After Charlie Alliston, the UK needs to review its road safety legislation

A cyclist in west London. Image: Getty.

The UK is set to review the criminal laws and safety issues relating to cycling. This announcement, last September, came shortly after 20-year-old Londoner Charlie Alliston was found guilty on the little known charge of “wanton and furious driving”, having collided with 44-year-old pedestrian Amanda Briggs causing serious head injuries, which led to her death in 2016.

This was, for several reasons, an odd case. Historically, the offence was used to prosecute drivers of horse-drawn carriages. It stems from a Victorian act of parliament, which predates the invention of the penny farthing bicycle. Yet it does carry a sentence of up to two years in prison, and has been used in the modern era (notably in 2008 and 2009) to convict cyclists who have killed pedestrians as a result of riding on the pavement.

An odd case

If Alliston had been driving a motorised vehicle, he could have been charged for causing death by dangerous driving, which can attract a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. Although cyclists can face a charge of dangerous cycling under the Road Traffic Act 1986, this offence only carries a minimal sentence: a fine of up to £2,500.

Taking the view that these charges would be too lenient, prosecutors were left with few alternatives but to charge Alliston with manslaughter and the lesser charge of “wanton and furious driving”. Alliston was eventually acquitted of manslaughter, but found guilty on the lesser charge and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

That prosecutors had to rely on such an outdated legal provision shows that the law is in need of modernisation, so the UK government is right to update it. Yet, of the 400 or so pedestrians killed on Britain’s roads every year, only about two are the result of collisions with bicycles. So creating new crimes to punish cyclists may seem an odd place to start improving pedestrian safety.

Who’s liable?

In fact, there is a strong argument for a wider review, which overhauls the way that the law balances the rights of all road users. Research shows that UK law is out of step many other more cycle-friendly European nations. In the UK, only about 1 per cent of journeys are made by bicycle, in comparison with 27 per cent in The Netherlands, 19 per cent in Sweden 10 ten per cent in Germany.

This has been achieved through investment in cycle infrastructure, education and the provision of pro cycling road laws which has had the effect of normalising cycling as a mode of transport.

Under UK civil law, the burden of proof is on an injured cyclist to show that a defendant driver is liable for his or her injuries. While a similar principle is at work in Malta, Romania, Cyprus and Ireland, the majority of European jurisdictions have some version of a “presumed liability” principle.

This is where the driver of the more powerful vehicle is presumed to be at fault, unless they can prove otherwise. For example, Article 185 of the Dutch Wegenverkeerswet (Road Law), introduced in 1994, presumes the liability of a motorist in a collision with pedestrians or cyclists.

Campaign groups such as RoadShare argue that bringing UK civil law in line with most European jurisdictions would improve the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists. But this move has so far been resisted by successive UK governments. They have argued that the European model undermines an important legal principle in English law; that the defendant is presumed not to be at fault until proven otherwise – or innocent until proven guilty in a criminal context.

Yet concerns have been raised over whether UK law provides enough protection for cyclists who, along with motorcyclists, are the group most likely to be injured on the road. A Freedom of Information request by the BBC demonstrated that only around 40 per cent of car drivers who killed a cyclist received a prison sentence.

The evidence suggests that making roads safer for vulnerable users does come at a cost; the Dutch spend around £20 per head on cycle related projects per year, whereas the UK spends only £7 per head. But the health and economic benefits seem to justify this spending.

The ConversationSo, although a review of UK cycling law is a welcome opportunity to modernise the laws around cycling, it needs to do much more than create further criminal offences for cyclists.

Hugh McFaul is a lecturer in law at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


“Homeownership has collapsed. Good riddance”

Sold! But not to you. Image: Getty.

It’s official: Britain will soon be a nation of renters. Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies published new research showing that the proportion of young people who own their own home has more than halved in the last two decades – from 65 per cent in 1995 to 27 per cent today. In London, it hovers at just 20.

Pundits and politicians reacted to the news with a mixture of outrage and anxiety. Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey called it a “wake-up” call. The IFS’s own Andrew Hood warned of a “collapse” in Britain’s homeownership. And Housing Minister Dominic Raab swore “to go further and faster” to get Britain back on track. “Through schemes like Help to Buy, we’re helping more people onto the housing ladder and last year saw the highest number of first-time buyers in the UK since 2006,” he said.

But we should not mourn the loss of British homeownership – let alone vow to revive it. Britain’s obsession with homeownership has been toxic for the economy, driving up inequality while driving down productivity. And the obsession with homeownership has been no less toxic for British politics, creating a conspiracy of silence at Westminster to kill any policy that might alienate the marginal homeowning voter.

Instead, we should celebrate Britain’s transition to the rental sector, seizing the opportunity to introduce new reforms that ensure that tenancies are safe, secure, and affordable.

The situation today is, of course, dire. Millennials spend three times as much on their housing as their grandparents, but they get far less in return. High levels of rent drain their monthly income while funding their grandparents’ retirement. It is a direct transfer of wealth from the young to the old.

Expanding homeownership is an appealing – and familiar – solution to this problem. It is also a highly popular solution: the vast majority of renters, when surveyed, say that they would prefer to own a home. Who wouldn’t?

But Raab — and the Conservative Party, more broadly — are prescribing the illness. The drive to homeownership is what got us into this mess, encouraging households to take on mountains of mortgage debt and driving up prices in the process. It is a vicious cycle: house prices go up, making property look like a wise financial investment, so demand begins to rise, and prices go up again. Policies like Help to Buy only stoke the flames of housing demand further.

Fuelling the obsession with homeownership is the raw deal of the private rental sector. Not only are rents high and rising. The PRS is also littered with fees from estate agents and landlords. Meanwhile, tenants live in constant fear of their eviction or removal – which, under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, landlords can initiate even if the tenant has not violated any code or contract.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Most European countries have much stronger protections for their tenants, with longer minimum tenancies and prohibitions against eviction. Many of them also have laws that limit rent inflation to guarantee affordability to their tenants. Renting property can endow tenants with a sense of freedom and flexibility – rather than feeling shackled to a single home and a 30-year mortgage on the only affordable edge of town.

So how do we get to this renters’ heaven?

The fastest route is through the council. Britain’s social tenants enjoy more secure tenancies at more affordable rates. They also report much higher levels of satisfaction with their housing. A large-scale council housing construction scheme could help house Britain’s young and broke.

But reforms are needed to make the PRS more hospitable to low-income tenants. This includes extending minimum tenancies to three years to give renters more stability in their tenure. It would also include regulations for rental inflation, as we have seen already in the German case, whereby rent rises are capped at inflation. And it would eliminate Section 21 completely, giving some peace of mind to renters who fear each day that eviction is around the corner.

The rapid decline in homeownership is both a curse and a blessing. To make the most of it, we should not look back nostalgically to 1995, when the seeds of this crisis were first sown. We should instead move forward, toward the future of affordable, flexible rent. A property-renting dream.

David Adler is a research associate at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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