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Cyclist casualties up in Scotland as MSPs debate safety

Presumed liability subject of Holyrood debate, but minister says no "robust evidence" it improves road safety...

Keith Brown, Scotland’s transport minister, has said that “three Es - engineering, education and enforcement” are the key to improving the safety of the country’s cyclists, a week after his department published figures showing that while overall road safety in Scotland is improving, cyclist casualties are rising.

Mr Brown was speaking during a debate at the Scottish Parliament regarding the issue of presumed – or stricter – liability which some claim would help protect vulnerable road users if deployed alongside a range of other road safety measures.

However, the minister said that he could not support calls for the civil law to be changed to make motorists automatically liable for incidents involving more vulnerable people such as cyclists and pedestrians in the absence of "robust evidence" that it did in fact improve road safety.

During 2012, nine cyclists died on Scotland’s roads, compared to seven in each of the two preceding years, according to Reported Road Casualties Scotland 2012. During the first 10 months of 2013, a dozen people have lost their lives while riding bikes.

Levels of serious and slight injuries among cyclists are on the rise, too. In 2012, there were 167 serious injuries and 725 slight ones, up respectively by 7 per cent and 10 per cent over the previous year.

According to the report, across the 2008-12 period, most of the 37 cyclist fatalities took place on faster roads, but injuries were most common on slower ones. Three quarters of all casualties happened in urban areas, but six in ten fatalities took place on rural roads.

While serious and slight injuries among pedestrians both continued their downward trend of recent years – total pedestrian casualties have fallen by a quarter since 2008 – there was a sharp jump in the number killed during 2012, up by 33 per cent to reach 57.

Total road casualties were down by 1 per cent in 2012 over the previous year, reflecting a 34 per cent drop on 2002. Fatalities fell 6 per cent year-on-year in 2012, a reduction of 43 per cent on 2002’s levels.

The increase in cycling casualties may partly be explained by the fact that there are more people cycling, more often, in some parts of Scotland – in August, we reported that the number of people commuting by bike in Edinburgh had increased by a quarter between 2009 and 2012.

Across the country as a whole, however, rates of cycling remain static. The Scottish Government has set a target of 10 per cent of all journeys to be made by bike by 2020, but latest figures reveal that across the nation, only 2 per cent of people ride a bike to work.

Mr Brown insists however that the government is committed to implementing a range of measures both to encourage people to cycle more and to reduce casualties among riders.

Last week, when the road casualty figures were released, he said: ““The Scottish Government has invested over £58 million in cycling infrastructure, cycle training and road safety messages. We will continue to work with our road safety partners to try to enable cyclists to use Scotland’s roads safely.

“In addition to the funding from this spending review period, £20 million has also been allocated to cycle infrastructure over the next two years to enhance the Community Links programme run by Sustrans Scotland which will be matched by local authorities.”

In response, Ian Aitken, chief executive of Cycling Scotland, maintained that people on bikes needed to be given a safer environment in which to travel, saying: “I am very concerned to see that casualty figures for more vulnerable road users travelling by bike and on foot have increased, especially when overall road casualty figures have gone down.

“The huge health benefits of cycling still significantly outweigh the risks, but if we are to encourage more people to cycle in Scotland they have to feel that it is safe.

“I welcome the recent announcement for £20m for extra funding for cycling infrastructure, and hope to see this supported by further reduction of speed limits, continuing the positive results from the 20mph schemes in Edinburgh and Fife.

“We also need to ensure that this is supported by education measures, such as raising awareness of people travelling by bike on our roads and increasing access to cycle training, and also enforcement measures that clamp down on poor road behaviour.”

In the motion for last night’s debate at Holyrood, tabled by Green MSP Alison Johnstone, she said that the introduction of presumed, or stricter, liability could help reduce casualties among vulnerable road users if deployed as part of a series of measures aimed at improving road safety.

During the debate, she said: “Stricter liability is not a magic remedy, but I believe that it is an important part of the jigsaw; infrastructure, cycle training and driver awareness raising are vitally important, too.

"Sharing road space with much larger vehicles is the norm for many pedestrians and cyclists, but stricter liability is an inexpensive change that we can make now to help make the transition to a cycle and walk-friendly nation; it is a tool to make behaviour change.”

Ms Johnstone explained to fellow MSPs how the system would work, outlining that the concept of presumed liability “simply shifts the onus of proof from the vulnerable to the powerful so that, if a cyclist is injured in a collision with a motor vehicle, the motorist will be liable for the cyclist’s injuries unless the motorist can prove that the injuries were caused or contributed to by fault on the part of the cyclist.”

In response to a question from another MSP, she confirmed that in the event of a cyclist colliding with a pedestrian, the cyclist would be presumed to be liable.

The United Kingdom is one of a handful of EU countries – Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and Romania are the others – with no such system in place.

Some insist that the fact that countries such as Denmark and the Netherland have presumed liability, and have lower casualty rates among cyclists and pedestrians, provides evidence that presumed liability does reduce collisions involving vulnerable road users.

That’s partly seen as being due to the culture of mutual respect that proponents claim is fostered between road users, something Ms. Johnstone alluded to in her speech when she spoke of measures that could improve safety, including presumed liability.

“A step change in road safety will come from redesigning our roads and junctions so that they prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, from proper on-road cycle training and from a culture of mutual respect and tolerance on the shared space,” she said. “Stricter liability would contribute to a better culture on our roads, in which vulnerable users are better protected.”

However, critics point out that other European countries that have adopted it have worse road safety records than the UK, that it is designed to expedite matters between insurance companies and not to address road safety, and it was only introduced in the Netherlands, for example, long after the country had undergone its cycling transformation.

In his closing statement to the debate, Mr Brown said there was no clear evidence that a system of presumed liability – which applies in civil, not criminal, cases – had a positive influence on road safety.

He said the issue had been addressed as part of the revised Cycle Action Plan for Scotland, published in June, and that having compared rates of cycling casualties between Scotland and other European countries compared between 1990 and 2010, “we have not been able to establish a robust evidence base that links liability laws to cycling accident rates.”

The minister concluded by saying that “given the lack of robust evidence that stricter liability could have positive benefits for vulnerable road users” he was unable to support Ms Johnstone’s motion in its current form.

Instead, Mr Brown pointed towards a number of initiatives that aim to improve the safety of Scotland’s cyclists – what he termed “the three Es” – being engineering, where he highlighted investment the government was making, enforcement, and education.

The example he gave of the latter was the Nice Way Code campaign, aimed at building respect between road users but much derided by cycle campaigners when it was launched this summer.

But Mr Brown said that early results from an evaluation of the campaign’s effectiveness “suggest that it has been useful in shifting public perceptions in favour of giving cyclists more space and respect on the road, particularly at junctions, and in leading to an increase in the number of cyclists who say that they feel comfortable cycling on the roads.”

The full official report of yesterday evening's debate can be found here.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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