Sunday, 23 June 2019

Commuting by bicycle - Let's be careful out there!

When cycling around the city, I keep in mind that phrase that was perfectly put by Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from one of my favourite cop shows, Hill Street Blues, "Let's be careful out there!"

Commuter cyclists in Central London (courtesy of Thomas Nugent)
As someone who regularly cycles around London I am always vigilant about all other road users - just motorists, black cabs, Uber drivers, delivery vans, and of course trucks turning left. The most problematic for me though, are pedestrians - and even more so now with more and more people looking down at their phones instead of watching the road ahead of them.

These "smombies", or smartphone zombies, give cyclists even more reason to be vigilant when cycling in busy urban areas like central London. In fact a recent court ruling, much to the shock of cyclists has shown how we are even more vulnerable on the road, both physically as well as legally.

One day in July 2015, while Robert Hazeldean was riding his bike near London Bridge a pedestrian, Gemma Brushett stepped out into the road while looking at her smart phone. She had not paid any attention to what was going on around her and assumed she had right of way. She didn't, as the traffic lights were green.

Hazeldean sounded the loud air horn that was on his road bike and shouted to warn her he was approaching, at around 15 miles per hour. He swerved to try to avoid her, but at the same time Brushett looked up, and startled to see the cyclist so close to her, ran back towards the traffic island - also in the same direction that the cyclist swerved. Consequently Hazeldean knocked her down, leaving both parties unconscious, and needing hospital treatment.

Sadly, for Hazeldean that was just the beginning of his woes as Brushett sued the cyclist for injuries caused (cuts to her face, cracked teeth, and mental amnesia). The ruling has only just been made, and the case ruled that the cyclist was liable for damages.

Although the judge, Shanti Mauger, recognised that the pedestrian had not been paying attention because Brushett was looking at her phone she still ruled that there was a 50:50 blame for the accident because, in her words "cyclists should be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways". For that reason the cyclist was ordered to pay 50% of the damages and Brushett's legal bills.

This still represents up to £105,000 - over £4,000 in damages and up to £100,000 in legal fees. Hazeldean risks being left bankrupt. In addition, the case has taken its toll on the mental health of the landscape designer who has since started a new life in the South of France.

A friend of Brushett's launched an on-line crowdfunding appeal, and thanks to the generosity of the public and numerous sympathisers, £46,000 was raised in order to help him pay the legal costs.

This case sets a worrying precedent for cyclists. Effectively, people can walk down the road, taking no responsibility for their own safety, paying no attention to what is happening around them, and if they are hit by a cyclist, the latter could find themselves in hot water legally despite having taken reasonable precautionary steps like having a bell and abiding by the road traffic rules. A poll by The Sun newspaper found that more than three-quarters of the readers who voted believed that the pedestrian was to blame.

Three-quarters of respondents do not agree with the judge's ruling
One other point that this case highlights is the need for cyclists to take out third party insurance. As someone who has been a member of different cycling clubs for over 20 years, I have always had third party insurance through British Cycling (insurance from other cycling organisations like Cycling UK and London Cycling Campaign are also available). Cycling clubs generally make it a condition of joining, that cyclists have insurance, and people can explain why it is necessary.

However, ordinary cycle commuters and  leisure bike riders may not be aware of this, so are inadvertently exposing themselves to potential problems. If Hazeldean had had third party insurance the case would have cost him £6,000 and he could have had legal support to make a counter claim. Things could have been less stressful in the process.

Cyclists - be careful out there!


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