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Dangerous and Reckless Cycling (Offences)

Volume 525: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill creating new offences of causing death or serious injury through dangerous or reckless cycling; to make provision regarding minimum sentencing and fines for those convicted of such offences; and for connected purposes.

I am a keen cyclist and I heartily support the many people who leave their cars at home and cycle to work and school. Over the last few years, there has been an upsurge in cycling, which is a great way to keep fit and healthy and a green initiative that I fully welcome. Let me be clear from the beginning that it is not my intention to criminalise cyclists or to discourage people from using their bikes.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it is the cyclists themselves who are the victims on our roads when they are killed or injured by motorists who simply fail to spot them. The penalties for dangerous or careless driving for motorists are as they should be—very strict. Occasionally, however, it is the cyclist who injures or kills while riding their bike, and this is the area I want to address today. At the moment, the punishment for cyclists falls far short of the crime, and I believe we need to update the law so that all road users are equally protected and take equal responsibility for their actions.

I want to tell the House the tragic story of Rhiannon Bennett, the beloved daughter of Michael and Diana Bennett, who was knocked down and killed by a cyclist in your constituency of Buckingham, Mr Speaker. I am grateful that you are presiding over this ten-minute rule Bill. I know that you are aware of this case, Mr Speaker, and that you have been very sympathetic to Rhiannon’s family, for which I also know they are grateful.

In April 2007, Rhiannon Bennett was walking with friends on the pavement near her home. She was 17 years old. A cyclist approached the group at speed, jumping from the road to cut across the pavement, yelling “Move, I’m not stopping!”. He was travelling so fast that the group had no time to react. He hit Rhiannon, knocking her over and smashing her head against the kerb. She was rushed to hospital with severe head injuries, but she died six days later.

It is not possible fully to explain the grief that Rhiannon’s parents, Michael and Diana feel—but the pain did not end there. They had to sit in Aylesbury magistrates court at the trial of the cyclist, a man who lived just around the corner from them, and hear the verdict of the court. He was convicted by the magistrates of dangerous cycling and his punishment was a fine of £2,200. There was no prison sentence. Mr and Mrs Bennett did not just lose their daughter; they had to go through the pain of discovering that their daughter’s reckless killing did not merit a prison sentence. We should just imagine what would happen if a motorist drove on to a pavement and killed a teenager. If the driver had walked away with only a fine, there would have been a national outcry.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service had an alternative to the dangerous cycling charge. The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 carries a section on “drivers of carriages injuring persons by furious driving”. It declares:

“Whosoever, having the charge of any carriage or vehicle, shall by wanton or furious driving or racing, or other wilful misconduct, or by wilful neglect, do or cause to be done any bodily harm to any person whatsoever, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”

The Act is still in force, but for obvious reasons it is little used. It was developed to deal with the century during which horses pulled carriages and coaches, and is now completely out of date. From what little information I have found on it, this law is rarely, if ever, invoked. In any case, the CPS found that the charge of dangerous cycling was the most appropriate in Rhiannon’s case. There are other offences, such as manslaughter and grievous bodily harm, that could theoretically be used against a cyclist, but these are also rarely appropriate in the case of road accidents.

What is needed is an offence that fills the gap in the law and provides a charge that reflects the seriousness and the consequences of a cyclist’s actions. In other words, an updated law is required so that cyclists can be charged with similar offences and given similar punishments to those that motorists currently face. For a motorist, causing death by dangerous driving carries a penalty of one to 14 years in prison; causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. We need to give justice to the small number of pedestrians killed each year by dangerous cycling, by applying similar penalties to those that exist for causing death by dangerous driving and causing death by careless or inconsiderate driving.

It is worth making it clear that the cyclist who killed Rhiannon Bennett was most definitely found guilty of a crime. The problem of achieving justice arose because there simply is no charge that is appropriate to the crime. The Crown Prosecution Service even acknowledged this when it stated:

“The real problem is the fact that as yet there is no offence of causing death by dangerous cycling.”

The cyclist responsible for the death of Rhiannon Bennett was convicted of dangerous cycling and fined £2,200. His bicycle was worth an estimated £6,000, almost three times the amount of his fine. I have not met anyone who considers this to be fair punishment for someone found guilty of a crime in which a young girl died. There need to be a charge and an offence that reflect the reality of what is happening on our roads and pavements in the 21st century.

The idea of creating a new law to deal with this problem was last considered in 2005 by the Ministry of Justice, which decided that no such law was required at that time. Six years later, with the growing number of bikes on our roads, more and more cycle lanes being introduced and the introduction of excellent schemes that I take advantage of myself, such as the cycle hire scheme in London, we need to look at the matter again, and I ask the House to support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Andrea Leadsom, Amber Rudd, Dan Byles, Damian Hinds, Mark Lancaster, Harriett Baldwin, Mary Macleod, Chris Heaton-Harris and Margot James present the Bill.

Andrea Leadsom accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 November 2011, and to be printed. (Bill 168).