TODAY I am taking part in Pedal For Scotland, the nation's biggest mass participation bike ride.
A keen mountain-biker for the past two decades, I took up road cycling two years ago after my friend Roz suggested we do the 50km Diva challenge around Fife. After buying myself a beautiful Bianchi racing bike and putting in miles of practise I finished in a respectable fourth place ... and I have been hooked ever since. These days, I love nothing better than my four-mile daily commute to work by bike.
Riding alongside me today will be my sister on her pastel-blue push-bike with its wicker shopping basket, and two colleagues who have recently taken up cycling. For us, as for many of the thousands of people on the 47-mile Glasgow to Edinburgh challenge, cycling has become an important part of our lives, either for health reasons or as a more ecological and economical way of getting around.
A record 8000-plus people are expected to participate in today's big cycle. As champions of two-wheeled self-propelled travel, we are a ringing endorsement of the Scottish Government's vision to turn Scotland into a cycling nation. Having launched its Cycling Action Plan in 2010, the Government hopes that by 2020 10% of all journeys will be taken by bike. Cycling, the report claims, has an important role to play in creating a more successful country, through improving health, reducing congestion, reducing carbon emissions and proving a good transport alternative to persuade people out of cars.
I couldn't agree more. But I also confess to serious reservations about my own children taking to Scotland's roads by bike. My son, a very competent downhill mountain biker, feels safer on those challenging hills than he does cycling through Aberdeen. And when my 17-year-old daughter starts university in Edinburgh soon, and begins cycling from halls to lectures, I know that I will worry about her - more so than I do when she drives.
Sadly, my fears are not unfounded. In January 2012, 43-year-old Andrew McNicoll from Balerno was killed on Lanark Road, while cycling to work. He was a good cyclist, wore the proper gear at all times, checked his lights, loved his bikes and kept them in top condition. He was a member of the Edinburgh Road Club. Andrew was hit by a lorry and died almost instantly.
The Andrew Cyclist Charitable Trust - which aims to make cycling safer - has been set up in his honour, and today I'm part of a 20-strong team of solicitors who are Pedalling For Scotland on the charity's behalf. Blogging on the trust's website, Andrew's stepmother Lynne re-tells the events of an ordinary day that turned dark. She describes a visit to the hospital where Andrew was taken following the accident.
"He looked asleep," she writes. "I touched his hand and it was already cold, his fingers turning blue-ish - I tucked them under the blanket. Ian [his father] went up to him and with the back of his hand rubbed his cheek and said, 'Wake up, son'."
Tragically, Lynne and Ian's suffering is not an exception. Andrew was one of nine cyclists killed in 2012, up from seven in 2011 and a sad reflection of the fact that Scotland's roads remain profoundly unsafe for cyclists, despite the Government's lofty ambitions. According to the latest provisional data from Transport Scotland, there were 898 cyclist casualties in 2012, up 9% from 2011. Of these, 167 were seriously injured, representing an increase of 7% from the previous year. Already in 2013, a staggering 11 Scottish cyclists have lost their lives (the latest occurred just last week), despite a background of declining casualty figures for other modes of transport.
Fortunately, there is widespread recognition that something needs done to address this dire state of affairs. Edinburgh is to adopt 20mph speed limits in all residential areas, in shopping and city centre streets, which will be great news if properly enforced. Reducing motor speeds can significantly reduce the number of road collisions involving children, young people and cyclists. (A pedestrian or cyclist struck at 20mph is likely to suffer slight injuries. At 30mph they would be severely hurt and at 40mph or above they are likely to be killed.) In addition, the Scottish Government's recently refreshed CAP (Cycling Action Plan) 2013 encourages cycle paths and better road infrastructure designed for cyclists, although the wherewithal to fully implement these recommendations seems to be lacking.
By far the loudest noise made by the Government to date has been to launch the Nice Way Code advertising campaign last month with the aim of building "a culture of tolerance and patience between cyclists, motorists, pedestrians and all other road users across Scotland". With messages such as "let's all get along", the campaign borders on the patronising and neatly allows the Government to sidestep some of the more fundamental changes needed to make our roads safer.
