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Cyclists: Highway Code

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 17 May 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a member of several cycling organisations.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will amend the proposed Highway Code so that, instead of providing that cyclists must use cycle facilities (for example, cycle lanes), it provides that they should do so where this would help with their journey.

My Lords, I ought to declare an interest as an occasional cyclist. The advice on using cycling facilities in the proposed Highway Code is not a legal requirement. It does not place any compulsion on cyclists to use cycle facilities and it remains their decision whether or not they follow this advice. The distinction between legal requirements and advisory rules is made clear in the introduction to the code.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. The trouble with it is that others do not seem to agree with him. Recent decisions by a court and by insurance companies would indicate that they think that the Highway Code does have a force in law. This means that in the event of an accident, if a cyclist is not using a cycle path or track, even if it is more dangerous to do so or more inconvenient, there is a chance of contributory negligence. Does my noble friend agree that the simplest way to resolve this dilemma and to clarify the situation is simply to amend the wording and not leave it to legal argument?

My Lords, the Highway Code makes clear in its introduction which parts of the code are a legal requirement and which are not by the simple use of the words “must” and “must not”, which are highlighted in red throughout the code. As for the controversy over the change in wording, the change that was advised—I think it was from “when practicable” to “whenever possible”—was made on the advice of lawyers who believed that the second formulation was more accurate than the first.

My Lords, how many times have cyclists been prosecuted for going through red lights, which they do very frequently?

My Lords, I am with the noble Baroness in this regard; as a driver, I sometimes get irritated by cyclists who do that. I do not have those statistics in front of me, but I am willing to try to research them. All road users should be obliged to stick to the Highway Code and obey the rules of the road because that is right, and by doing that we all understand exactly what we are doing on the roads.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while it may help cyclists with their journey to ride along the pavements, shoot the red lights and ride the wrong way up one-way streets, it does not help pedestrians? Will the Government construct more cycling facilities but at the same time strengthen the Highway Code and enforce the law much more rigorously to deal with the problem of cyclists who put pedestrians and others at risk?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. He is right and I support what he has said. Through local government, which by and large has a responsibility for cycle routes and so on, we have been investing in providing means whereby cyclists can be safely separated out from other traffic where they do not cause offence, annoyance or the potential for harm and injury to pedestrians.

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a regular cyclist. Is the Minister aware that the new Highway Code proposals are in fact at odds with the advice given to cyclists under the national standard for cycle training? Do not these proposals actually make cycling even more dangerous?

My Lords, I do not think so. Very careful thought has been given to the wording used. We took this out to consultation, and there were concerns about the words used under rule 47. We reflected on that and some of that wording was changed. We continue to listen. I know that noble Lords continue to have concerns over these issues. We are talking regularly to the CTC, the cyclists’ organisation, to try to come to a reasonable accommodation on this, and we will continue to do so because it is in everyone’s interest that we should.

My Lords, I passed my driving test in 1969, which was some time ago, and I do not think I have ever looked at the Highway Code since, which is probably a great shame. How can the Government encourage long-term drivers like me to refresh their knowledge of such road skills? It also seems to me that drivers in this country are becoming less tolerant of other road users these days, particularly in terms of minor mistakes. How can we encourage greater civility on our roads? Or is it just my bad driving?

My Lords, I hope it is not a common trait on the Liberal Democrat Benches to fail to read the Highway Code. That is not an allegation I would often make against the Liberal Democrats, but there we go. Careful reading of the code is helpful, and I am sure it would make the noble Lord and other noble Lords better drivers.

My Lords, 11,000 people have written to their MPs on this issue. Seventy per cent of those who responded to the consultation were cyclists. Surely it is the duty of the Government to try to put this right and change the wording. It must be much more sensible to do that than to have this ambiguity over the Highway Code, because there is a lot of unease about it.

My Lords, I fully acknowledge that there is some unease about the wording, but when one boils it down the argument is about the use of either the term “when practicable” or the term “whenever possible”. The lawyers have given clear advice to the department that “whenever possible” offers greater clarity in legal terms than “when practicable”. In the end, it is a matter of personal judgment. My own view is that the important thing is to improve road safety, and I am not exactly sure that an argument about those two forms of wording will do exactly that. As a Government we have been involving ourselves in practical measures and investing in training so that people become better cyclists and use the roads, and those cycle facilities provided to assist in that process, more safely.

My Lords, does my noble friend ever drive home at night and see that the prime danger from cyclists is that they do not light their bicycles properly? There is a constant danger of running into cyclists because they have no lights at the rear of their bicycles, too often their clothing is dark and they often do not wear sufficient protective clothing. Surely cyclists should be induced to save their own lives by looking after their own safety.

My Lords, perhaps cyclists in Brighton are different. I am not aware of having come across too many cyclists who have failed to indicate where they are going; indeed, they have helped me by what they are wearing and by using a helmet, so I do not entirely agree with my noble friend. We should encourage the safer use of cycles and of course people should wear high-visibility clothing and helmets so that they are better protected. But I also encourage people to think carefully about how they use their cycle and, where appropriate, to have cycling training.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of both motoring and cycling organisations. Forgetting the legal points for the moment, is the Minister really comfortable that the department for which he speaks should appear to endorse wording which virtually all the cycling organisations feel will encourage cyclists to cycle in a way that is less safe than at present? It encourages them, under all circumstances, to use cycle ways which may not be fit for purpose through poor design or poor maintenance.

My Lords, the department is extremely conscious of the need to get this right. I have gone through the wording very carefully with your Lordships; if your Lordships have a better form of wording, we will listen to it. We have been consulting for a very long time on this and are determined to get it right.