House of Commons: Cycle Safety Debate

House of Commons: Cycle Safety Debate

25th June

Cycle Safety (Buses)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Foster.)

7.26 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr Speaker, to get lucky and get this Adjournment debate tonight. I am glad to have been given the opportunity to hold this debate, as it raises an important and emotional topic not only for some of my constituents but for far too many families affected by fatal cycling accidents up and down the country.

I was first contacted by my constituents, Peter and Barbara Helliwell, in February 2012. They wanted to raise the circumstances around the case of their daughter, Jayne, who was tragically killed having being struck by a bus while cycling in Oxford street in April 2010, aged only 25. At that time, Jayne lived in east London and worked as an artist, photographer, graphic designer and music video director. She studied at Kingston university, cycled regularly, and had a specially adapted bike for city riding. In fact, she was on her way to a photo shoot when she was tragically killed, just a week before her 26th birthday. As a testament to her character and the impact her life had had on so many others, Jayne’s friends recently held a 30th birthday party for her in London, which her parents attended, to celebrate what was such a bright and promising life, taken far too soon.

In my largely rural Daventry constituency, fatal bus collisions are very rare, thankfully, so speaking to Peter and Barbara was the first time that many issues surrounding cycling in cities and cycle safety around buses had been raised with me. Peter and Barbara, Jayne’s parents, are an unbelievably strong and level-headed couple, especially given the horrific situation that they have been through. They pointed out to me many pertinent points and reasonable arguments about how to improve the safety of cyclists in cities and around buses, and I hope that I will do them justice here.

Many of those points are echoed in the high-profile Cities Fit for Cycling campaign led recently by The Times. In February 2012, the newspaper launched an eight-point manifesto for its cycling campaign. It said that heavy goods vehicles entering city centres should be fitted with sensors, audible turning alarms, extra mirrors, and safety bars. It suggested identifying the 500 most dangerous road junctions and redesigning them accordingly with added safety measures. It pushed for a national audit of cycling. It asked the Highways Agency to earmark 2% of its annual budget for next-generation cycle routes. It called for improved training of cyclists and drivers, including cycle safety becoming a core part of the driving test. It proposed a mandatory default speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes. It said that businesses should be invited to sponsor cycle schemes, and that every city in the country should appoint a cycling commissioner.

In the light of their own experience, the Helliwells had additional important points they wanted to raise. They pointed out, for example, that there remains ambiguity about the legal position on the appointment of bus drivers with known medical conditions that could suddenly spark and cause an accident, such as a history of sciatica. Sciatica is the cause of much concern. Medical opinion states that this condition can result in sudden leg movements, potentially causing the driver to hit the wrong pedal. Alas, in Jayne Helliwell’s case that is exactly what happened—on one of the busiest roads in the United Kingdom.

Should bus drivers be allowed to drive with sciatica, and should the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency include sciatic pain as a reason not to drive unless a driver undergoes regular medical checks? CTC, the national cycling charity, has said that “in the Helliwell case, the driver had a long-term illness which his employers were not aware of. Better medical testing must be carried out on drivers to avoid this sort of incident occurring again”.

In Jayne’s case, the Crown Prosecution Service opted to offer no evidence because

“it is not now sure that the prosecution could reach the high standard of proving, so that the jury would be sure that (The Driver) drove far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver given those medical circumstances in which it has already been shown that he would not have been able to foresee the sciatica coming on in the way in which it did, causing him to press the accelerator rather than to press or try to press the brake”.

We must therefore ask questions about the medical condition of sciatic pain and its continued impact upon serious and fatal collisions. I would like to hear whether the Minister thinks that his Department’s current guidance on these matters is sufficiently strong.

It is also important to consider the policies on how bus drivers are retrained when returning to work after having a road traffic incident while working. In Jayne’s case, the driver in question had been involved in a number of previous incidents and had received “corrective training” years before Jayne’s death, which still counted as “current”. Actually, Metroline, the bus company involved, considered “corrective training” to be “current” for five years.

To be fair, Transport for London has done a lot to improve cycle safety around buses recently. The Helliwells, who have travelled down to listen to this debate, have already remarked on the number of buses they have seen displaying the extra-large yellow stickers on the back to alert cyclists to their proximity. Transport for London should be commended for examining the issues that many cycling campaigns have raised on promoting bus driver training. However, there remain a few questions on how robust its policy review has been in practice. There is a concern that best practice is starting in London but not being spread to local authorities across the rest of the country. As CTC has said,

“bus drivers should have to undergo cycle safety training similar to that which has been carried out by Transport for London, particularly in areas like Oxford and Cambridge, where the aggression cyclists face from bus drivers is at its worst. Training is particularly needed in places where bus lanes are less than 4.5m wide”.

I should add that cycle lanes that are less than 3 metres wide are common across the country. To improve road safety, councils, in particular, should be proactive in tackling the danger presented by buses, which is very much within their jurisdiction.

Unfortunately for Peter and Barbara Helliwell, the issues that arose in 2010 involved not only road safety itself, but the conduct of the transport companies in London. After the collision, Metroline did not contact the Helliwell family until August 2010—four months after the event—even though it had completed its own internal disciplinary procedure on 27 April, which had resulted in the dismissal of the driver at fault. Alas, Mr Helliwell told me that not only did the company take that amount time to make contact, but when it eventually did it showed no remorse whatsoever. Following that experience, I think it is fair to say that all transport companies should heed the words of the Helliwells and examine how they communicate with and support collision victims and their families. They should aim to work alongside police support officers, and all involved parties should clarify what their roles are in these circumstances. Importantly, they should identify what support is available to families and victims.

