Tuesday 1 January 2013

Single speed is fine by me, as long as we are not talking about gears. And can we all stop turning up our noses at Strict Liability?

A common thread in cycling blog posts is the issue of whether you can have a “two-speed solution” for cycle infrastructure, in a single provision.  Some clearly think you can’t have cycle lanes and paths which will serve slower, more sedate bicycle users, and simultaneously serve faster vehicular cyclists.  Others say that the Dutch manage this, so we could too.

Quite frankly, I don’t care whether future cycle infrastructure works for fast vehicular cyclists or not. As long as the roads remain open to them to deliver their daily fix of adrenalin, (and to change that would be a very radical step indeed in our general legal approach to the use of the highway), I am quite happy for new dedicated segregated cycle paths in London to be aimed primarily at slower, less confident users.

Since I started commuting in London I have never been a fast cyclist, and I am getting slower.  I would like to be slower still. I know from experience, for example cycling to an evening function in full black-tie regalia, or going to a business meeting in a suit, and taking it easy to avoid turning up in a sweat, that breakneck speed actually doesn’t gain you more than a few minutes in any trip across central London of no more than 5 miles or so.  I suspect that many others would also prefer to slow down, and so have the opportunity to ride in a more dignified way, in proper clothes. The reason we don’t is simply that speed is a survival strategy.

Speed permits us to ride assertively, for example to take the lane or to deal with right turns or roundabouts, without too many motorists resorting to frustrated aggression because we are “slowing them down” (as if!) or to minimise the speed differential and so the probability, if not the severity, of any “collision” with a motor vehicle.

Does that mean I don’t want cycle infrastructure built to the standards applied in the Netherlands, or at least Denmark?  Does it mean I don’t want to re-allocate road space from cars to bikes?  Not at all, but I am willing to accept that we might not get a Dutch standard 4m wide separated path suitable for fast and slow cyclists together immediately.  I would prefer every appropriate* road in London to have, say, a 2 or 2.5m wide cycle lane than for a handful to have the Rolls-Royce treatment.  I would confidently predict that time will show that they need to be widened, just as the Torrington Place scheme to which David Arditti personally contributed so much, has in a sense become a victim of its own success.

*”Appropriate” = where the Dutch CROW manual or similar Danish standards would stipulate a separated track due to speed or volume of motor traffic.

I would also like to see universal 20mph limits across London – not only on residential and commercial access roads, but on local distributor roads and the  TfL Road Network, with traffic light phasing re-set to the lower speed so racing from light to light can be seen by any moron to be a pointless exercise.  After all except for at dead of night you can’t progress faster than half that speed anyway, and we want the roads to be safer for cycling out of peak hours.

Finally, I want to see strict liability for civil injury claims against motorists.  The UK is one of only five out of 27 EU countries not to have this, the others being Ireland, Southern Cyprus, Malta and Romania – hardly illustrious company.

I know that some bloggers, notably Freewheeler, argue that 20mph and strict liability are among many things which will not bring a mass cycling culture, but I don't care whether they do or don't – they are worthy objectives in their own right.  Having known a girl who suffered life-changing head injuries when hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing, and then fought vainly for years to obtain compensation to fund her rehabilitation and care, I know how very much we need this, even if it doesn’t bring a single new cyclist out on to the street.  It is an easy measure - the effect on the average motor insurance premium is estimated at £50 pa, about half of the estimated average cost to motorists of fraudulent whiplash claims.  It stirs emotions because people assume they are being automatically blamed but quite the reverse is true - you have the liability (insured) without any need for you to ackowledge fault or for your claimant to assert blame.  Honour is satisfied.  You (or more to the point your insurer) has the option to contest the claim by asserting fault to the claimant but fault or lack of it in the defendant is entirely irrelevant.

Can we please, please not reject strict liability simply because it won't promote more cycling?  Please?


  1. Well, you have one supporter here. If you want a cycling culture like the Northern Europeans, you can't cherry pick on the basis of what you assume are the best or most important bits. To ensure you get the same result, you have to reproduce the conditions.

    Where is the empirical evidence that you get high cycling share and good safety without strict liability? And is it desired to have more people cycling full stop, or more people cycling in greater or equal safety to now, given that segregation of all roads is impossible? If you're happy with the current KSI rates and the latest evidence suggests that they may be worsening (http://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/some-london-cycling-statistics/), fine - that's up to your conscience. I'm not.

    Also, reports from Brits who have cycled in most European countries - high modal share, comprehensive infrastructure, or not - almost universally praise the couteousness of continental motorists to cyclists. Why do the anti-strict-liability people think this happens - because the Europeans are fundamentally nicer than Brits? Can they then tell us how this amazing psychological difference has arisen? And if they can justify that, can they then tell us how to keep cyclists safe on the roads that can't be segregated?

    1. Thanks for your comment - my first, yay! Apparently about hslf of all blogs are only ever read by their authorsaso I am past that hurdle at any rate!

      I had a little exchange on Twitter today with some more eminent bloggers than myself and, to be fair, I don't think anyone in the separationist camp actually opposes strict liability. The issue they see is that some elements of cycle campaigning (you know who you are...) argue that speed limits and strict liability are THE solution, not merely a part of it. Presumably this is driven by fear that dedicated infrastructure would lead to cyclists being barred from using the roads altogether - which strikes me as inherently implausible in light of the status of the public highway in UK law, ie that motorists get to use it as a privilege which has ot be paid for, while others (pedestrians, horse riders/drivers, cyclists) may use them as of right.

      I do however think that we have to be careful of how we express ourselves. There are powerful, wealthy and determined forces out there who do NOT want strict liablity. The insurance industry for a start. You could say that they can price in the risk into premiums, and indeed a view already exists as to what that price should be, but uncertainty remains - how can you quantify claims which would never even be initiated under present law because the odds are sijply too long? And how do you deal withthe first year when liability changes but extant policies were not priced for them?

      The motor trade generally doesn't want it - they think it sends a message, that motorists are bad people, who must fess up to their sins. That is baloney, as will become obvious almost immediately strict liability is introduced (as I am sure it will be one day, even if it takes EU directive to force it) but there is nmore emotion than reason in this argument.

  2. " traffic light phasing re-set to the lower speed so racing from light to light can be seen by any moron to be a pointless exercise"

    TfL have done exactly this on Camden High Street to 'enforce' the 20 limit, bit guess what the morons insist on doing as soon as they get a green light?

    That's not to say it won't work: it will have a better chance if rolled out across the board, but there is no limit to the stupidity of human beings.