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Highway Code (Bicycles)

Volume 79: debated on Thursday 16 May 1985

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Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

11.46 pm

This debate, taking place during national bike week, provides the opportunity to call for greater awareness of the needs of cyclists, and in particular to ask that much more reference should be made to bicycles in the Highway Code when it is next revised.

The House will be pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be responding, as she has demonstrated over several years her obvious professional and personal interest in road safety generally and her concern for the welfare of cyclists in particular. Her achievements were recognised by the organisers of this year's National Bike Week when she was given an award for being
"the person who has done most to bring cycling into the public eye".
It was not only as a result of the £1 million safety poster campaign last autumn, but her persistent and long-term commitment to cycling.

National Bike Week this year marks the centenary of the modern bicycle. It has been organised by six national cycling and transport organisations — the Cyclists' Touring Club, the Cycle Campaign Network, Friends of the Earth, Transport 2000, the British Cycle Federation and RoSPA. More than 400 events have been organised, including fun rides, competitions and cycle maintenance sessions nationwide to encourage people to take up cycling and to cycle in safety. I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the activity over the years of the all-party Friends of Cycling Group to draw attention to the needs of cyclists at Westminister, especially the efforts of the hon. Member for for Easington (Mr. Dormand) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen).

My experience of cycling is not as extensive as my hon. Friends'. Like others, I bicycled to school in my youth, although I am told that I covered many more miles in my childhood years as a passenger on my mother's bicycle. Sadly, she has now hung up her bicycle clips, having remarkably passed her driving test at a distinguished age to the delight and, I confess, great surprise, of her family.

Hearing my mother discuss the Highway Code with a granchild who satisfied the Department of Transport's driving test examiner at at similar time provided me with a clear example of the difference between the generations in their awareness of cycling based largely on their own experiences.

A lost generation of motorists who grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s never learnt to ride a bike, and, therefore, do not fully appreciate the hazards which cyclists face in, for example, avoiding a pothole in the road or negotiating large roundabouts. There is a special need to educate that group.

The present edition of the Highway Code was published in 1978. It was prepared earlier in the 1970s when cycling was at a low ebb. That might partially explain why, in the current edition, there is not one bicycle in any of the pictures and diagrams of everyday situations. Earlier editions gave- greater prominence to bicycles—the 1946 and 1959 editions show bicycles on the cover. It is only fair to add that the 1949 version has several horses and carts as well. Highlighting bicycles provides a forceful message that the Highway Code is intended for cyclists like other road users and draws the existence of cyclists to the attention of motorists as having equal rights and needs while being specially vulnerable.

There has been a dramatic increase in the use of cycles since the low point in 1974. According to Department of Transport statistics, cycle mileage for 1974 was 3·84 billion km and was almost 50 per cent. greater 10 years later at 5 billion km. Cycle sales have virtually quadrupled in 15 years to 2·05 million in 1984. That makes encouraging news for my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Employment. In 1983, more bicycles than cars were sold. It is estimated that there are 15 million bicycles in the country.

Growing concern about personal health, fitness and heart disease in the past 10 years have contributed to the growth in the use of cycles, as did the 1974 oil price shock which caused many people to reconsider their travel arrangements. The bicycle is now widely used as a quick and effective form of personal transport as well as for leisure. There is a clear appeal to conservationists—the bicycle has been said to be the most efficient means yet devised of converting human energy into propulsion. There has, however, been a corresponding increase in cycle casualties. Whatever might be the rights and wrongs of an incident, the cyclist is most at risk. Each year, some 300 cyclists are killed and 6,000 are seriously injured—one third of them under 15. There is good reason to believe that Government statistics based on police records significantly under record the problem.

A recent report by the Cyclists Touring Club, which has its headquarters in Godalming in my constituency, established that cycling accidents are greatly under reported. It found that only one in four accidents are reported to the police and that only one half of accidents involving hospital treatment are reported.

Much can be done in a local community to make cycling safer. In my constituency, I have been most impressed by the work of the Farnham Committee for International Youth Year, which has taken a constructive and practical approach to drawing the needs of cyclists to the attention of the public and those responsible for transport policy. Surrey county council has recently adopted a new policy containing measures to assist cyclists. The policy aims to reduce accidents involving cyclists and motor vehicles through the introduction of a variety of schemes such as the provision of cycle routes, dual cycle/pedestrian paths, recreational cycle routes and traffic management schemes.