Instead of colourful slogans, we need a substantive change in the culture on our roads. That is why since April this year, I have led Road Share, a campaign to introduce stricter liability for the protection of cyclists and other vulnerable road-users who are involved in a road traffic collision.
This change to the current civil law is designed to protect the most vulnerable road-users and to reflect a road-user hierarchy based on mutual respect between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Under stricter liability, the driver of the motorised vehicle would be presumed liable when determining awards for damages in the aftermath of a road traffic collision with a cyclist, unless the injured party is under 14, over 70 or disabled. In these cases, the driver would be deemed fully liable. The same conditions would apply to collisions between cyclists and pedestrians.
This is not a blame game. In civil law, there is no guilt or innocence. A system of stricter liability will instead ensure that cyclists or pedestrians injured in road traffic collisions will receive the financial assistance required for recuperative medical treatments more fairly and quickly, and the families of those killed can receive adequate compensation, often vital to avoid financial hardship in cases where the deceased was the main breadwinner.
Most European countries have already introduced stricter liability regimes (indeed, Denmark, the Netherlands and France did so as far back as the mid-1980s). With presumed liability as the default position, it becomes second nature for motorists to be far more aware of cyclists and conscious of their driving. It does this by making drivers more conscious of the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians, raising our awareness that we are in control of an object that can endanger lives, and need to take great care in controlling it.
In fact, the UK is only one of a small number of EU countries - along with Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Ireland - that does not operate a strict liability regime for road-users. So, what is stopping Scotland taking a lead?
Opponents of the move have asked what such a change to the law might mean for the principle of "innocent until proven guilty". But that provision exists solely in criminal, not civil law. Meanwhile, the principle of stricter liability as a way of protecting the vulnerable already exists in Scots law within consumer protection regulations and regulations concerning the control of dangerous animals. Underpinning the concept is the need to protect those who are most at risk from injury from a dangerous object controlled by another. It is also important to understand that this would only apply if there were a collision and a cyclist or pedestrian is injured - something we all want to avoid.
It would be a mistake to believe that criminal law is already doing the job of protecting the vulnerable. As a lawyer specialising in personal injury, I handle many cases where the police have decided not to act (even, in one case, when the driver had admitted liability). In such cases, forcing the victims and their families to seek answers through a combative legal process adds to their distress and suffering. The campaign for stricter liability is not about increasing the number of compensation claims; instead, it aims to reduce the human impact of those collisions that do occur.
I see this suffering first-hand, and I know that people who successfully claim compensation are not "winners". How can you put a price on a shattered limb or a lost life? The sole purpose of seeking damages is to attempt to put an injured person back into the position they would have been but for the accident. For those who fear that a "crash for cash" culture will develop, simply ask anyone who has been knocked off their bike if any money would compensate them for the pain and suffering they endured.
Above all, stricter liability would help to engender a different mindset among everybody who uses the roads, making drivers more conscious of their responsibility towards vulnerable road-users - in the process, helping to create a more cycle-friendly culture. It is, however, only part of the solution. Our campaign is also calling for a package of measures to boost cyclist safety, including investment in infrastructure, such as separate cycle paths, as well as improved training and education initiatives.
Road Share has attracted widespread support. Former rugby star Scott Hastings and his wife Jenny recently added their voices to the call for change, following the painful loss of close friends in road accidents.
Cycling organisations, including CTC Scotland, Spokes and Pedal on Parliament, are all publicly calling for the law change, and the endorsement of driving schools such as RED and Pro-Scot helps demonstrate how all road-users would benefit from the measure. MSPs from all parties - plus one independent - have also backed our campaign and a petition calling for a private members bill on stricter liability has so far attracted 3800 signatures.
By adopting this system, Scotland would move into line with its European neighbours, and take an important step towards becoming a cycle-friendly nation. Hopefully, we can inspire a younger generation of cyclists.
Among those who are Pedalling For Scotland today is 10-year-old Patrick Kiehlmann, who will be participating in the event's most ambitious strand, the 110-mile Sportive challenge. Patrick has cycled the one mile route to school each day since he was five years old.
I would like to see a whole generation of young people who, like Patrick, are confidently cycling on our roads and enjoying the health and leisure benefits. To make that a reality, we need to provide them with a safe environment. A strict liability regime can go a long way towards securing that positive future.
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