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Birketts dangerous cycling report

9th March 2018

A report by barrister Laura Thomas of Birketts, commissioned by the DfT, has recommended the introduction of new cycling offences. The title of the report is 'Cycle Safety Review' - a misnomer, as it has little or nothing to do with cycle safety.

The report's first paragraph reminds us that Jesse Norman announced the review in two phases - phase one (urgent), looking at the introduction of offences of causing death or serious injury by dangerous or careless cycling; phase two (later, non-urgent), a wider ranging consideration of road safety issues relating to cycling. The Birketts report relates only to phase one, and not to cycle safety.

Thomas's report looks at the current laws, and how they are applied. As evidence, the DfT was able to find 9 cases in the past 10 years where a cyclist had been prosecuted for killing or injuring a pedestrian. This gives an idea of the scale of this issue: every unnecessary death is a tragedy, but the carnage caused by motor vehicles is vastly greater. As well as considering these cases, Thomas spoke to other barristers, and considered the laws in some foreign countries.

Birketts dangerous cycling report: conclusion

Thomas's conclusion was that offences of causing serious injury or death by dangerous or careless cycling should be introduced. This is to mirror the laws which apply to motor vehicles, and to plug the gap between the very serious offence of manslaughter, and the lesser offences of dangerous and careless or inconsiderate cycling (which are dealt with by Magistrates, and have fines as the maximum penalty).

Birketts dangerous cycling report: responses to criticisms of the review

The weakest parts of the report are where Thomas seeks to rebut criticisms of the DfT's review.

Birketts dangerous cycling report: criticism of the way death by careless driving is applied

In response to Martin Porter's criticism of the way causing death by careless driving has been used prosecutors (almost always preferring the lesser charge to dangerous driving, whatever the facts), Thomas just says 'Parliament decided this was...necessary', and the CPS should be trusted to apply the law properly. Those aren't even counter-arguments, because they don't address the argument at all. It's just waffle.

Birketts dangerous cycling report: concerns about juries

As regards concerns about juries, and the fact that most jury members are drivers, but very few have experience of cycling, Thomas simply says that barristers in the cases concerned should refer their juries to the Highway Code. It's a thin and unsatisfactory way of dismissing a legitimate concern.

Birketts dangerous cycling report: knee-jerk reaction

Addressing the widespread criticism that Jesse Norman's review is a knee-jerk reaction to the Charlie Alliston case, Thomas says that there is 'not an insignificant number' of collisions between bike riders and pedestrians. (The number of such collisions resulting in a pedestrian casualty is detailed, but not the number resulting in a cyclist casualty; and hidden in the footnotes is the fact that pedestrians were responsible for more of the collisions than cyclists).

Norman admitted in his announcement of the review that it was prompted by publicity, but that isn't mentioned.

Birketts dangerous cycling report: timing

The Birketts report mentions the question of timing - why should one tiny part of the road safety problem be dealt with urgently and in isolation, while the vast bulk of road violence caused by drivers of motor vehicles is put on the back-burner indefinitely? Thomas says  '...[the introduction of cycling offences] is an issue that should be addressed'. That doesn't answer the question about timing. Neither does the rest of paragraph 16 of her report: 'It has perhaps been focused by the untimely death of Mrs Briggs but this is properly to be considered as a converging of issues rather than a single, tragic event precipitating a reaction. The tragedy concerning Mrs Briggs could be said to be the trigger rather than the cause. In short, the timing appears to be appropriate.'

In other words, it absolutely is a knee-jerk reaction to the Alliston case, but Thomas doesn't wish to admit that. No doubt, it wouldn't be polite or good for business to accuse the people at the DfT who commissioned her to write the report of knee-jerk reactions.

It's a 'converging of issues', but the only issue anyone is aware of is the Alliston case.

As for the semantic argument about whether the Alliston case is the trigger or the cause, the reality is that newspaper headlines are the reason why we're having this review. It is populist and cynical, not evidence-based good government.

'In short, the timing is appropriate' is detail-free and extraordinarily unconvincing.

So it seems we go on with this charade. If the Daily Mail and the BBC give disproportionate coverage to a case, because it suits their agenda to demonise people who use a particular form of transport, Jesse Norman, the DfT, and this government will act urgently. All the road safety problems caused by motor vehicles, meanwhile, are too difficult for them to deal with. Urgent action only happens when they calculate it will garner them favourable headlines in the tabloids.

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Cyclist-pedestrian collisions in STATS19

Paragraph 15.5 of the Birketts report notes figures from DfT statistics report STATS19, which show that in the 5 years between 2011 and 2016, there were 2,419 collisions between pedestrians and cyclists which resulted in a pedestrian casualty. These break down as follows:

  • 20 resulted in a pedestrian fatality
  • 546 resulted in a serious pedestrian injury
  • 1,931 resulted in a slight pedestrian injury

The crucial information omitted from the main report, and tucked away in a footnote, is who was responsible for the fatalities. 15 of the 20 cases had a contributory factor assigned. In 5 cases, a factor was assigned to each party, in 6 cases, the factor was assigned to the pedestrian only, and in 4 cases, the factor was assigned to the cyclist only.

In other words, in this small number of cases, pedestrians were responsible for the incidents more often than cyclists.

How many pedestrian-cyclist collisions resulted in a cyclist casualty? We don't know, because the Birketts report doesn't say - and perhaps the DfT doesn't collect these figures.

It does seem that if you follow the facts to their logical conclusion, there is just as good a case for new 'causing death by dangerous or careless walking' laws, as for the new cycling offences.

Birketts present their report as a recommendation reached via a disinterested assessment of the evidence. In the case of the STATS19 figures, I suggest they have failed to interpret them impartially, or follow their implications to a logical conclusion.

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