I welcome programmes such as the national cycle proficiency scheme and RoSPA's "Cycleway" to increase education and training and to remind parents of their responsibilities. Families should be aware that giving a child a bike at Christmas, like a pet, requires their ongoing supervision and commitment. The encouragement of high standards of cycle safety and practice are crucial. Quite apart from the need for a sympathetic attitude from transport authorities and for education and training for cyclists, much more needs to be done to provide advice for motorists. A comprehensive study of the responsibility for cycle accidents was carried out by the Metropolitan police, who found that, in two out of three adult cycling accidents, the motorist was at fault. The all too frequent explanation of the motorist is, "I just did not see him." Safety for all road users is centred on the Highway Code. A number of simple proposed amendments to the Highway Code could redress the balance in favour of cyclists. I congratulate the Cyclists Touring Club on its preparatory work drawing up those proposals. The short section in the Highway Code consisting of a mere nine paragraphs entitled "Extra Rules for Cyclists" should be strengthened. Equally important, is the provision of advice to increase motorists' awareness of cyclists and guidance on how to treat cycles.

At present that is almost entirely lacking. For example, when overtaking cyclists, motorists should be advised to give them at least one metre's clearance, and more, if they are travelling at speed. Particular driving circumstances in which cyclists should be considered should be highlighted. For example, on roundabouts motorists should be especially watchful for slow-moving traffic already on the roundabout. Too frequently a motorist notices a fast moving car but fails to see a cyclist. Similarly, when joining or leaving major roads and long slip roads, or when turning out of minor roads, a bicycle is too easily overlooked.

A motorist should not overtake a cyclist and immediately turn left. The bicycle is probably going faster than he thinks. That is particularly dangerous and the cause of too many accidents. Motorists should be reminded that at night cyclists are especially vulnerable. Many motorists fail to realise that cyclists can be blinded by oncoming undipped headlights. Motorists need to be reminded to leave space for cyclists, for example, between lanes of traffic on busy one-way streets.

Following the recommendation of the Transport Select Committees and the practice in earlier editions of the Highway Code, the reintroduction of a foreword to the Highway Code is required to remind all road users of their responsibilities for the safety of others, especially the more vulnerable groups — pedestrians, children, cyclists and the elderly.

I shall quote two paragraphs, the first of which is from the 1946 edition of the Highway Code. It states:
"The provisions of the code are a simple summary of the best and widest experience. Each provision, whether it relates to a legal requirement or to discretionary behaviour, has been included because of its importance in preventing road accidents.
It is my sincere hope that all road users, whether pedestrians, drivers or riders, will study the Code and respect its provisions. To do so is, in fact, a moral duty. If observance of the provisions of the Code and the spirit of tolerance and consideration underlying them, became a habit, road accidents would rapidly decrease. They are a social evil which can only be overcome by the co-operation of everyone."
The 1959 edition states
"Accidents on our roads do not just happen; they are caused —sometimes by a faulty vehicle, sometimes by road conditions, but nearly always by simple human error. These mistakes, which take lives, are made because in most cases we simply do not realize what we are doing until it is too late.
In other words, our conduct on the roads is not what it needs to be for present-day traffic. This H Code is for the ordinary road user: it sets out in the simplest language the code of behaviour which is a 'must' if we are ever to make an impression on the totals of road accidents. If we could ensure that for the coming year every road user obeyed the Code, we should save a great many lives—perhaps our own."
The Highway Code is a set of provisions containing advice on how to travel safely on the roads, and how to allow others to do the same. Everyone has a duty to care for all other road users as well as himself.

There is an urgent need to revise the code, to remind road users of their responsibility for the safety of others, to reassert the need for mutual respect and tolerance on the road and, above all, to redress the balance giving greater emphasis to cyclists and their needs.

11.58 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) on her choice of this important and topical subject. It is important because cycling is a growth area, and topical because this is national bike week. I was pleased to receive the handsome chain wheel, to which my hon. Friend referred, and was sorry not to be able to go to receive it in person. I hope that we shall all continue to do what we can to ensure that safe cycling is well promoted.

The debate gives me the opportunity to consider the cycle content of the Highway Code. I must tell my hon. Friend that the Highway Code is but a part of the wide range of measures and advice that can be given. First, let me set out some of the background to our approach to cycling and cycle provision. Cycling has always been popular with the young. In recent years, it has become more popular with adults. I am told that bike sales now outnumber car sales. The reasons are clear. Cycling is a cheap, personal and healthy way to travel. For many local journeys, it can be the quickest. On those grounds alone, I am glad to see the increase in cycling popularity

However, there is a price. As cycling becomes more popular, so the accident toll increases. It is a major road safety problem. My hon. Friend drew attention to the depressing casualty figures. The numbers of those killed have remained at similar levels for some years, but injuries are increasing. As my hon. Friend said, injury figures are under-reported. That is why the Transport and Road Research Laboratory is carrying out a hospital-based study of cycle accidents for the Department. My hon. Friend quoted from the 1946 Highway Code. I noted with concern that in that year more than 800 cyclists were killed. We must never reach that level again.

