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In this article on road safety, Dan Finlay gives his thoughts on road users’ shared social responsibilities, as well as rounding up a few news stories about duties as drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. 

Considering that many of us at Lyons Davidson – and everywhere else – have been commuting home in the dark recently, it is small wonder that our thoughts have been on road safety for road users. On Friday 3 November, we dug out our brightest clothes in support of Glow Day, raising awareness and money for those at the Child Brain Injury Trust, who have been spreading the message ‘Be Seen, Not Hurt.’ Matthew Lelliott recently looked at the ways cyclists can be safe during daylight saving time, with another instalment due for Brake’s Road Safety Week between the 20 and 26 November.

The rise of the ‘smartphone zombie’

There are now believed to be more mobile phones in the world than people. It seems natural to amble alongwith heads down and phones up, messaging and scrolling. Indeed, mobile phones have come to be almost as an extension of ourselves, so perhaps we owe others a duty to be aware and mindful while crossing busy streets and negotiating traffic. Drivers can be given penalty points, a fine or taken to court if they are caught using a handheld phone. Since smartphones can distract drivers, could pedestrians also be penalised? According to government figures, pedestrian fatalities increased from 398 in 2013 to 446 in 2014. An AA Populus poll in 2016 found that 72% of drivers have seen pedestrians step into the road while distracted by their phone, cocooned from the outside world.

Though they cannot slow the progress of technology, cities across the world have thought up some inventive ways to bring the outside world to the attention of ‘smartphone zombies.’ In 2008, Britain’s first ‘safe text’ street, adorned with padded lampposts to avoid text-walking injuries, was launched Brick Lane, East London. Considering this experiment was almost ten years ago, the pandemic still appears to be problematic. In 2015, Antwerp introduced a separate ‘text walking lane’ by painting pathways in bright white lines across the city centre. These lanes were designated for pedestrians intent on their screens, in an attempt to reduce the number of collisions with poles, other pedestrians or traffic. Last year, the German city of Augsburg planted traffic signals in the ground near tram tracks to alert those focused on the floor of danger. This October, I saw several news stories reporting that Honolulu has actually introduced its own ‘distracted pedestrian’ legislation because of the high rate of citizens being hit by cars. Police will now be able to fine pedestrians up to $99 for viewing a device while crossing the road. I suspect citizens are struggling to get to grips with this new law, which penalises an almost hardwired behaviour. Is this a step too far?

Distracted drivers and road safety

We need to be mindful that while we are on the move we have lots to take in. Using a gadget divides our attention and could lead us into danger. If you are walking and using headphones, make sure the volume doesn’t override your senses and that you are mindful of your surroundings. Technology requires some healthy moderation: use it without being governed by it. That said, a distracted driver is far more dangerous than a distracted pedestrian. Drivers should be aware that technology is here to stay and that pedestrians are especially vulnerable road users who require extra consideration.

Cycling: gaps in road safety law

As other road users at risk, cyclists should look out for themselves and drivers should, in turn, look out for them. Rather than engaging in the wearing argument of ‘cars vs bikes’, perhaps both sides should be wary of their own duties on the road. The best place to find those legal obligations? The Highway Code, essential reading accessible for all here. Many of these rules are enshrined in legislation. For instance, The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 states that bikes must be fitted with lights and reflectors.  There is a plethora of lights and clothing on the market, so there’s no reason why cyclists should not kit themselves out. A company called Brainy Bike Lights were recently featured in the papers for their intuitive invention designed for the urban cyclist. Developed by a behavioural psychologist, the lights apply the science of our brains to make cycling safer: a black stencil causes LED lights to emit the image of a cyclist, a familiar symbol that triggers motorists to subconsciously associate the light with a bike. The idea is that motorists will register a cyclist’s presence milliseconds faster without considering who that light belongs to, enabling them to act earlier in those precious moments.

Legal review

A gap in the law has, however, recently been noticed – there are no specific criminal offences that apply to cyclists who injure or kill. A legal review has been called for following the sentencing of cyclist Charlie Alliston in September, who knocked over and killed Kim Briggs while riding a bike with no front brake. Alliston found himself caught between two ends of the legal spectrum. Cleared of manslaughter, he was found guilty of causing bodily harm by “wanton and furious driving,” wording pulled from the archaic Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and originally aimed at horse-driven carts. This is currently the closest offence to dangerous driving that cyclists can be charged with. While situations such as this may well be rare, this case does suggest that the law in this field does not reflect the present reality on our roads.

Road traffic accidents

Regrettably, even when cyclists do all they can to ride safely and make themselves visible, they can themselves be victims of road traffic accidents. In September, the Department for Transport released statistics that showed the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured rose by five per cent between 2015 and 2016. Forty four per cent of injuries occurred on a weekday between typical commuting hours. On the back of this, tougher sentences for convicted drivers are expected to be brought forward once parliamentary time allows. Ministers met in October to discuss a shake-up of British road laws, which many road safety campaigners have felt are overdue. Life sentences have now been proposed for those who cause death by dangerous driving or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It was also said that a new offence of causing serious injury through careless driving is to be created. The news was applauded by road safety campaigners: Jason Wakeford, director of campaigns for Brake, said that the plans are “a major victory for the families of victims and charities […] who have tirelessly campaigned for punishments which better fit road crimes that kill and seriously injure people.”

To repeat the words of Matthew Clawson, a personal injury lawyer quoted in the Independent: “any attempt to amend existing legislation around dangerous cycling must also take note of the relative vulnerability of cyclists when using the road.” This article has sought to show that, while we all have our different responsibilities on the road, the most vulnerable users cannot and should not be overlooked. Perhaps, then, preventative road-user education and construction of safe infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians should be a higher priority. West Midlands Police in 2016 pioneered ‘Operation Close Pass’ where plain clothes officers on bikes stopped drivers who passed too close to them. Offending drivers were given ten-minutes’ educational input, advised to leave at least a 1.5 metre gap for cyclists and had the error of their ways pointed out; only very serious offenders were prosecuted. A year on, West Midlands Police have announced a 20 per cent reduction in the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured in the county.

If cities across the world can employ ingenious ways to reduce the number of pedestrian smartphone-related accidents, my hope is that some headway will be made for those at risk from motorists.

For more information on any of the issues raised in this article or to talk about a road traffic accident you may have had, contact personal injury team Paralegal Dan Finlay by emailing [email protected] or calling 0117 904 5771.