Saturday 13 November 2010

Of "Strict Liability" - or why changes in the law won't get people cycling

Organisations such as the LCC are keen to lobby for a change in the law to enact "strict liability". For those not au-fait with this measure, the name is a misleading. A better description would be that a presumption of liability would be made in favour of the most vulnerable party in a road accident. This would only affect civil cases, not criminal prosecution. In effect it would force insurance companies to pay out to cyclists and pedestrians in the case of an accident with a motor vehicle, unless they can demonstrate that the accident was due to reckless behaviour from the cyclist or pedestrian. It would stop the current situation where insurance companies can use their resources to downgrade compensation payments because of red herrings such as whether the victim was wearing a helmet. It may also stop judges siding with this erroneous reasoning as well.

Strict Liability law is enacted in most of Europe and is a good thing. Unfortunately the Mail gets all frothy when the topic arises, so the chances of the UK getting this law is slim. It is odd that the Mail dislikes the law so much - they appear to believe our streets are rampant with reckless pavement cyclists killing and maiming without a care (despite what the statistics actually prove), and strict liability would also apply when a cyclist hit a pedestrian and would favour the pedestrian. But I digress.

Although "strict liability" is a good thing, the LCC in their article in the link above, appear to believe that it will encourage people to cycle. Some articles go so far as to say roads will be made attractive to cyclists with this law as drivers will suddenly become much more cautious around them.

This is pure bunkum. And here is why.

Most motorists, aside from a small number of total psychopaths, don't want to kill or injure cyclists. Most  close passes, SMIDSYs and other endangering behaviour occurs because most motorists don't understand cyclists needs and most people have a terrible ability to calculate risk. Many motorists are simply unaware of the danger these manoeuvres present to cyclists. Changing the law won't change behaviour as the motorist doing the close pass or the bullying pulling out doesn't believe they will hit the cyclist. A change in the law that changes the assumption of liability in civil compensation matters is simply not going to figure in their thinking.

Those who believe that "strict liability" will change driver behaviour point to places such as the Netherlands or Denmark where motorists are clearly more aware and more considerate of cyclists. But they aren't doing this because of "strict liability", they are more considerate because these motorists are usually also cyclists at times and so understand the cyclists' point of view. Until we get more motorists also being cyclists then we will always have the silly, irritating and downright dangerous behaviour we experience now.


  1. I am sure you are right about the impact on take-up - I can hear my wife now: "now that I know that my family or carers will find it easier to recover the compensation I need for the specially adapted house and wheelchair, I feel emboldened to go out there and ride with the big boys".

    You evidently agree that strict liability would be a good thing, and I am sure that most people, even the Daily Mail, would agree, if only it was explained to them correctly.

    The problem is, that people on our side of the argument can't resist talking about strict liability as if it was about fault, or blame. Some blogs have given me the impression that strict liability in this context implies a reversal of the normal presumption of innocence in crimimal prosecutions.

    Strict liability is NOT about fault or blame, indeed it is quite the opposite. It is simply saying that less vulnerable motorists have a laibility in law to pay damages to more vulnerable motorists(and that would include lorry to car), cyclists, pedestrians horse riders etc without ANYONE having to apportion blame. Unless the incident really does have the sniff of criminality about it there would be no need for anyone to admit blame or to allege it, and the financial consequences for the liable are minimal - they are, after all, required by law to be insured to drive any form of motor vehicle and strict liability would simply result in more successful claims and thus slightly higher premiums and possibly some losses of NCDs. I recall some years ago when we nearly (?) got a strict liability law that the estimate was about £50 on the average motor premium, which must surely be less than 10% these days.

    Oh, and, strict liability by a driver to his/her passengers already exists in English law. It is not as if the concept has not already taken hold.

  2. It would be a good thing, but strict liability is currently a dead duck as far as I can see. The more rabid parts of the press gave ridiculous horror stories where courts would be clogged up by lawless cyclists taking hapless motorists to court after flinging themselves at their car to get compensation. The claims were so idiotic that I believe it was wilful misrepresentation of the proposal as opposed to lack of understanding.

    "Strict liability" should, if anything, reduce the numbers of court cases as insurance companies will be less likely to contest. And anyway, I cannot see legions of people willing to risk serious injury (or worse) to get some cash.

    Most people wouldn't even notice the difference if the law was introduced - as you say it is already in force for passengers. It would, however help pedestrians, cyclists and indeed motorists who are injured in an accident with a more powerful vehicle.

    It is a sad indictment on the situation on our roads that such a proposal is met with such hysterical wailing and thrashing.