Almost 10 years to the day after it launched an award-winning campaign to make Britain’s roads safer for people on bikes, and on the eve of the introduction of changes to the Highway Code aimed at protecting vulnerable road users, The Times has today called for cyclists to be licensed and insured and for a new offence of causing death by dangerous cycling to be introduced.
Launched on 2 February 2012 with a front page headline of 'Save Our Cyclists' accompanied by a picture of Mary Bowers, the Times journalist left with life-changing injuries when a lorry driver ran her over outside the newspaper’s then headquarters in Wapping, the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign set out an eight-point manifesto calling among other things for safety improvements on lorries and at junctions, the building of “world class” infrastructure, and for cities to appoint a cycling commissioner.
The campaign sparked a House of Commons debate later that month, with the then All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group holding a six-week inquiry the following year which culminated in the publication of the Get Britain Cycling report.
Times journalist Kaya Burgess, who was heavily involved in the campaign, also spoke at a conference in Milan entitled Cycling and Road Safety in the City hosted by Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, one of whose journalists had been killed while riding to work in the Lombard capital in 2011.
Then as now, the newspaper today made its current position on cycling clear through a strongly-worded lead article – although the contents of the two editorials published a decade apart could hardly be more different, with the latest leader entitled The Times view on dangerous cycling: Safety Standards.
Echoing comments made by Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, who earlier this week called for an offence of causing death by dangerous cycling to be introduced, the newspaper described it as “a sensible proposal to deal with a genuine problem.”
In response to his Shapps’ comments, Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at Cycling UK, told road.cc: “Introducing new cycling offences in isolation however would simply be a sticking plaster on a broken system, because our current careless and dangerous driving offences aren’t fit for purpose – replicating them for cycling makes no sense at all.”
The Times acknowledged that of 146 reported deaths in collisions involving cyclists on Great Britain’s roads in 2020, almost all the victims – 141 – were bike riders, the editorial insisted that “It is not a plausible objection to new legislation that many more pedestrians are killed by motorists than by cyclists each year.”
Few legal observers would argue that it is unsatisfactory that the only options open to prosecutors in a case involving the death of a pedestrian are to charge a cyclist with causing bodily injury through wanton or furious driving – an offence under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 – or manslaughter.
However, such cases are rare – in England, there have been two successful prosecutions within the past five years with both cyclists receiving custodial sentences after being convicted of the former offence but cleared of the latter – and, as Dollimore points out, reform of laws regarding motorists who kill, many of whom even if convicted are given suspended sentences, should be the priority given the number of cases involved.
However, in its editorial, The Times insisted: “Legislation would not penalise cyclists but merely correct an anomaly whereby those who recklessly cause death on two wheels are treated differently from those who do so on four.
The newspaper continued: “It would further enhance safety and equity if cyclists were required to hold licences and take out liability insurance, just as motorists are.”
It said: “The overwhelming majority of cyclists are scrupulous in their road use and sensitive of pedestrians. The problem lies with a small minority who are aggressive and regard traffic signs, safety features, and a strict division between road and pavement as optional.
“No-one seriously queries that motorists should be required to hold driving licences and take out mandatory third party insurance, and have mandatory forms of identification, namely number plates. Requiring the same of cyclists is fair, and would deter antisocial and dangerous behaviour by the few who are tempted to engage in it,” said The Times – with no mention of the estimated 1 million uninsured drivers on Britain’s roads, let alone how laws against speeding or using a handheld mobile phone at the wheel have failed to curb such behaviour by a large proportion of drivers.
Moreover, the government has consistently rejected calls for cyclists to be licensed and insured, including in its response last month to a petition from the motoring lawyer Nick Freeman.
Laughably, The Times went on to say that requiring cyclist to have insurance, be licensed and have registration plates on their bikes “would also combat bike theft.”
It saved the best for last, though, suggesting that cyclists should pay to use the road, even though they are funded from general taxation.
“The objection that it would deter legitimate cycling is not persuasive,” it said. “The road network is a service available to everyone, and it is reasonable to expect those who benefit from it to abide by its regulation and contribute to its upkeep. The delicate network of relations between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists needs tougher legislation in favour of those on foot,” it added.
We can’t argue with that final sentence. But with drivers, not cyclists, involved in upwards of 99 per cent of pedestrian fatalities in Great Britain each year, it’s clear where efforts would best be concentrated.
Simon joined road.cc 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.