The high profile death of Kim Briggs, caused by cyclist Charlie Alliston in 2016, has prompted the government to call for an urgent review into cycling laws.
Facts of the case
Kim Briggs, a 44-year-old mother of two, was crossing the road in East London when she was knocked over by cyclist Charlie Alliston. The accident caused Briggs to die in hospital a week later from severe head injuries. Alliston, 18 at the time, was riding a fixed gear bicycle with no front breaks- a type of bike that is illegal to use on the road.
Alliston was cleared of manslaughter, but found guilty of a lesser charge of causing bodily harm by wanton or furious driving, and sentenced to 18 months in a young offenders institution.
In determining Alliston’s sentence, Her Honour Judge Wendy Joseph QC remarked: I am satisfied from your evidence in this court, that your entire course of cycling at that time amounted to callous disregard for the safety of other road users and that your culpability was very significant.
The incident caused Briggs’ widower to begin a campaign for a change in the law relating to cyclists.
The Current Law
There are currently no criminal offences that apply specifically to cyclists who cause death or injury to any other road user. The only options available to prosecutors are to charge cyclists with careless or dangerous cycling, carrying maximum sentences of a fine of £1,000 or £2,500 respectively, or bodily harm by ‘wanton or furious driving’, which carries a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment. It is possible to charge a cyclist with manslaughter if they cause the death of a pedestrian, but as observed in the case of Alliston, it is extremely unlikely that such a charge would succeed, given it’s level of severity.
The offence of causing bodily harm by ‘wanton or furious driving’ was created by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This 156-year-old law was originally established to apply to those driving horse-drawn carriages, but it is currently the closest offence to causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving (which only applies to mechanically propelled vehicles) that a cyclist can be charged with.
There are seemingly a number of inadequacies in applying the 1861 offence to cyclists who cause death or serious injury to other road users. Firstly, the wording of the Act results in an inability of prosecutors to draw a distinction between a cyclist causing death, and one causing serious injury. Secondly, given that there is only one offence, those who have cycled carelessly must be charged with the same offence as those who have cycled dangerously, leading to potentially unjust sentences. Thirdly, it is apparent that the maximum sentences available for cyclists under the current law (2 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine) disproportionately lenient than those available for vehicle drivers, who can face up to 5 years imprisonment for death by careless or inconsiderate driving, and up to 14 years for death by dangerous driving.
It is evident from a brief analysis of the law therefore, that there is an arbitrary distinction between mechanically and self-propelled vehicles, which share the same roads, and the current law is inadequate, given the popularity of cycling in Britain today.
Potential Changes to the Law
There are a number of potential adaptations to the current law, which could make it more suitable for the 21st century. One option (arguably the most simple for legislators) would simply be to amend current driving laws so that they apply equally to mechanically propelled and self-propelled vehicles.
Alternatively, new laws could be introduced, applying solely to cyclists causing death or serious injury to other road users.
A further safeguard of introducing cycling licences could also be established, however this is considered to be less probable, given that anything which is seen to discourage cycling is likely to be met with significant resistance.
Government Review of the Law
Since government spending on cycling has trebled in the last 7 years, Britain has seen a huge increase in the number of cyclists on its roads. The fact that 2 pedestrians were killed and 96 seriously injured by cyclists in 2015, coupled with a number of high profile cases such as that of Kim Briggs has caused the government to instigate an urgent review into cycling laws. Jesse Norman, the minister for transport stated in his announcement:
We already have strict laws that ensure that drivers who put people’s lives at risk are punished but, given recent cases, it is only right for us to look at whether dangerous cyclists should face the same consequences
The review will be constituted of two phases- the first being a review of the current legislation, considering an update in the law so there is a proper legal remedy if a pedestrian is seriously injured of killed by a cyclist. This first phase will be assisted by independent legal advisors, and is set to conclude in early 2018.
The second phase will examine the broader issues relating to road safety, and will not be limited to considering cyclists, but will aim to make roads safer for all road users. This stage will examine factors such as the rules of the road, and public awareness, and will consult a range of cycling and road safety organisations, in addition to the general public.
With more than 100 cyclists killed and 3,000 seriously injured on Britain’s roads each year, this announcement has been met by criticism, with many feeling that the reaction is disproportionate to the number of people killed or seriously injured by cyclists each year. This criticism has been amplified by the fact that a government promise to launch a wider investigation into road laws and their application in May 2014, has been delayed by more than 3 years. The Department for Transport has made it clear however, that the review it is currently proposing will not discriminate against cyclists, stating that it will ‘help safeguard both Britain’s cyclists and those who share the roads with them’.
Lorena Veale is a pupil barrister, under the supervision of Tamara Pawson.
 R v Charlie Alliston. Sentencing remarks of Her Honour Judge Wendy Joseph QC
 Government launches urgent review into cycle safety https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-launches-urgent-review-into-cycle-safety [Date accessed: 25th September 2017]
 Dangerous cycling law review after death crash http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41337440 [Date accessed: 25th September 2017]
 Government launches urgent review into cycle safety (see footnote 2)