The previous post has had more views than any other in our history. We have received significant support for its content in comments and on Twitter, and also – as one must expect in the age of social media – abuse and insult. Although readers will judge for themselves, it is striking how the insults have been based on a lack of evidence and – above all – misreading of what the piece was about.
So, to repudiate the insults, let’s clarify what the piece was – and more importantly was not – about. We can then move on to an assessment of where we are now after an extraordinary week.
The piece was written before the verdict in the trial of Mr Charles Alliston. This meant we could not legally comment on whether he was guilty of the offences he was charged with. One accusation made on twitter ( from Richard Williams @richw1986 ) was that “Moreover – my point is more that by trying to defend a guy who doesn’t deserve it you’re not encouraging sympathy toward cyclists who do imo”. As I replied, “There is not one single thing in my piece which tries to defend him or his actions.”
What we said
The essence of the piece was as follows: along with other colleagues in the transport and road safety fields, we were struck by the way that a pedestrian death, unlike the 99.4% that don’t involve a cyclist, had caught the attention of the media and also a manslaughter charge. For some of our colleagues, like the officers in West Midlands Police
I wanted to go further than voicing such a sentiment, by analysing why this has happened. My argument was, and is, that we see significant double standards applied here. Their use is based on a failure – or refusal – on the part of the media, the legal system, and our culture at large to recognise road danger as a serious social problem. Were it to do so, and apply the same focus to other pedestrian deaths as in the Alliston case, we would have:
• massive media concern,
• higher chances of prosecution,
• more serious charges brought,
• higher chances of securing guilty verdicts (with juries less likely to identify with errant drivers)
• and far more serious punishment
in the 99.4% of cases of pedestrian deaths where motorists and motorcyclists are involved.
The reason for stating this is not vindictiveness. Indeed, the point of drawing attention to the double standards is to focus on what happens before such deaths occur. Our aim is to move towards proper social concern for behaviour with a potential to endanger others, in order to avoid deaths and injuries. This is likely to involve far more law enforcement, and penalties of a minor nature for errant behaviour prior to crashes, as well as highway and vehicle engineering designed to protect the more vulnerable road users. But whatever the measures to be taken, the point is to return our attention to the principal source of danger on the road – and the fact that it has never really been taken with proper seriousness.
To a large extent this simply means viewing safety on the road with, to take a rough example, the sort of rigour to be found in places governed by Health and Safety at Work – hardly a very radical objective. But it would require a massive change in the dominant attitudes towards motor vehicle use, opposing the current acceptance of endemic rule and law breaking by drivers. Indeed, it is precisely because of this tolerance of what to us is intolerable that we have had the focus on the exceptional case of a cyclist causing a pedestrian death.
Only a bigot or anybody who hadn’t read the post could fail to see that argument and that we were in no way exempting Alliston from responsibility.
We also voiced a concern that cyclists as an “out-group” were being lumped together and targeted with negative stereotyping and stigma – with a dangerous propensity to increase already intolerable danger to them. Why – particularly when there had been no guilty verdict – should this mean we were excusing bad cycling or that we were supposedly and wrongly “speaking for cyclists”?
The widower of Kim Briggs, Mr Matthew Briggs, while calling for changes in the law to incorporate “causing death by dangerous cycling”, made it absolutely clear that he was not targeting all cyclists. Regrettably, numerous commentators (ab)using the tragedy of the loss of his wife were not so civilised. We have had the spectacle of abuse of all cyclists, from the convicted drink driver Andy Kershaw, through a grandstanding MP mouthing half-baked insults, to the extraordinary spectacle of the grotesque “Mr Loophole” attacking the “epidemic” of cycling.
The misconstruing of what we said is but a part of the wave of prejudice we have witnessed. Indeed, our prediction that this episode would be about diverting attention away from abuse of motor vehicles on to a vulnerable out group appears to have been at least partly fulfilled.
Finally, the disgusting suggestion was made that we had no sympathy for the loved ones of Mrs Briggs. Anybody aware of the work of myself as Chair and other members and supporters of Road Danger Reduction Forum know the work we have done, particularly in co-ordination with our friends in RoadPeace, to support road crash victims. Above all, our professional and voluntary work is based on making life safer for road users, particularly pedestrians.
Mr. Briggs, in his comments on his aims for the future, has talked about his objective of avoiding other families having to go what his has done. The obvious thrust of the previous post, and of all the work of the RDRF, is that we want incidents involving pedestrian death to be taken more seriously, and that the behaviours leading up to them are reduced, with those responsible for them held accountable.
This seems to us to be the best way to recognise the death of Mrs Briggs. It will work for others in her position to be protected from road danger, and for when it does result in injury or death, to be properly treated by society
After the verdict: what we do think
However, unlike in this last article, we don’t want to dwell on issues around the evidence on matters such as stopping distances. We accept the verdict and see it as our job to press ahead for reduced danger on the roads. When asked on BBC Radio London if we would accept cyclists coming under legislation relating to deaths caused by dangerous or careless driving, I said yes. We have always wanted all people endangering others to come under the operation of the law; however they are getting about (although we would be circumspect about potentially criminalising pedestrians with some sort of “jay walking” legislation).
