Beyond The Kerb)
10 SEPTEMBER 2017
In the aftermath of the high-profile trial of Charlie Alliston for causing the death of Kim Briggs, there have been calls from various quarters to create new legislation around the use of pedal cycles.
These calls, or perhaps more accurately the potential legislation to which they relate, can be placed into two categories: those which relate specifically to undesirable manners of cycling, and those which relate to all cycling. In this article I’ll be looking at the first of these categories. What changes do people seek, and what would be the result: would the changes even achieve what they purport to?
The status quo
To examine prospective changes, we first need to understand the existing offences with which people can be charged when there is a death on the public highway.
The first of these is manslaughter, which is one of the charges which Alliston faced. Other than murder, it is the only homicide offence which can be committed on a pedal cycle, or indeed from anywhere other than inside a motor vehicle.
Manslaughter has multiple forms, but the two most pertinent to road collisions are unlawful act manslaughter and gross negligence manslaughter.
It seems likely that the charge against Alliston was one of unlawful act manslaughter, in which the prosecution must show that the death was substantially caused by an unlawful and dangerous act. The case focused heavily on Alliston’s use of a bicycle with no front brake, which is unlawful under the Regulation 7(b) of the Pedal Cycles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1983 and clearly has associated danger. The offence is a good fit for the circumstances in this case (at least according to reports) but Alliston was found not guilty, which implies that the jury found insufficient evidence that the absence of the brake was sufficiently to blame.
This may on the face of it seem surprising but there are a number of potential reasons for this: for instance, it may have been considered that an initial attempt to avoid a collision by swerving would have been the more appropriate response of a reasonable pedal cyclist than to attempt an emergency stop (which is a very different matter to doing so in a car, something which may not be obvious to anyone who does not cycle) or it may be that the evidence as presented was simply of inadequate quality (a police video of two tests of braking distances, which was curiously and unusually released to the public, has been widely criticised for a number of significant flaws). If you feel surprised that Alliston was cleared, welcome to road law: it’s truly astonishing what you can get away with.
Beyond manslaughter, the charging options are limited to non-homicide offences. Alliston was charged with, and found guilty of, causing bodily harm by wanton and furious driving. This is an offence whose statutory definition, covering “wilful misconduct or wilful neglect” predates mechanically propelled vehicles, but which is still entirely applicable to vehicles of all types. Much has been made of its age—it dates from 1861—with many commentators using loaded terms such as “outdated” or “antiquated”, but age is not a measure of inadequacy.
The charge has been used successfully in other cases such as those of Darren Hall and Daryl Gittoes, and despite the two year maximum jail term of the offence, the sentences awarded to each (seven and twelve months respectively) were certainly not dissimilar to those awarded to people who kill with cars. Indeed Hall even received a 12 month driving ban, matching the minimum (and commonly applied) ban for causing death by careless or dangerous driving. His sentence was greater than those received by Tammie Morrall and Jessica Hedley, for example, who both killed people in head-on collisions whilst on the wrong side of the road.
Given this, it seems odd to suggest that this old law is unfit for purpose: it is perfectly capable of punishing people more harshly for killing with a bicycle than new laws often do those who kill with cars.
The evolution of road offences
Offences related to the use of mechanically propelled vehicles, or motor vehicles, have evolved over time. In the Road Traffic Act 1972, the definitions of reckless or dangerous driving (“[driving] a motor vehicle on a road recklessly, or at a speed or in a manner which is dangerous to the public…”) and careless or inconsiderate driving (“[driving] a motor vehicle on a road without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons…”) were included, as were equivalently-worded definitions of reckless or dangerous cycling and careless or inconsiderate cycling. It also specified offences for driving and cycling while unfit through drink or drugs, and a single homicide offence of causing death by reckless or dangerous driving.
The Road Traffic Act 1988 overhauled these offences and defined those which have been used in almost all cases of culpable driving since.