One rule to ring them all

Many favour introducing into British law a principle of ‘strict liability’ in adjudging fault in traffic collisions, following common practice elsewhere in Western Europe. This proposal isn’t making much progress. Let’s raise the game. 

As I understand it, absent evidence to the contrary, strict liability presumes the driver of a motor vehicle at fault in a collision with a cyclist. This determines civil claims – insurance – but not criminal proceedings, where it would remove the onus of proof. Its champions argue that French and German drivers accordingly give bikes more road space.

This proposal meets the usual objection. Benefits for cyclists are seen to be at motorists’ expense in a zero-sum game: a win for the cycling minority is a loss for the motoring majority. And why disadvantage law-abiding motorists in favour of cyclists, who ignore the law anyway?

We have to break out this zero-sum game. Time to go large.

Let’s instead advocate a general principle: the greater the danger you pose in a public space, the greater your duty of care.

This follows the Road Danger Reduction Forum line of addressing danger at its source, instead of controlling its potential victims.

Combine this principle with making collisions an offence and we start to get useful consequences. At present, police charge parties involved in a collision only if they find evidence an offence has been committed. Make the collision an offence in itself, and the question changes to – whom to charge?

The principle of greater danger applies. Absent contrary evidence, the lorry before the taxi, the Range Rover before the Mini, the cyclist before the pedestrian. We’re talking here about enforcing courtesy as the minimum standard of behaviour, the strong protecting the weak. And we’re not talking about fixed penalty notices, but criminal convictions, loss of driving licences, and so on.

This not only avoids condemnation as a cycle-specific measure, it responds to a widely expressed desire to prosecute pavement cyclists. Let’s make cycling on footways legal – and collisions an offence. That could unleash in Britain the swarms of peaceful pavement-cycling grannies I see in Japanese cities.

Our culture accepts minor collisions as part of the rough and tumble of the public roads. That is why so many mothers choose to deliver their children to school in a faux-military light truck, to resist intimidation by commercial drivers. Cyclists suffer – and die – in this rough and tumble. Time to end the reign of traffic flow as king.

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Educating coppers

Police AcademyThere you are, cautiously, conservatively riding in prime position, safely away from the kerb, from lunging pedestrians and from suddenly opening car doors, and alert for every opportunity to let cars following you pass safely. And some enraged, inexperienced or testosterone-poisoned driver deliberately endangers you to express his disapproval.

You’re pleased to find a nearby police officer coming over to find out why you’re suddenly yelling at the driver’s window. Then not so pleased, as the officer instructs you to ride near the kerb, perhaps in one of London’s attractive, green-painted ‘suicide lanes’.

Seems this happens from time to time.

Naturally we must all follow the instructions of police officers directing traffic. (We’re traffic, remember?)

Let’s organise training classes on the law relating to cycling, and offer them — with ample local publicity — to police stations where officers’ grasp of it appears weak.

We have trouble enough with motorists who mistakenly believe they have first claim on the highway, without police officers compounding the error.

Rising tide at Blackfriars

Does Blackfriars Bridge mark a sea-change in LCC‘s campaigning?

As I understand it, LCC strategy has been to work with TfL: building working relationships; consulting, educating and persuading; striving for achievable goals. Politics is famously “the art of the possible”. It was sensible and responsible to give this every chance, and then some.

Blackfriars Bridge shows this strategy has now been tested to destruction.

My view is that we must challenge the ugly state of our city, the mess that is now widely accepted as both normal and inevitable.

Will Perrin’s admirable move to hold TfL responsible in law for the death of a cyclist at King’s Cross takes its stand firmly in a vision of a city that puts people first. TfL pays extensive lip service to this vision, but little else.

LCC’s job here is to hold the authorities’ toes to the fire. For all Londoners, not just cyclists.

In this we are not a minority group begging at the trough, but the front line of the many Londoners who want a liveable city. As cyclists, we simply see some of the issues more clearly, more often and more urgently than others do.

