traffic authority is planning to make the wearing of helmets compulsory.  As well as this, it is proposing cyclists having to stay on the right-hand side of the carriageway, banning children from riding on the road unless accompanied by an adult, and the introduction of a system of fines that it says presupposes that “cyclists represent the same danger as motor vehicles.”

According to the European Commission, no other countries within the EU have a blanket ban for all ages on cycling without a helmet.

Protests were held in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Zaragoza, Marbella, and Palma, and were coordinated by ConBici, Spain’s national cycling organisation.

Antonio Llopez from the Valencia cycling group ‘Valencia en Bici’ said: “Other European nations give cycling a leading role in their cities, but not Spain.

"The government wants Spain wants to be the only European nation that bans cycling without helmets. This will discourage millions of people from cycling – and so make roads more dangerous for the few who continue.

”While it is the issue of compulsory helmets that is most likely to grab the headlines, other proposed measures are likely to set alarm bells ringing not just in Spain, but elsewhere."

One of the regulations proposed is the requirement for cyclists to “preferably” stay to the right of the carriageway, which ConBici believes would mean “that in the event of an accident and a subsequent court case, the cyclist must demonstrate his or her reasons for not being on the right of the lane – even if the motorist is at fault.”

It adds: “The bicycle will once again be considered a road obstacle, and the law will limit the amount of space that a bicycle can occupy on the road. Our proposed amendment to the law is the opposite: ‘Cyclists will preferably occupy the centre of the lane and when a motor vehicle approaches from behind the cyclist will, if safe for the cyclist, facilitate an overtaking manoeuvre by moving to the right of the lane. Drivers of vehicles must not intimidate a cyclist into moving to the right.’”

Other planned changes include that ban on children riding alone on the road, which ConBici warns will “mean cancelling projects encouraging children to travel by bike to school – some of which are supported by the national traffic authority,” and a reclassification of cycling offences as “serious” instead of “minor,” which it describes as “Yet another hammer blow for cyclists.”

ConBici acknowledges that some measures are to be welcomed, including that local authorities will have the power to allow cycling on the pavement, albeit with the stipulation that “the pavement is at least three meters wide, uncrowded, and cyclists remain at least one metre away from doorways.”

However, its conclusion of the reforms when taken as a whole is a damning one.

“These measures will push Spain further backwards, prevent the growth of sustainable transport, and only favour those multinationals that have dominated the vehicle and oil industries for decades,” it says.

ConBici adds: “In short, while there are a couple of positive points that reflect years of campaigning, these points are over-shadowed by several extremely negative proposals that will seriously damage cycling in Spain. Urgent reconsideration is needed.”   

ConBici's conclusions:

Bicycles are treated as obstacles and their use is not encouraged

The introductory text to these draft proposals discusses how the reform is intended to legislate in favour of vulnerable road users. However, this statement of intent disappears in the actual drafting of the regulations. In the supposed interests of safety, regulations are proposed for bicycles that are unproven in their effectiveness and which penalise the use of bicycles. No thought is given to the consequence of these proposals; while priority on the roads continues to be given to the all-powerful motor vehicle.

Under Article 176 of the current regulations (road positioning) the bicycle enjoys all the advantages of being considered a vehicle. However, the DGT proposes relegating the bicycle to the category of ‘obstacle’ and states that bicycles should be positioned on the right of any lane so as not to impede the progress of faster motor vehicles. This is despite the fact that many motor vehicle drivers commit serious offences by overtaking cyclists too closely.

City speed limits

The draft proposals recommend lower speed limits for town and city roads; however, the standard speed limit will remain 50 km per hour – while 30 and 20 km per hour limits will be exceptions. The introduction to the draft regulations states: ‘In urban areas, the motor vehicle has begun to lose its dominating role and sharing the road with pedestrians and cyclists is becoming more important.’ For this reason, we propose that 50 km per hour limits become the exception for urban roads, and that cyclists and pedestrians are suitably protected on these faster roads. 

Proposed Article 175 states: ‘Cyclists will take the appropriate measures to ensure a safe coexistence with other vehicles.’ This proposed article shows how the DGT discriminates against cyclists, views cyclists as the cause of safety problems on the roads, and imposes a duty on cyclists that is impossible to fulfil.

Mandatory helmets are rejected by almost all affected groups

ConBici’s technical director, Manuel Martin said: ‘The DGT continues to ignore the innumerable studies that advise against implementing mandatory helmets and has ignored this opportunity to rectify this situation until a major reform of the Road Safety Act enables the repeal of mandatory helmet use in all circumstances’.

Numerous city councils throughout Spain have already expressed their opposition to mandatory helmets because this measure will discourage the use of bicycles and threaten the viability of public bike sharing systems.

Possible unconstitutionality

According to ConBici, Articles 55 and Annex II of these proposals contravene the Spanish constitution by attributing to the DGT powers which it does not have with respect to the exceptional use of the road. These articles aim to limit the right to organise meetings and demonstrations and place a special emphasis on meeting and processions organised by cyclists. 

Article 179 proposes the mandatory use of cycling helmets under all circumstances. This proposal contradicts the current Road Safety Act and eliminates the various technical reasons for not wearing a helmet that are permitted under current legislation – leaving the existing exemption for professional and competing cyclists as the only exclusion. 

Proposals will stop the growth of green tourism and the bicycle industry

ConBici believes that this is the moment to encourage the development of bicycle touring and ‘green tourism’ and cannot understand why measures would be imposed that will prevent the growth of bicycle-related tourism (already well established in other European nations). Moreover, these measures will endanger the growing bicycle industry – one of the few businesses that is expanding despite the economic crisis. 

Said Manuel Martin: ‘If the DGT continues with this position, Spain will have lost the opportunity to become an advanced cycling nation with regulations that favour the use of bicycles and affirmative action for pedestrians and cyclists’.

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