Monday 25 September 2017 11.12 BST
On Friday, transport minister Jesse Norman wrote to cycling leaders asking them to remind their members to follow the Highway Code. The letter came less than 48 hours after the announcement of a review on whether the law should be changed to tackle dangerous cycling.
There is nothing wrong with reminding road users of the Highway Code. The document gets updated fairly often and plenty of people don’t even know the stuff that’s been around for years, despite it being “essential reading” for use of the roads. The jarring part of the letter, and the review, is the singling out of one mode of transport that causes only occasional deaths while ignoring a much bigger problem.
The letter was sent to British Cycling, Cycling UK, Sustrans, the Bicycle Association, courier organisations and the Cycle to Work Alliance, as well as the cycling and walking commissioners for London and Manchester, Will Norman and Chris Boardman respectively. It asks recipients, following the death of Kim Briggs, to reiterate the “importance of cyclists adhering to the rules set out in the Highway Code and elsewhere” to their followers.
Norman says local authorities, as well as local companies with large numbers of employees who cycle to work (neither of which are copied in), could “highlight the rules for cyclists in the Highway Code to people who cycle in your local area”.
To put this into context, of 1,730 people killed on UK roads in 2015 just two – 0.12% – were killed by cyclists.
A wide-ranging review of all road traffic offences and sentencing was announced by the government in May 2014. Not only has it still not been published, it was later downgraded to cover the distinction between careless and dangerous driving, drink and drug driving and use of mobile phones, and hit-and-run drivers.
While the wide-ranging review is stuck in the Parliamentary plumbing system somewhere, despite 22 requests from Cycling UK and parliamentarians, Norman’s letter was sent within 48 hours of the cycling review being announced.
Given the relative risk of cycling, have letters of this nature been sent to the AA, the RAC, the Road Haulage Association, or driving instructors up and down the country in the three years since Grayling’s review was announced, asking their followers to brush up on the Highway Code? No, they haven’t.
Cycling organisations and the London and Manchester commissioners urge an evidence-led approach to road safety.
As Chris Boardman put it: “I don’t have a problem with [updating] the law; I do have an issue with prioritisation. The minister’s focus bypasses all the available evidence and is only aligned with the headlines.
“I would urge public resources be focused on those with the propensity to do the most harm and bad behaviour, not vehicle types.”
Boardman has a point. In what could have been a letter to his older self, Norman wrote for the Financial Times in June on the importance of resisting “a populist yearning to ignore inconvenient facts and rush to judgment”.
Separately in 2015 Norman warned against priorities driven by media obsessions and yet his response seems to echo the media obsession with an apparent rash of dangerous cyclists on our roads – contrary to all evidence.
To prevent Norman falling into the very traps he warns against, he could look to the statistics produced by his own department, rather than the headlines.
RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, believes the cycling review is likely to displace Grayling’s wider sentencing review. If so, the government is seeking to ignore the cause of more than 99% of road deaths to focus on just 0.12% of them.
As the charity points out, while Charlie Alliston received an 18 month sentence, just 57% of the 419 drivers convicted of causing a death by driving in England and Wales in 2016 were sent to prison at all.
Where is the urgent review for the families of those victims?
In 2015 there were 348 collisions between cyclists and HGV drivers, resulting in 18 cyclist deaths and 81 serious injuries. If we are writing letters to reduce road danger, surely a letter to haulage companies urging action on dangerous lorries is sensible.
The fact is, deaths on our roads need tackling, however they happen. The government could include cyclists in the wider review and finally publish it, focusing resources on the greatest cause of danger.
The fact Norman sent the letter at all suggests he, like some sections of the media, sees cyclists as a homogenous group. In truth cyclists may be the parent with a cargo bike, the London commuter, the shift worker cycling home at 2am or the construction worker in overalls and steel toecap boots.
Are they all members of a cycling organisation? Unlikely. Most of them probably don’t see themselves as cyclists, but as people who cycle, drive or take the train, bus or tram, depending on the journey.
After a van driver hit and killed a five-year-old on the pavement – and escaped prison – did Norman write to trade associations, employers and local authorities asking them to tell all drivers to follow the Highway Code?
If Jesse Norman is looking to confront the facts, he and his colleagues could do worse than to look to West Midlands Police, whose evidence-based initiative reduced serious cycling injuries by 20% in just 12 months. After years of focus on “all users” and safety campaigns aimed at cyclists failed to reduce road casualties, it was analysis of collision data that informed their action. They identified the cause of harm – motor vehicle drivers – and got results.
The benefit of an evidence-based approach is that it is far more likely to succeed. If Jesse Norman genuinely wants to tackle road safety, why is he ignoring those 1,730-odd annual deaths for the sake of one?