Private prosecutions

Rumpole Of The BaileyIn changing culture, law has multiple uses.

The most obvious is normative: new laws redefine what behaviour is acceptable. It did not require many prosecutions for racial abuse to teach us to guard our tongues.

There are also ways to use the existing law. Existing law may encode rights ignored by custom. Many cyclists see police reluctance to prosecute incidents of ‘road rage’ as an example of this.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service do not have a complete monopoly on criminal prosecutions. It is possible for private parties to prosecute where the authorities decline to do so.

One hears tales of motorists deliberately endangering cyclists, where the police fail to prosecute despite evidence that seems ample. Perhaps LCC should establish a legal fund to mount some exemplary private prosecutions?

Should collisions be illegal?

I had an eloquent essay in mind for this, but perhaps it’s better just to pose the question.

Society tolerates collisions as ‘accidents’; police bring charges only when they find clear evidence of wrongdoing. But hey, there was a collision. Make that the offence.

Declare a duty of care that is proportional to the danger posed. If an SUV is five times more likely than a conventional car to kill a pedestrian in a collision, then weight the scales of justice with a greater duty of care.

Extend the same duty of care to all road users – and let cyclists ride on the footway.

Don’t suppose that every collision would be prosecuted, no more than every instance of racial abuse gets prosecuted. But do remember what the possibility of getting prosecuted has done to change race relations in the last half century.

Law has an important normative role in changing culture.

The New Civility

Radical CivilityHow often have I heard it argued against one proposal or another – Oh, that would never work here; English road culture is too aggressive. 

It is a serious objection. Culture determines both how we behave and how we expect others to behave. When I was a child I took myself to school and my parents taught me to ask an adult for help if I ever found myself lost or confused. A generation raised on ‘stranger danger’ now depends on parents as taxis. And adults who speak to children they don’t know court accusations of paedophilia.

But culture is mutable. We can and do change it. Arguably our present lack of communal solidarity is what one might expect after four decades of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is now in retreat and people all round the country are raking its ashes, looking to revive the embers of community association. It will take a long time to rebuild what has been lost, but that is what we seem to be up to.

Motoring has never been so cheap. I paid a little over a thousand pounds for my current car, used but in fine condition, less than for a decent bicycle. Car ownership has soared since the days “Anybody seen in a bus over the age of 30 has been a failure in life”. Traffic management for the last few decades has tried to maximise the pleasures of private motoring.

Austerity, sobriety, and the end of cheap oil are drawing all this to an end. We can foresee the return of hitch-hiking and a greater sense of ‘We’re all in this together’.

Every time I ride my bicycle on the public highway I put my life in the hands of strangers. I depend for my safety, as other road users do, on the rule of law. The large majority of drivers are, as I am when driving, careful and considerate towards cyclists.

We should celebrate this civility and build upon it. (Not all countries have it. In Sydney I found cycling in even slow-moving traffic a terrifying experience.)

And we should legislate for more of it. I’ll post more on this topic, tagged #newcivility.

Join forces

We demand more for cyclists. Non-cyclists relate to our demands – how? As motorists. And what we ask for usually reduces convenience to motorists.

Most Londoners are motorists. So most Londoners hear what we ask for as being at their expense. Some support us anyway. But the current state of cycling provision in London reflects the limit of that support.

We need to ground our demands in a campaign most Londoners will support. That is a campaign for a more liveable city. With this as our aim, Londoners will hear us asking for things they too want – and the sky is the limit.

We have a wide range of potential allies. Besides related cycling movements, such as Sustrans, there are (off the top of my head)

With such allies we should form a coalition, campaign for a liveable city, organise a convention to articulate and promote that vision, appoint a commission to monitor and each year report progress towards its goals.

Standing in the shared vision of a dialled-down city, LCC should then propose the kind of radical cycling-related changes needed to bring it about.