Transport minister responds to academics' evidence-not-emotion letter

Carlton Reid
Transport minister responds to academics' evidence-not-emotion letter

Transport minister Jesse Norman has today responded to academics who called on him to consider evidence rather than emotion over the call to introduce an offence of death by dangerous cycling. Last month the minister announced a review of "cycle safety" following the high-profile campaign by Matt Briggs, whose wife died in 2016 a week after being hit by a cyclist.

Norman's response is carried in today's Times newspaper and is a reply to a letter co-signed by fifteen transport and public health academics which was published by the newspaper on Wednesday. The academics include John Parkin, a University of the West of England transport professor, and Dr Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster.

The transport minister wrote that he was "hesitant to correct so august a body of academic opinion as Professor Parkin and his colleagues" but then went on to do so, stating that the "cycle safety" review he instigated following numerous mass-media calls to action was not "merely aimed at reducing death or injury to pedestrians from cyclists ... but on the safety of cyclists themselves."

Cycle organisations fear that this could mean the safety review will look at mandatory helmet use, registration of cyclists and other measures that would depress cycle use.

The fifteen academics had suggested that the review, said to be "urgent" and which might result in hastily drafted and poorly considered laws, might "reinforce the erroneous belief that cyclists pose a major threat to pedestrians, and will not help to prevent the vast majority of pedestrian, or other road user, deaths which occur due to collisions with motor vehicles."

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The academics' letter also pointed out that the Department for Transport was still sitting on a review of all road traffic offences first announced in May 2014. This wide-ranging review has "not yet appeared, despite such offences killing many more people each year than do cyclists," stated the academics' letter. 

"Of the 1,792 people killed on UK roads in 2016, three of those, a fraction of one percent, were pedestrians killed in collisions with cyclists," stressed the academics. They urged Norman to "shift to a more evidence-based policy, seeking to reduce the primary sources of harm to road users, in particular pedestrians and also cyclists. This is especially important given that government policy seeks to substantially increase active travel."

The minister's letter in the Times promised that the government's review of motoring offences would be published in the new year and that the cycle safety review would be part of this. Norman called on the academics to "contribute their expertise and evidence to that."

The letter from the academics was shortened for newspaper publication, a longer version was sent to the minister and this is carried in full below.

Norman has also written a piece for The Guardian's bike blog. This was in response to a piece by freelance journalist Laura Laker who had written that Norman was guilty of "headline-grabbing hypocrisy."

Norman wrote: "To be clear: I am a keen cyclist myself, and I am absolutely aware of the number of cyclists killed and injured every year. The purpose of the review is to make our roads safer for all users, and the safety of cyclists will be a key element of that."

He added: "Far from 'ignoring the bigger problem', we are shining a light on it. Far from 'rushing to judgment', we are moving forward in a phased and measured way."

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Letter to the transport minister from 15 academics:

 

Dear Mr Norman

We, the undersigned, represent academics engaged in transport research in the United Kingdom. We write this open letter in response to your announcement of an urgent review to consider whether a new offence equivalent to causing death by careless or dangerous driving should be introduced for cyclists, where a collision results in the death of a pedestrian.

Risk on our roads, particularly for the most vulnerable, remains too high. As part of a strategy to address this, we agree that a review of road traffic offences is needed. However, we would question your focus only on deaths caused by cyclists. Of the 1,792 people killed on UK roads in 2016, three of those, a fraction of one percent, were pedestrians killed in collisions with cyclists.

The focus only on cyclists also seems misplaced given that the review of all road traffic offences and sentencing announced in May 2014 is long overdue. This was reduced in scope to cover the distinction between careless and dangerous driving, drink and drug driving and use of mobile phones, and hit-and-run drivers. It has not yet appeared, despite such offences killing many more people each year than do cyclists.

Recent cases where drivers of motor vehicles have killed other road users are all too prevalent. Frequently these drivers receive little or no punishment, and we would question your view that the legal system works well in these cases. Just two very recent examples include a tipper truck driver, who ran over an elderly couple at 8mph, spared community service because his vision was poor; and a van driver driving on the footway who killed a four year old but was deemed not at fault. In the week after you announced the review, a lorry driver killed a cyclist in a mandatory cycle lane, a part of the road reserved for cycle traffic.

The weight of numbers of collisions, and the disproportionate effects of motor vehicles indicate that any review should be wide ranging. A review limited in the way proposed will reinforce the erroneous belief that cyclists pose a major threat to pedestrians, and will not help to prevent the vast majority of pedestrian, or other road user, deaths which occur due to collisions with motor vehicles.

We hope this letter encourages a shift to a more evidence-based policy, seeking to reduce the primary sources of harm to road users, in particular pedestrians and also cyclists. This is especially important given that government policy seeks to substantially increase active travel.

We call on you to ensure that any urgent review of road traffic offences is wide ranging.

Yours sincerely,

Professor John Parkin, Professor of Transport Engineering, University of the West of England, Bristol

Dr Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport, University of Westminster

Dr Kiron Chatterjee, Associate Professor of Travel Behaviour, University of the West of England, Bristol

Dr Tom Cohen, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Transport Studies, University College London

Professor Peter Cox, Professor of Sociology, University of Chester

Dr Audrey de Nazelle, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London

Dr Eva Heinen, University Academic Fellow, University of Leeds

Dr Tim Jones, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Brookes University

Dr Robin Lovelace, University Academic Fellow in Transport and Big Data, University of Leeds

Professor Glenn Lyons, Associate Dean, Faculty of Environment and Technology, University of the West of England, Bristol

Professor Jennifer Mindell, Professor of Public Health, University College London

Professor Graham Parkhurst, Director, Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England, Bristol

Professor Miles Tight, Professor of Transport, Energy and Environment, University of Birmingham

Dr Ian Walker, Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath

Dr James Woodcock, Senior Research Associate, University of Cambridge

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