What changes are being made to the law?

An amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill now making its way through Parliament will make it an offence punishable by up to 14 years’ custody to cause death or serious injury by dangerous or careless cycling. Is any of this newsworthy?

There isn’t much to be gained from denying that cyclists can and do cause serious injury (and even occasionally death) when they use the road carelessly or dangerously. And there is no obvious logical reason why the penalties for causing death on the road should not be the same whether caused by cars or bikes – the outcome is the same in either event.

This equality was the professed aim of the principal campaigner for the legislative change, Sir Ian Duncan Smith MP: “[j]ust as drivers are held accountable for dangerous driving that results in death, cyclists I think should face similar consequences”.

There is something to be said for simplifying the existing system. Even if it is possible to prosecute cyclists who cause death or injury under existing legislation, making the process more straightforward isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. 

It is, however, worth asking if this issue is being seen in proportion. According to one letter published by the London School of Economics, around 8 cyclists and 60 pedestrians die every year in London alone, and a further 2,000 suffer serious injury. Former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman has made the point that, nationwide, there are 1,700 deaths caused by or involving motor vehicles every year, while the equivalent number for cyclists is just 3.

Even if, as Cycling UK reports, the general risk of any injury while cycling is very small and getting smaller, the plain facts are still that you are much more likely to suffer injury or death as a cyclist than you are to perpetrate it, and the biggest danger to you is likely to come from cars.

You might then think it’s strange to give this development so much rhetorical weight. It’s also more than a little ghoulish when it isn’t accompanied by corresponding measures to make the roads safer to use for everyone.

If anything, the Conservative government seems to have decided that road safety measures are themselves insidious threats to the liberty of ‘ordinary people’ (leaving aside that car ownership in the UK largely correlates with a higher household income). In everything from opposition to the ULEZ in London to 20mph speed limits, the current government seems determined to fight the Prime Minister’s imagined “war on motorists” as part of a wider series of culture-war skirmishes.

Next to the red meat of the Rwanda Plan or rolling back on healthcare and relationship education for LGBT+ people, making it moderately easier to prosecute cyclists might well be table scraps for the reactionary demographic to which the government is appealing. In ordinary times it might not even be particularly noteworthy. But we do not live in ordinary times, and so this relatively unremarkable legislative change carries an air of profound, desperate politicking. 

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