New offences of causing death by dangerous and careless cycling are needed because the range of sentencing options for cyclists is currently too narrow, according to a law review commissioned by the DfT.
Ministers ordered the review of laws covering cyclists in the aftermath of last year’s high profile court case involving a cyclist who had killed a pedestrian in London. The cyclist, Charlie Alliston, was acquitted of manslaughter but convicted of wanton and furious driving under legislation dating from 1861. Alliston was sentenced to 18 months detention in a Young Offender’s Institution.
The review by Laura Thomas, a barrister with Birketts LLP, says that the sentencing options for cyclists in such circumstances are extremely limited.
“In the absence of a conviction for manslaughter the only alternative for the jury was for them to convict of wanton and furious cycling,” she says. But the latter has a maximum sentence of only two years’ imprisonment – significantly less than the life imprisonment that is available for manslaughter.
The Road Traffic Act 1988 does contain specific provisions on cycling, including dangerous cycling and careless or inconsiderate cycling. However, these offences can only be dealt with by magistrates’ courts – as opposed to crown courts – and the maximum penalty is a level 4 fine for dangerous cycling (equivalent to £2,500) or a level 3 fine for careless/inconsiderate cycling (£1,000).
Thomas dismisses the argument used by some cyclists that incidents of cyclists colliding with pedestrians are rare and that law reviews would be better focused elsewhere. She says STATS19 accident data records 2,491 collisions between cyclists and pedestrians between 2011 and 2016 resulting in a pedestrian casualty.
Thomas says her interviews with barristers revealed “clear concerns as to the use of the offence of wanton and furious driving to essentially plug the gap between manslaughter and specific cycling offences that are punishable only with a modest fine”.
The absence of offences for cyclists equivalent to causing death by dangerous/careless driving mean that cyclists could face manslaughter charges in circumstances that drivers would not, she says.
One barrister told her: “You then start getting cyclists all saying ‘Well, why is it just cyclists being prosecuted for manslaughter, why are car drivers not prosecuted in the same manner?’ There is a real risk that could happen... There was a lack of understanding that there were no other offences available.”
Thomas says that juries are often reluctant to convict in manslaughter cases because the severity of the crime means the evidence level must be very high.
While finding support among barristers for an offence of causing death by dangerous cycling, Thomas says there is less support foran offence of causing death by careless cycling.
One barrister raised reservations “rooted in the fact that they had concerns about the existing offence of causing death by careless driving”. “They reflected that an offence of causing death by careless cycling could result in a prosecution for a simple mistake (as is the case for the existing offence of causing death by careless driving).”
Another commented that there was a “risk of cyclists ending up in prison for a momentary lapse of concentration”. Another said you “shouldn’t criminalise accidents”.
Thomas concludes: “In my opinion there is a persuasive case for legislative change to tackle the issue of dangerous and careless cycling that causes serious injury or death; in order to bring cycling into line with driving offences.
“The gap between manslaughter and the historic offence of wanton and furious driving is too wide, particularly when [it is] recognised that juries are slow to convict in ‘motor manslaughter’ cases, let alone cases involving cyclists.”
She suggests amending the Road Traffic Act to remove the restriction of “mechanically propelled vehicles” to the offences of causing death or serious injury by dangerous or careless driving. “This would have the benefit that the offence would cover public places and not just roads; which is relevant as some of the reported cases involved collision with pedestrians in pedestrian areas.”
The amendment would also ‘future proof’ the law in respect of vehicle innovations and cover all types of electric bikes, including electrically-assisted pedal cycles.
The Government is considering the report and will respond in due course.
Cycle safety evidence call
The DfT has issued a call for evidence on ways to improve cycle and walking safety.
The call asks for views about road signs, road traffic law, training, education, vehicles, and public understanding and awareness.
Consultation runs to 1 June.
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