Bloody cyclists – redux

The tragic death of pedestrian Kim Briggs following a collision with cyclist Charlie Alliston, who was riding a fixed-wheel bike without a front brake, was a huge media story yesterday in England. Alliston was acquitted of manslaughter, but convicted of “causing death by wanton or furious driving”. The jury were unconvinced by a weak prosecution case, and one has to ask why the Crown Prosecution Service chose to pursue the manslaughter charge against Alliston.

Yesterday I was interviewed twice on the radio, and asked to comment in my capacity as a cycling and sustainable transport campaigner come opinionated journalist. The first interview was at 7am on shock-jock Nick Ferrari’s LBC show. Think Daily Mail on the airwaves, with presenters drawn from both right and left. Ferrari is on the populist right of the spectrum.

The second interview, on BBC Radio Essex at 6pm, was more civilised, but there I was up against the same opponent in Edward Adoo, a broadcaster and writer who calls for compulsory registration of cyclists, and has a somewhat binary view of velopedists as a group. During the Ferrari show, Adoo accused me of living on a different planet, but this was the standard rhetorical trick known as getting one’s retaliation in first. Adoo didn’t take the same approach on the Radio Essex programme, but there was nonetheless an interesting exchange of views between us.

The manslaughter charge was in my view inappropriate. Alliston’s lack of remorse and victim-blaming immediately after the event were damning, but that does not justify abusing the judicial process. As it stands, Alliston is likely to be sent to prison, with a maximum term of two years. Justice may have been done with Alliston’s conviction, albeit on a lesser charge, but in social and emotional terms the situation is a mess, and the public furore surrounding this case is damaging for all concerned.

There have to my knowledge been two previous convictions of cyclists for causing death by wanton or furious driving, following the deaths of pedestrians. Did the CPS examine those cases before deciding to prosecute Alliston for manslaughter? We should be told.

As for the police claim that, had Alliston been riding a bike with a front brake, he would have been able to stop in three metres, this can be challenged with some basic physics combined with the widely accepted deceleration capability of a front brake caliper (0.5g). In reality, Alliston’s emergency stop distance would have been more like 6m, which incidentally is how far he was from Briggs when she stepped out into the road. Note that a car travelling at 30km/h would take around 12m to stop following an emergency brake manoeuvre.

What these numbers show is that on a technical level the prosecution argument concerning stopping distance was scientifically unsound. That doesn’t excuse Alliston riding a track bike on the road. Riding a fixie without a front brake a grossly irresponsible thing to do, as well as being illegal. There are many fixed-wheel cyclists on London’s roads, and until a few years ago I was one of them. From my experience as part of the fixed-wheel community, the overwhelming majority of fixed-wheel cyclists would not dream of riding without two brakes: (1) feet back-pressure on the pedals; and (2) a front, hand-operated caliper.

Brakeless fixed-wheel bikes are illegal in the UK, yet the law is by and large unenforced. But it could be enforced. Ride an illegal fixie in Berlin, for example, and the police will come down on you like a tonne of bricks. The police here have some discretion when it comes to some cycling offences, but a safety issue as critical as brakeless fixies should be taken very seriously. Riding such bikes should be socially unacceptable, in the same way as driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

Grieving widower Matthew Briggs is calling for changes to the Road Traffic Act, such that cyclists who cause death by careless or dangerous cycling can be prosecuted under the same charge that currently applies to motorists. This should be considered, but as important as changes to the law is the enforcement of existing statute. Matt will I hope work with road safety campaigners and the cycling lobby, and I am that sure my colleagues in the London Cycling Campaign would be keen to collaborate with him on this. The roads belong to all of us, and we should share them responsibly.

During the Radio Essex interview yesterday I was asked if it was time for a crackdown on cyclists who break the law or otherwise behave badly. The word crackdown has a satisfying ring it to, but what bothers me about such talk is that it generally involves singling out sections of society, as if we all fit into just one box. Why this fixation with particular groups, when in the real world we are all in this together?

I am a cyclist, but I’m also a car driver, and either way I have a personal responsibility to behave myself on the road. Most cyclists also drive cars, and, whatever our vehicles of choice, most of us behave responsibly on the roads. If we didn’t, it would be carnage. It clearly isn’t.

We talk here of crackdowns on particular groups such as cyclists, but I would prefer that the law be enforced consistently and fairly across the board, with certain types of behaviour seen by everyone as socially unacceptable, in the same way as drink and drug driving, or texting behind the wheel. And more importantly, we need to inform ourselves and each other of our personal responsibilities and legal obligations.

Back in the seventies, when I was a child, there were public service broadcasts on radio and TV that would entertainingly highlight sections of the Highway Code, and educate people about the rules of the road. Nowadays we have nothing like that, and I have to ask how many of us are familiar with the Highway Code: a document that applies to all road users, whether they be drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, mobility scooter users or whatever.

The law is what it is, but education and self-reflection are the keys to improving road behaviour. Crackdowns are no more than a temporary feel-good measure.

I would also like to see the media facilitate a higher level of public debate than is common in this area. As a journalist myself, I know that public furores make cracking stories, but in the long term the more memorable news reports are those which are constructive and informed by facts, however complex those facts may be.