Cycling and the Justice System

The scales of justice: Photo Flckr cc; credit James Cridland
The parliamentary inquiry into cycling and the justice system kicks off next week. Those who would like the justice system to do a better job for cyclists can support the inquiry, and make a noise about it. Those who prefer to just complain can join the naysayers. Senior road safety and legal campaigner Duncan Dollimore explains ...

Whilst cycling is a fun, healthy and comparatively safe activity, many people reading this blog will have a tale to tell about what happened to them, a family member, or someone they know. Their story about how, at some point in the process, they believe that the justice system failed them, or simply that something could have been done better is all too common. 

Of course, my perception of what should have happened and how things should have been dealt with might well be skewed or at least influenced by my own personal experience, pain or anguish: but when the same or similar concerns are repeatedly raised, and patterns appear to emerge, it must be right to ask whether the justice system works as well as it might for cyclists,and where and how it might be improved.

Naysayers, sceptics and pessimists

With that in mind, the new inquiry launched by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG), into Cycling and the Justice System, should be hugely welcomed by anyone who rides a bike, or who has family members or friends that do so. Yet we know there will be the naysayers, the sceptics and the pessimists, who will criticise the remit of the inquiry, question whether it can achieve anything, and view it through a cynical lens.

If you tend to that persuasion, ask yourself whether you're content to carry on complaining, or whether it's preferable that a group of cross-party politicians look into these concerns, and at least attempt to influence or affect change.  

What are they looking at?

As a cycling campaigner on road safety and road justice issues, I am variously told by Cycling UK members, supporters, other campaigners, and people who just ride bikes, that there is not enough road traffic enforcement by the police, collisions involving cyclists are not treated seriously, and victims are not dealt with appropriately.

I could go on, but the gist of it is that people identify problems all the way through the system, which is why, when the inquiry was launched, the APPCG identified 14 issues which they could consider, which broadly fall within four categories, namely:

     1. Road users and victims

     2. Enforcement and investigation 

     3. Criminal Law

     4. Driver awareness and civil justice

These categories in many ways mirror the themes within Cycling UK's Road Justice Campaign, the stated aim of which is to improve how the justice system handles bad driving, in order to actively discourage irresponsible driving and raise driving standards for the benefit of not just cyclists, but all road users.

Over 200 people and organisations have sent submissions to the inquiry and the APPCG starts hearing oral evidence next Tuesday 31 January, when amongst others, Cycling UK will be giving evidence. The quantity and quality of the written submissions means there will now be five oral evidence sessions over several weeks, with the report to be launched on 27 March.  

Dooring and Dutch Reach

With written evidence limited to three pages, and a request to identify no more than four key issues, many who submitted evidence highlighted issues personal to them, or relevant within a particular area. May Hamilton's husband Robert Hamilton was killed in a car dooring incident in January 2014 whilst cycling along Linaker Street in Southport.

In her submission, May called for the APPCG to consider car dooring incidents and how they are dealt with by the justice system, and for recommendations to the Ministry of Justice regarding the possible charges and penalties available for this offence.

Importantly, May also asked the APPCG to support changes to encourage or require car occupants to open car doors with their far hand, often referred to as the Dutch Reach, where, in a right hand drive car, the driver would open their door with their left hand, the dynamics of which force them to turn their body to look behind first.

As a supporter of the road crash victims' charity RoadPeace, May also supported their longstanding call for the Victim's Right to Review Scheme to be amended to include other road traffic offences, which would allow more cyclists to challenge and request a review of a police or Crown Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute for offences such as careless driving. 

Car dooring was also raised within the submissions made by the Bristol Road Justice Group (attached below), who reported on their own three-year investigation into road traffic law enforcement in Bristol, and the City Council's response to road danger, identifying cases where serious injury was caused to cyclists and the number of incidents where there was no prosecution.

One startling statistic was that 16 cases where cyclists were injured through car dooring led to one prosecution, with the suggestion that this lack of action had effectively decriminalised the offence.

A case study in system failure

On 7 February, tireless campaigner and founder of See Me Save Me Kate Cairns will also be giving evidence to the inquiry. Kate's sister Eilidh Cairns, a fit and experienced cyclist, died in February 2009 after she was hit from behind by the driver of a tipper lorry in London, Joao Lopes, who claimed he failed to see Eilidh. Tragically, Eilidh's case is almost a case study in what can, and sometimes does go wrong, at every stage of the system from investigation onwards. 

Driving an HGV with uncorrected defective vision led to Lopes receiving a £250 fine, free to carry on driving, until he failed to see someone else, and drove into and killed pedestrian Nora Gutman 15 months later. Kate's submissions, unsurprisingly, are compelling, focussing particularly on the need for a national standard on collision investigations, greater transparency and reporting upon how the police investigate collisions, and the problem of victim-blaming.

Four key calls

Improved collision investigation, prioritising roads policing, victims' rights, and civil justice issues including the question of presumed liability, were all addressed in the submissions by RoadPeace (attached below), which Cycling UK have expressly supported, with RoadPeace also giving oral evidence next Tuesday. Trying to stick to four issues, in three pages, wasn't easy, but Cycling UK's submissions (attached below), focus on the need for:

   1. Longer and more frequent driving bans

   2. A review of careless and dangerous driving charging standards

   3. A wider review of police investigations, criminal prosecution and sentencing

   4. Greater priority to be given to traffic law enforcement and road crime

It would be naive to think that this inquiry will fix everything, but it is crucial that people such as Kate Cairns and May Hamilton get their chance to tell politicians, all of whom have an interest in cycling, what they think is wrong with the system. Hopefully, making a public noise about this inquiry, and being positive about it, will also help the APPCG to get its voice heard when it makes recommendations on how to make the justice system better for cyclists.

Following persistent lobbying by Cycling UK, the Government agreed to review certain motoring offences and penalties, launching a consultation last December. Whilst the remit of this review falls short of what's required to truly tackle driving standards, and the consultation closes prior to the APPCG inquiry being published, the APPCG still has an opportunity to make recommendations to the Ministry of Justice and hopefully influence the outcome of its review. That's why this inquiry matters.  

Of course if you're content for the inquiry to be a damp squib, and achieve nothing, you can always join the naysayers before it starts.