Road casualties have become normal in Britain. But there is another way

Chris Boardman has achieved many things: Olympic champion, successful businessman, head of an active travel quango. But in a muggy committee room in parliament on Monday evening, he was speaking in a very different yet all too commonplace role: the bereaved relative of someone killed on the roads.

Talking in public for the first time about the death of his mother, Carol, who was run over in 2016 while cycling in north Wales by a pickup truck driver who had just been on the phone, Boardman recounted his dash to the hospital in Chester from France on learning the news.

“They basically kept her alive till I got back,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “My son drove us home. My father wailed with grief. And he’s never recovered from that. And I’ve kept it in a box for seven years.”

Boardman was at the launch of a parliamentary report on how the police and courts handle people who have suffered from road violence, whether victims or relatives, and what can be done.

Compiled by the all-party parliamentary group on walking and cycling, the report contains 10 recommendations, which while considered and relatively modest, could have a transformative effect if implemented.

The debate about how to get more people cycling, as well as walking and wheeling, is often heavily focused on questions of infrastructure, including cycle lanes, low-traffic neighbourhoods and other measures.

But listening to Boardman and the experiences of others at the report’s launch brought home that conditions on the roads we already have are arguably just as important.

Poll after poll has shown that the biggest reason for people not wanting to cycle is perceived danger. And anyone who has dared to ride a bike on unprotected roads will soon discover that a large part of this danger comes from pure illegality, not least the vast proportion of drivers who speed, especially on residential roads.

This neatly leads us to the other factor highlighted by the report, and its reaction to it: the howls of outrage if people politely suggest that people could perhaps be less of a danger to others when they drive.

Before the report’s launch, the only one of 10 recommendations highlighted in the media was the idea of removing the so-called tolerances in speeding offences, whereby you can currently go about 10% plus 2mph above a limit and not be penalised.

The report argued that this had created “a belief that traffic law does not need to be taken seriously”, especially over driving’s most common offence of speeding, which is also the one likely to cause the most deaths and injuries.

Before its launch, I was asked to go on to a radio station to discuss “whether drivers should really be fined for going 1mph above the limit, and if this shows there is a war on motorists”.

I agreed, and did my best to point out the oddity of this tolerance for everyday road violence. In which other area of life, I asked, would an activity that on an average day kills five people and seriously injures more than 80 be treated as normal, with attempts to curb this toll seen as nanny state interventionism?

It is worth remembering that the hundreds of lives changed daily by road violence do not always involve death. Just before Boardman spoke, Yair Shahar, a London-based father of three, quietly set out how a driver pulling out from a side road rode directly over him and his bike.

Shahar nearly died, was in hospital for months and his health will never be the same. By the time he emerged from hospital, he had learned that the driver had been let off with a fine and been told to do a driving awareness course.

More or less every day the decisions of police and courts give this implicit message that bad, even dangerous driving is just one of those things and could happen to anybody.

One of the recommendations included in the report is to greatly curb the ability of repeat speeders who keep their licence even after amassing 12 points by claiming “exceptional hardship”. Almost a quarter of people who reached this threshold successfully claim this, the report said, noting that it is now clearly not for exceptional cases.

This is a long-term structural issue, and even though the current justice secretary, Alex Chalk, is a former co-chair of the all-party cycling group, no one is holding their breath for immediate action.

But it’s worth keeping this in mind. Modern societies have normalised road casualties. But they are not normal. And they can be changed.

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