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Cycling

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:40 pm on 23rd May 2007.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Shadow Minister, Defence 4:40 pm, 23rd May 2007

I do not think that the main point of the debate is whether the word "possible" or "practicable" is used in the code. The problem is about cycle lanes and facilities being included. The guidance used to be about routes, which are signed roads for cyclists that may or may not have facilities on them. We need to focus on the fact that cyclists are now being encouraged—almost forced—to use those facilities when they may not be appropriate. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that the wording is extremely important and that we must get it right.

Hon. Members will remember the deaths of Thomas Harland, who was only 14 when he died, Maurice Broadbent, Dave Horrocks and Wayne Wilkes. They were all members of Rhyl cycling club and were out for a Sunday morning ride in January 2006 when they were killed. The tragedy of their deaths stirs powerful emotions within the cycling community, and cyclists are extremely sensitive about the attitudes of some irresponsible road users towards their leisure activity. They bitterly resent reckless drivers who kill and maim but often receive only a small fine in court.

In that case, the court determined that the driver's bald tyres were not a contributory factor and that the ice on the roads was the reason for the accident. As a result, the driver received only a £180 fine. I realise that the changes in the Road Safety Act 2006 moved us in the right direction, but there are still concerns that people who are convicted of careless driving when a death is involved can receive up to five years in prison, whereas dangerous drivers who do not cause death can receive only up to two years. We are addressing and penalising the outcome of behaviour rather than the behaviour itself, and I am keen that we should address the behaviour.

Cyclist deaths were up 10 per cent. in 2005 to 148—those are the most recent available statistics—compared with 134 in 2004 and 114 the previous year. Cycling was the only mode of transport in which an increase in deaths was recorded in 2005. That is why cyclists are so infuriated by the proposed changes to "The Highway Code". They fear that the changes will do nothing to change the attitudes of reckless drivers.

The main point of contention concerns the wording in the consultation draft of the new version of "The Highway Code" that was published last year. The advice regarding cyclists was changed from saying that they should use cycle routes "when practicable" to saying that they should use

"cycle routes where practicable and cycle facilities...where they are provided".

After much protest the wording was changed to "wherever possible" in the version that was laid before Parliament on 28 March, but cyclists are still extremely concerned for the reasons that I have given. They protested in their thousands to Members of this House and to the Government, and they want further changes.

The issue is not about the wording "wherever possible", but about the fact that cycle facilities have been included, even though they might not always be the safest route for cyclists. The new code must make it clear that the use of cycle facilities such as cycle tracks is discretionary. Governmental guidance in "Cyclecraft" and in the national standards for cycle training advises cyclists that it is often safer to use the road. The Department for Transport highway engineering guidance, the "Manual for Streets", states that cycle tracks

"can be more hazardous to cyclists than the equivalent on-road route."

Hon. Members need only refer to the Warrington cycle campaign's website to see how unsafe some of those facilities are.

The new wording could lead to drivers using "The Highway Code" to make claims of contributory negligence against cyclists whom they have hit if the cyclist had chosen not to use a nearby facility. The effects of the proposed changes could be significant for cyclists. Under criminal law, they could be more at risk of arrest and conviction for offences such as inconsiderate cycling. Hon. Members might know that last year Daniel Cadden was charged with inconsiderate cycling for using the road instead of crossing three lanes of fast-moving traffic to use a cycle track. His conviction was overturned in a retrial, but the revised wording could lead to more cyclists being charged and even convicted in similar circumstances.

The proposed changes could also make it easier for drivers to avoid civil law compensation payouts to cyclists whom they have injured if a cycle facility of whatever kind or quality was nearby but was not used. In such cases, it will not matter how culpable the driver was or how serious or permanent the injuries that they have caused; their insurers will be merciless in using the new wording to claim contributory negligence, as Mr. Smith said. The situation is different in the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany, where motorists who injure cyclists must pay compensation unless the driver shows that the injured person did something illegal.

I am pleased to learn that there has been a constructive dialogue between the CTC and the Minister's officials and that new draft wording is being considered. I hope that a successful conclusion can be reached in time for the next edition of "The Highway Code", and I seek the Minister's assurance that the wording that is eventually adopted will not be based on the assumption that it is normally safer to use cycle facilities, because that assumption is contrary to all the evidence; indeed, the opposite is true in many situations. Not making that assumption will give cyclists the necessary discretion to make reasonable decisions not to use such facilities where appropriate.

I would appreciate the Minister's thoughts on this very important subject. This is not just about a few words; it is about our attitudes to road safety and particularly towards those who cycle.