Time to apply the brakes: do we need a new offence of dangerous cycling?

6 March 2018

Following the highly publicised prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of Charlie Alliston in September 2017 for wanton and furious cycling (he was found not guilty of manslaughter) the government announced that it would consider a change to the law and extend the offences of careless driving and dangerous driving  to cyclists. This week it was (predictably) reported that such a change is likely to be forthcoming. Is this a sensible, proportionate and timely development? Or is unnecessary, ill-conceived legislation and driven more by media pressure than by public need?

It is indisputable that the number of cyclists has grown enormously over the last 10-15 years, particularly in London. Correspondingly, cyclists (if they can be grouped homogeneously) have increasingly found their voice in terms of public campaigning and have achieved real benefits, the Cycle Superhighway scheme being the best example. This higher profile has naturally led to an increased focus on, and criticism of, the behaviour of some cyclists. Proposals to improve this behaviour commonly call for cyclists to be regulated in a similar way to drivers, citing a perceived unfairness in cyclists evading compulsory testing, taxation and the possibility of prosecution. The impracticality of administering a system of licensing or taxation of cyclists (notwithstanding the perils of disincentivising an activity that has public health benefits) means that legislating to control conduct on the roads is seemingly the only concrete option left. While there is clearly some merit in seeking to engender a more responsible attitude among road users, it is also right to consider whether any new law would achieve such a goal.

The figures cited in news reports around the time of the Alliston case, and in the government’s own announcement in September 2017 of a review, show that 2 pedestrians were killed and 96 seriously injured after being hit by a bicycle in 2015. There appears to be no available data on who was responsible for, or at fault in, these incidents. In the same period over 350 pedestrians were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, meanwhile each year more than 100 cyclists are killed and more than 3,000 seriously injured. So despite the blanket coverage of the Alliston case, and the accompanying media outcry over rogue “killer cyclists”, the reality is that pedestrian deaths and injuries resulting from collisions with cyclists are exceptionally unusual and represent a tiny fraction of pedestrians similarly affected by motor vehicles. Adverse comment that the offence Charlie Alliston was convicted of is “over 150 years old” conveniently ignores that the same statute (the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) is applied without difficulty on a daily basis in other cases of criminal bodily injury. It may be that commentators were more concerned about the sufficiency of sentencing powers, in which case it ought to be recognised that the 18 months imprisonment imposed is not out of line with sentences for causing death by careless driving.

In fact what the Alliston case best illustrates is that bad cycling can be successfully prosecuted; removing a central plank of the argument for legislative change to ensure parity between drivers and cyclists. Issues relating to appropriate levels of sentences for offending cyclists could be considered by the Sentencing Council (or form part of the Law Commission’s review on the codification of sentencing, insofar as there may be any appropriate correlation with sentences for driving offences), but it must be of questionable value to expend precious parliamentary time devising legislation to create new criminal offences which seem likely to have little practical application.

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