So we support the statement by Cycling UK, which is worth reading carefully:
Ducan Dollimore, Cycling UK Head of Advocacy and Campaigns said:
“Riding a fixed wheel bicycle on busy roads without a front brake is illegal, stupid, and endangers other road users especially pedestrians. Charlie Alliston’s actions had tragic consequences for Kim Briggs’ family, and it was entirely right that this led to his prosecution.
“The fact that he has been convicted of an offence dating back to legislation from 1861, drafted in archaic language, will doubtless lead some to argue that the laws on irresponsible cycling should be aligned with the laws on irresponsible driving. The reality is that the way in which the justice system deals with mistakes, carelessness, recklessness and deliberately dangerous behaviour by all road users has long been in need of review.
“In 2014 the Government acknowledged this when announcing a full review of all motoring offences and penalties, but then waited three years to launch a limited consultation last year which closed six months ago, with silence ever since.
“To ensure that there is consistency with charging decisions, and with how dangerous behaviour on or roads is dealt with, it is vital that the Government ends the delay, and gets on with the wide scale review that politicians from all sides, victims’ families and various roads safety organisations have tirelessly demanded.”
In a similar vein, LCC issued a statement:
So let’s note and celebrate that it’s the cycling organisations that are making a commitment towards reducing the danger presented to pedestrians. This involves pushing for a legal framework which will make it more likely that those responsible for road deaths (and injuries) are more likely to be charged, to be charged with an offence that reflects the seriousness of their behaviour, and to be more likely to found guilty and receive a sentence commensurate with the actual and potential damage that their actions have caused. We have been supporting the campaigning objectives that Cycling UK describe above, and see it as a key feature of road danger reduction.
By contrast, the official “road safety” industry has been conspicuous by its absence in the media storm of the last few days. Of course, so too have the official motoring organisations. (And anyway, can you imagine them being required to issue statements on the responsibilities of motorists after a road death caused by a driver?)
So we shouldn’t need to repeat this, but suspect we may have to, so here goes: The RDRF, along with the rest of the road danger reduction movement, is and has been working since its inception for a much enhanced system of enforcement and sentencing governing the behaviours of road users which potentially threaten others. The attentions of this system will include others such as cyclists, but because of their smaller numbers, and more importantly because of their lower weight and speed and thus destructive potential, will form a small part of its overall focus. This focus will prioritise those with the greatest lethal potential, namely the drivers and riders of motor vehicles.
To illustrate the task we have, let’s look again at a case which was heard in an adjacent court at the same time as when the Alliston case was heard.
The case of Jessica Wells
Photo: Daily Mail
According to the Daily Mail,22 year old Wells was riding her motorbike at 44 mph in a 30 mph area “weaving in and out of traffic”, overtaking a lorry and undertaking a learner driver moments before hitting and killing 80 year-old Ian Rose as he got off a bus. Ms Wells had noticed a speed camera and checked her dashboard in a way which distracted her at the moment of collision. (It may be of interest that both prosecution and the media report highlight this last fact, possibly implying that the speed camera was a problem. Maybe that is being too cynical.)
Wells was given a suspended sentence, with the judge pointing out that she had shown remorse, was aware that she taken a life (“a fact you will have to live with for the rest of your life”) and that it was “clear…that you are a sympathetic and compassionate young woman”.
Comparison with the Alliston case, which was being heard in an adjacent court at the same time, is instructive. Despite her behaviour being far more potentially lethal, there was a lower charge (causing death by careless driving as against manslaughter), what is likely to be a lower sentence, and – above all – far less media attention. Some of this can be put down to the contrast between the personalities involved, with one being sympathetic, the other (to put it mildly) unsympathetic. Some of it is due to a willingness to show remorse – although I’m not sure this should weigh that heavily when it comes to the severity of the collisions.
The point from this and many other comparisons is that double standards rule in a way which diminishes the prospects of serious commitment to tackle danger on the roads to the detriment of its actual and potential victims in the future.
All of this leaves us, as I concluded in the previous post, with an awareness of bleakness of the prospects facing people in the road danger reduction movement for a civilised approach to road danger.
Nevertheless, there are positive signs. There has been plenty of much needed mutual support voiced on social media. There have been thoughtful and well-crafted posts, threads and comments. (I modestly hope these pieces are part of that).
It also shows that safety on the road is not about abstract engineering or policing projects. It is about questioning the unquestioned, criticising an uncriticised status quo. It means addressing a culture where drivers are supported in the “rights” to drive where, when, why and above all how they want. That’s an important lesson to learn.
Since the early days of motoring – albeit with notable resistance from time to time – drivers have endangered others and largely got away with it. All we are seeing now is an outburst of the continued refusal to accept responsibility and deflect attention on to a (relatively) minor type of danger coming from a politically powerless out group. There is no reason to see the events of the last week as a particularly downward turn just because of a greater number than usual of bigots crawling out of the woodwork.
So we carry on. One last repetition: Carrying on the struggle seems to us the best way to recognise the death of Mrs Briggs. It will work for others in her position to be protected from road danger, and for when it does result in injury or death, to be properly treated by society.