Thursday 21 September 2017 15.35 BST
So there is to be an “urgent” review into whether the law should be changed to target dangerous cycling. This follows a campaign by Matt Briggs, whose wife, Kim, was killed when she was struck by a bike ridden by the now-jailed Charlie Alliston.
The first thing to stress is that I understand completely why Matt Briggs feels the way he does. I’ve talked to him, and appreciate why charging Alliston under an 1861 law was unwieldy and caused long delays. Briggs is a thoughtful, intelligent man and I wish him well.
All that said, as far as I can see there is no evidence the new law he seeks will make the roads any safer. In fact there’s an argument that they might, on balance, make them more perilous, especially for vulnerable users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
It seems depressingly apparent that this is an ill thought-out law change being rushed through by a government with little real interest in road safety, and focused more on reaction to a mass of negative headlines about cyclists in the wake of the Alliston trial.
I’ve written before about the curious myths connected to cycling which spread in the wake of the court case, so I won’t repeat myself. I will reiterate just one point: I am not arguing here in mitigation for Alliston, or what he did. I’m simply seeking a response to the case based on evidence.
And the evidence shows that cases such as Alliston’s are vastly rare. Of the 400 or so pedestrians killed a year in the UK, on average two are struck by cyclists.
Of those cases, barely any require prosecution for dangerous cycling. I cannot recall a similar case to that which killed Kim Briggs, which might have necessitated a prosecution under a new law of causing death by dangerous cycling. Nor could campaign group Cycling UK when I asked them.
None of this, of course, in any way diminishes the pain of Matt Briggs and his children, or even means the law should never be changed. What it does raise is the issue of priority.
There is a finite limit to what you might call the legislative bandwidth of government – how many hours in parliament and how much civil service time they can devote to changing the law. One new law means another change must be ditched.
And the review into the new law will see other, more urgent and more effective interventions halted or delayed.
To take one example, in May 2014 the Ministry of Justice promised a revamp of the wider system of prosecutions and sentences for road offences following a spate of pedestrian deaths.
In the three-plus years since then, despite 22 formal requests for action by MPs, peers and campaign groups, nothing has happened, despite many similar campaigns to that of Briggs by other bereaved relatives.
Jesse Norman, the junior transport minister who announced the review, has said there will also be a subsequent and broader examination of “road safety issues relating to cycling”. This will not, however, his department has confirmed, cover prosecutions or sentencing.
In fact, if you were to make a list of the most effective ways in which Britain’s roads could be made safer, then the promised new law would probably not be in the top 50.
Of those which would, many would be connected to enforcement. On rides to and from work this week, I’ve been looking into cars to see how many drivers are looking at a phone. On average, for a 20-minute commute, it’s above 10.
This is something proven to bring daily peril to the roads, especially for pedestrians and cyclists, but surveys show millions of drivers continue to do this because they’re confident they will never be caught.
Then there is speeding, something even the government’s own fairly cautious statistics say kills about 250 people on the roads. Again, this remains endemic as enforcement is so rare, despite the falling price of speed cameras and the advent of technology which would permit in-car monitoring.
That none of this is being done while a dangerous-cycling law is rushed through has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with political choices. Cars are common, and moves to limit the danger they cause brings angry reaction in the press.
This is not the case for cycling, which remains a niche form of transport, comprising only 1% to 2% of all journeys.
This takes me to the final reason the government’s official reasons for the proposed change to the law are such abject nonsense.
Announcing the review, Norman said it was needed in part as “cycling has become so popular in recent years”. The press release with his comments said there had been a “huge increase in the number of cyclists on our roads”.
There’s only one problem – it’s not true. While cycling has boomed over the past few years in London – where ministers and their advisers are based – levels have stayed depressingly flat across the country as a whole.