Brenda Mitchell: Cycling law myths busted

Cyclists are keen for a move to a strict liability system, as seen in some European countries. Picture: Getty
Cyclists are keen for a move to a strict liability system, as seen in some European countries. Picture: Getty
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A CAMPAIGN to change the law so motorists would be blamed for any accident with a cyclist unless they could prove they were not in the wrong has sparked impassioned responses from both sides. But the issue has been mired in confusion, says Brenda Mitchell, who offers this myth-busting guide

Myth: It’s not fair that drivers should be automatically blamed when cyclists also cause accidents

Reality: Stricter liability would mean the more powerful road user is at fault unless they can clearly show they did nothing wrong. It would be open to the driver of any vehicle involved in an accident with a cyclist to argue the cyclist was to blame. The same stricter imposition of civil law would apply to cyclists in a collision with a pedestrian. The cyclist is an object of danger to a pedestrian in the same way a motorised vehicle is an object of danger to a cyclist.

Myth: Strict liability infringes the basis of our law that one is innocent until proven guilty

Reality: The basis of innocent until proven guilty only operates, and will continue to operate, in criminal law. It does not apply in any way to the civil law of negligence or fault. Strict liability already operates in many areas of civil law, for example, workplace regulations and consumer protection.

Myth: The majority of drivers, to some extent, believe cyclists “deserve” the abuse they receive from drivers

Reality: Though this statement clearly doesn’t reflect the opinion of all drivers in Scotland, it is nonetheless representative of an unfortunate strain of thought that continues to regard cyclists as something of a menace on the roads and undeserving of sympathy. It’s an attitude that desperately needs to change if we are to realise the benefits of a cycling culture.

Myth: Strict liability will make my car insurance premiums go up

Reality: Studies have concluded that the introduction of strict liability in other countries has led to a reduction in road traffic accidents. If the roads are safer and motorists are less at risk of being involved in an accident then that will have a positive impact on insurance premiums.

Myth: I am going to need insurance to ride my bike

Reality: No. Though cyclists can presently take out insurance with certain cycling membership organisations such as CTC Scotland, this is not mandatory for stricter liability to work.

Myth: It’s an unfair policy because Scotland doesn’t have a cycling culture, so why should we copy Europe when those countries have a greater cycling culture?

Reality: One of the reasons why stricter liability is especially necessary in Scotland is actually to help promote a culture of cycling. We have seen that some nations with low rates of cycling, such as France, have introduced strict liability as a means to improve road safety and boost cycling numbers.

Myth: Strict liability will just increase the existing feelings of enmity between cyclists and motorists

Reality: Stricter liability has shown in other European countries not to increase tensions but actually usher in a greater sense of care and respect on the roads as motorists become more cautious towards cyclists and cyclists towards pedestrians.

Myths: Cyclists are usually the ones at fault, not the drivers. We shouldn’t be punished because of their negligence

Reality: Two-thirds of Scotland’s adult population hold driving licences, with 2.7 million cars on our roads. In 2011, 824 cyclists were injured in accidents. This shows accidents between drivers and cyclists are not that common. In fact, only 0.03 per cent of those car owners were involved in accidents where the introduction of stricter liability would affect them. In other words, the majority of motorists will never have an accident with a cyclist.

Myth: Motorists must meet a number of conditions – compulsory insurance, training etc – before being allowed behind the wheel. Cyclists have no such requirements before they are allowed on to the road and now you’re proposing stacking the deck even more in their favour. How is this fair?

Reality: The stringent driving test that must be passed before a driver can take to the roads and the imposition of compulsory insurance an all road vehicles is in part a reflection of the fact that the motorised vehicle is a potentially dangerous and deadly machine. Let’s not forget the vast majority of cyclists are also motorists. More needs to be done to improve cycle training.

Myth: Cyclists should pay road tax

Reality: Road tax was abolished in 1937 and what is charged now is a vehicle excise duty (VED), which is determined by emissions. Therefore a bike would not pay the VED, just as there is no VED for owners of a VW Blue Motion or other small cars.

• Brenda Mitchell is the founder of Cycle Law Scotland and has 25 years’ experience as a personal injury lawyer. She works for Thompsons Solicitors.