The winter is very much upon us and the mornings and evenings are dark, dreary, and often wet. The number of brave souls making their commute to work by bicycle on these dark winter mornings is impressive, as are the intrepid cyclists heading out at the crack of dawn at the weekend. However, the risks for cyclists on the roads are at their peak at this time of year, with road conditions often poor and visibility a major issue. Also, the law governing cycling is under constant review and some big changes are on the horizon.
With that in mind, it is useful to remind readers of the current legislation informing rules and etiquette around the cycling / driving relationship and look further afield to the measures introduced in other countries to keep people safer and contribute to reducing the high number of fatalities on our roads.
Regardless of whether you are a beginner or experienced cyclist, for all road users the Highway Code is an essential read. Many of the rules contained in it are legal requirements for which failure to comply will constitute a criminal offence and could result in a penalty. The remainder of the Code is comprised of rules which if breached won’t result in prosecution, but can be used in evidence in Court proceedings to establish liability.
- Wearing a helmet – Whilst recommended in the Highway Code, you may be surprised to learn that there is no obligation in Northern Ireland that cyclists wear a helmet. While there was a Private Members’ Bill in 2011 recommending the mandatory wearing of helmets for cyclists, this ultimately did not make it onto the Statute Book. It seems unlikely this law will change soon. However, in the interests of safety, it is always recommended to wear a helmet on the road.
- Lighting up – All bicycles are required to have a white front and red rear light for night use and a red rear reflector. The wearing of appropriate clothing is a recommendation and a vital one at that. Regardless of the time of the year, cyclists should wear bright or fluorescent clothing in daylight and reflective clothing in the dark. In these dark nights, it can be easy for drivers to miss a cyclist if they are not wearing reflective clothing.
- The Dutch Reach – Many people are needlessly killed or seriously injured as a result of drivers opening their car doors without checking first for passing cyclists. Looking to the Netherlands for inspiration in how these accidents might be minimised is the ‘Dutch Reach’ method, which is incorporated into the driving test and requires drivers to open car doors with their far hand, forcing drivers to turn and look behind them. This has gained publicity recently and may well find its way into the Highway Code following the government’s review of the code.
- Space – With poor cycling infrastructure on NI roads, cyclists find themselves on the road where near miss encounters with motorised vehicles are unfortunately the norm. As it stands, the Highway Code recommends that motorists overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so and to give cyclists at least as much room as they would when overtaking a car. Perhaps we should take note of what is happening in the Republic where new legislation has been passed whereby drivers passing cyclists must give at least 1-1.5m when passing cyclists on roads or incur an €80 fine and three penalty points. It should be noted, however, that there appear to be some difficulties at this stage in actually getting this law put into practice.
There are also potential changes on the horizon to impose greater obligations on cyclists. New government proposals in the UK are recommending the creation of a specific offence of ‘Death by Dangerous Cycling’. This would appear to be a response to the death of Kim Briggs, a pedestrian who was tragically killed after a collision with a cyclist in 2016. We will of course keep an eye on this and ensure cyclists are kept up to date with any new obligations on them as road users.