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Will Cyclist Safety Be Improved By Strict Liability Laws?

Cycling in the countryside
16th October 2013

The idea that motorists will be liable if they are involved in a collision with a cyclist (or pedestrian) has been gathering support ever since the campaign for the introduction of strict liability into civil law was launched in Scotland in April, aimed at “streamlining the legal pathway” to bicycle accident compensation. 

Petitioned by ‘Cycle Law Scotland’, which has collected more than 5,000 signatures to date, the campaign hopes to create a hierarchy of road users as well as highlight the continuing dangers cyclists face from motorists. The long term goal is to transform road user attitudes and help cultivate a culture of mutual understanding and respect. 

Urgent changes are needed. The number of cyclists killed on UK roads was up by 10 per cent from 107 in 2011 to 118 in 2012, and the tally of serious injuries increased for the eighth consecutive year, by 4 per cent to 3,222, between 2012 and 2013. (The Department for Transport - DfT).

Britain to catch up with Europe...

Aided no doubt by the “Bradley Wiggins Effect”, following his Tour de France and Olympic victories in 2012, increasing numbers of people are cycling and cyclist road safety has become very much front of mind as Britain looks to finally catch up with some of her European neighbours. Ironically, Sir Bradley himself was knocked off his bike by a careless van driver last November and suffered injuries including a broken rib. 

The government has announced the imminent roll out of a £77 million road cycling investment plan to improve cycling safety and coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have just published a policy document entitled,” Green Growth and Green Jobs - Transition to a Zero Carbon Britain” including a number of ideas to encourage more cycling.

Presumption of liability...

Proposals are put forward to enforce a 20mph 'standard speed' limit for residential streets, the provision of cycle riding proficiency training to levels 1 and 2 for school pupils - and the presumption of liability for motorists involved in traffic accidents. 

In a bid to reduce the number of cyclists and other vulnerable road users undergoing an unnecessarily long or difficult legal process following an accident, the intention is for vehicle drivers to automatically take the blame for accidents in civil cases unless they can prove the cyclist (or pedestrian) was at fault

As you might imagine, many cyclists and cycling campaign groups are actively supporting “strict liability” laws, which were first introduced to the Netherlands in 1992 and are now considered an essential safeguard as cycling numbers increase.

Improving attitudes and safety...

Alongside the Netherlands, Denmark and Ontario in Canada have the same or equivalent strict liability law. One noticeable effect has been for Dutch and Danish drivers to drive more cautiously in the presence of cyclists and pedestrians, with the implication that strict liability alone is sufficient to improve road user attitudes and cycling safety. 

However, there is a difference between a presumed liability and presumed fault, which in this instance distinguishes between a criminal liability and a civil liability, and deals primarily with matters of insurance in the event of an injury. 

Consequently, “strict liability” might actually be minimally or not relevant at all in cyclist fatality cases in which the motorist involved receives a lenient verdict. Motorists are already liable in vehicle collisions where they can be shown to be at fault but unfortunately, the liability has not been a deterrent to safer, more aware driving in the presence of cyclists.

Entitlement to a safe road journey...

According to the National Transport Survey, Oct 2012, cycling on the road in the UK has increased by around 12 per cent over the last decade and the Government has said that it wants to increase cycling traffic on UK roads over the next decade by at least 10 per cent.  Transformation of the Britain’s road infrastructure and user culture needs to take place to safeguard everyone’s entitlement to a safe road journey and the taking of more responsibility for our driving behaviour.