Mark Cavendish, the cycle road race world champion who is tipped to win Britain’s first gold medal at the London Olympics, today calls on ministers to consider European laws to protect cyclists.
The fastest man on two wheels says that if drivers knew that they would face harsh penalties if they knocked down a cyclist they would pay more attention and safety would improve.
He cited the example of the Netherlands and Belgium, where there is a presumption of liability against drivers involved in crashes with cyclists.
In most European countries the onus is on drivers to prove their innocence in collisions resulting in civil law suits for damages. The reverse is true in Britain, where cyclists or their families have to prove that the driver was at fault if they are to win a civil action.
Change would be opposed by many motorists, but Cavendish said that in return cyclists would have to ride within the law, a move that would help ease tensions with drivers.
“In Holland and Belgium the actual law is if the driver of a motorised vehicle has an accident with a cyclist, unless the driver can actively prove it was the cyclist’s fault it is the driver’s fault. There is an assumption of guilt on the driver,” he told The Times during a break in training for the Tour de France and Olympic Games.
“I would like to see it examined, for sure. Cyclists can be in the wrong a lot of the time. They have got to ride within the law … but if people know there is a problem if they hit a cyclist they will look more, they have to be more aware of cyclists.”
Road safety campaigners, lawyers and MPs are all pressing for “strict liability” laws used in other countries.
Supporters say that the difference may contribute to casualty rates that are far higher in Britain than on mainland Europe. A British cyclist is three times more likely to be killed than a rider in the Netherlands and twice as likely as a peer in Denmark or Germany. The UK, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus are the only countries in Western Europe without some degree of liability. In the Netherlands, the driver is presumed to be at fault in all civil cases involving children. Drivers are also held liable in Sweden, where compensation payments are paid through a charge levied on car insurance premiums.
Cavendish admitted that there are times when he is scared of cycling on British roads. “It is not any deliberate hatred towards cyclists, there is no hatred towards cyclists, but we are still a developing country in terms of cycling being embedded in the culture so it is just the awareness of bikes,” he said. “People don’t realise that a bike might be coming up.”
Asked what single change would be most likely to improve cycle safety, he said: “The realisation that a consequence will come without looking out for cyclists. If you hit a cyclist there is a life gone. If it is embedded in your culture that cyclists are around it just raises awareness. It has got to be an evolution over time.
“That is the point. They don’t do it to penalise drivers over there. They do it so that drivers have to look. Ultimately in Belgium as well if a cyclist jumps a red light there is a severe punishment. I believe I am the first to stand up and say cyclists have to be more responsible as well. Cutting a red light might just aggravate someone who will take it out on a general cyclist.”
Cavendish, who won the road race World Championship and the coveted Tour de France green jersey last year, hopes to win gold on July 28 on the 250km course between London and the Surrey hills.
He praised the Cities fit for Cycling campaign and singled out this newspaper’s call to fit sensors and extra mirrors to lorries as a tangible means of improving cycle safety.
“It is easy enough to do on lorries. The blindspots on lorries are incredible, and the biggest cause of accidents with cyclists is between cyclists and lorries. I really think it is a good thing.”
Last night Mike Penning, the Road Safety Minister, said that the Government would not change the law. “Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame,” he said.