There is no magic way to reduce cycling casualties. We are all involved in it. The Government's role is clear. We should set the framework for safer cycling, and provide information, help and advice to local authorities in developing their policies for cyclists. My starting point is the cycling policy statement in 1982. Since then, we have made good progress, including legislation for cycle tracks, regulations on cycle standards and new signs for cyclists. My Department considers the provision of cycle facilities on trunk roads each time it considers a trunk road scheme. There are cycling officers in all the regional offices, and we encourage local authorities to provide cycle facilities on their roads. There is a programme of innovative local schemes.

My hon. Friend paid tribute to last year's successful national publicity campaign. I also want to see cycleway encouraged further; that is why I am considering it with my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The more young people who are properly trained as cyclists, the safer they will be as adult cyclists.

We know that there is still much more to be done. I was delighted to host the recent conference on "Ways to Safer Cycling". There we reviewed progress and considered possibilities for the future. I hope that the report on the conference will stimulate further discussion. What I said then still applies. We need more initiatives. My Department has given the lead, but, as cycling is a local activity, so the local authorities will wish to develop new initiatives.

But we need ingenuity, too. Many of the 21 innovatory cycling schemes now being introduced show great ingenuity, and tackle the problems to which my hon. Friend referred, including provisions to cross busy roads, negotiate junctions and cope with roundabouts, and the shared use of cycle paths. They all tackle local problems with local solutions. I shall always remain ready to consider proposals for new schemes and new ideas that will improve cycling safety.

Beyond those more straightforward measures are the five cycle demonstration projects, which offer comprehensive provision of routes for cycling in urban areas. I am pleased to say that the first scheme will be officially opened tomorrow by the mayor of Stockton-on-Tees. Others will follow in Canterbury, Nottingham, Bedford and Exeter.

Although we are doing much more now than we used to, and much of what I have said offers better and safer means of travel for cyclists, we must see what more can be done. But at the end of the day, what is better and safer depends on better and safer behaviour by all road users. We cannot say, as some cyclists do, that motorists must take all the blame for cycle accidents; and we certainly cannot say, as some motorists do, "If only there were no cyclists." We must live together on our congested streets, and there must be more give and take, perhaps not only between cyclists and motorists but among all road users, whatever their vehicles, or even if they are on foot. That will not be achieved by Government alone. It depends on each of us as an individual road user.

We need to do more than update the Highway Code. I know that my hon. Friend fully recognises this. Tonight she put a case for an up-to-date Highway Code with clarity. I am aware of the revisions proposed by the Cyclists Touring Club.

I shall say a few words about the Highway Code. In recent years, it has been revised about every 10 years. On past performance, we would be due to make a revision around the end of the decade.

The code is addressed to all road users. My hon. Friend makes a plea for more references to motorists' responsibilities to cyclists. She is right to say that in past editions of the code, there have always been such references. Indeed, in the current edition there are more than in earlier editions, although I accept that cyclists did not get a picture to themselves.

There is also more detailed advice in the Department's manual "Driving", and a picture, and in the advice to motorists planning their driving test.

As I told my hon. Friend in reply to her question on Monday, I am now considering the timing of the next revision of the Highway Code. There are two new factors. The first is our new ability to update the legislative sections of the code on reprinting. This power was introduced in 1982 and amendments have been made four times already. The second is our review of road safety policy. This is going on at present and will reflect the views of the Select Committee on Transport. The review will be looking at all possible ways to improve road safety. We are paying particular attention to the needs of the most vulnerable road users—motor-cyclists, pedestrians and cyclists.

While the review is still in progress, I would not want to embark on a major revision of the code, but for the future we should perhaps be considering a different format for the code, as well as different content. Perhaps it is on the respective responsibilities of different road users for each other's safety that we should be placing more emphasis. I shall include my hon. Friend's suggestions in my future thinking. I hope that we shall begin work before long. There will then be extensive discussions and consultations before a new code is produced. I assure the House that it will be a full revision. This will take time, for it will need to reflect all aspects of road user behaviour in today's—and tomorrow's—environment.

The debate has centred not just on the cycling content of the Highway Code but on the progress that we are making towards safer cycling. I know and recognise that we still have along way to go, but I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the role of the Department is only part of the picture. I agree with her that there is a case for revising the Highway Code, but that too is only one part of the picture.

I have taken my hon. Friend's specific points on board. I assure her that these will be taken into account when we move forward in our planned revision of the whole code.

Valuable work is being done by all the organisations concerned with cycling, particularly the CTC, which is making other road users more conscious of the bike and the need to give it a wide berth when overtaking it. As a result of that teamwork, we shall have safer, and therefore more enjoyable, cycling.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve midnight.