Another point that Peter and Barbara have raised with me concerns the compensation claims procedure. It is a long and stressful process that essentially involves a complicated negotiation over a long period of time. That is the last thing a family needs when trying to gain some closure after losing a loved one. I simply cannot imagine how impossible it must seem to have someone put a figure on the cost of a family member’s life. In Jayne’s case the compensation system created anger and confusion. The family were offered a sum of £3,000 for expenses, but, when they indicated that it would go to a charity, it rose to five times that amount—£15,000—with no explanation given for the vast difference or the quick change of mind.

The Helliwells have suggested that bus companies, or their insurers, should set up a fund to remove the need for such a long, enduring compensation process, and that it should be modelled on other compensation funds that deal with similar situations. That would certainly ensure that the detached, impersonal nature of Mr and Mrs Helliwell’s experience with Metroline would be addressed, because people would have a direct line of compassionate contact. As such, the companies should offer more trained support staff to work with victims, families and drivers affected by the trauma of a collision.

I also want to address the legal case, although I am aware that the subject is not within the remit of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). My constituents would like the role of the Crown Prosecution Service to be examined, as they had no contact at all with the appointed barrister until minutes before the Crown court trial. They would have liked to have had the option to meet the appointed barrister long before the trial, to find out what was being done and why—in the same way that a defendant has meetings with legal representatives beforehand. In addition, the Helliwells have spoken about how impersonal and faceless the legal process was at times. Certainly, in such a situation, some humility would have gone an awfully long way.

Since this debate went on the Order Paper, I have been contacted by various other people and organisations that have either been affected by the issues I am raising or that are campaigning on them. Although one charity has said that it commends the work of Transport for London in trying to learn lessons from the past and improve things, one individual who was put into a coma following a bus collision in 2009 has told me of the fight he has had to get Transport for London to start publishing its casualty data each quarter. This individual’s campaign has led to data being routinely published, following his hard work and that of some Conservative London assembly members. The data show that, on average over the past five years, Transport for London buses have killed or seriously injured a person every day.

It is surely in the interests of Transport for London, as the sole contractor of London’s bus services, to do more and go further to ensure that that number decreases. In highlighting that number, I have to ask: what lessons have Transport for London and the Department for Transport learned following Jayne Helliwell’s death, and what further steps do they plan to take to try to prevent similar deaths in the future?

Having spoken to the Helliwells, I know just how grateful they are for the support continually offered by family and friends, but they have particularly highlighted the excellent support that the charity Brake has given them since Jayne’s accident. Brake is a fantastic road safety charity that exists to stop the needless deaths and serious injuries that happen every day on the roads of the United Kingdom. It promotes road safety awareness, safe and sustainable road use and effective road safety policies. Importantly, it offers care for families where a loved one has been seriously or fatally injured in a road collision. To not use today’s debate to highlight that work and to thank Brake for the support it has given the Helliwells would be a wasted opportunity, so I thank it now.

I invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and, indeed, all Members to take an active part in road safety week, which will run from 17 to 23 November. This year’s theme is “Look out for each other”, emphasising that drivers, especially those of large vehicles, need to be aware of other, vulnerable, road users—a rather poignant campaign, given the subject of today’s debate.

Although I am a recreational cyclist, I am not one of the tens of thousands of people who get on their bike to go to work or to study. I understand that it is impossible to guarantee all the country’s cyclists complete safety, but I really do not think it is too much to ask that we learn from the tragic death of Jayne Helliwell and try to ensure that bus drivers are correctly trained and aware of the dangers they can pose to cyclists on our increasingly busy streets.

Jayne’s accident was the most horrific of tragedies. Let us hope that learning lessons from it can prevent others like it in the future.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing this debate. Let me say at the outset that I am aware of the tragic death of his constituents’ daughter, Jayne Helliwell, who sadly lost her life four years ago, following a collision involving a double-decker bus while she was cycling in London. Of course, any death is one too many, and I extend my sympathies to her family and friends.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to bring cycle safety around buses to the attention of the House. The Prime Minister has said that he wants a cycling revolution in this country, but that will not happen unless people feel safe cycling on our streets. We have seen a sharp increase in cycling in London in recent years. Although the rate of casualties has declined, we are absolutely determined to do more to improve cycle safety.

A range of issues are pertinent to my hon. Friend’s constituents’ tragic incident—cycle safety, the training and licensing of bus operators with medical conditions and support for victims who have lost a loved one. There are three critical central pillars to our approach to cycle safety: first, we are investing in infrastructure; secondly, we are cracking down on dangerous drivers; and, thirdly, we are offering cycle training.

We have already made it easier for local councils to put in place high-quality cycling infrastructure. For example, we have made it simpler for councils to introduce 20 mph zones and to install Trixi mirrors to improve the visibility of cyclists at junctions. We have just finished consulting on the update to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, which is the bible used by engineers when planning signs and road markings. We expect the final regulations to include many measures developed in discussion with cycling groups, including low-level signals for cyclists, new types of crossings for pedestrians and cyclists and new designs of the advanced stop line. We will also trial new dedicated cycle streets, which will give councils the opportunity, by banning overtaking, to put cyclists on an equal footing with motorists on popular cycle routes.

We are absolutely determined to stamp out the kind of dangerous driving that ruins people’s lives, which is why the Government have introduced a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Those convicted will face up to five years in prison, which is significantly more than the previous maximum.

The third pillar is improving the training of all motorists, so that they know how to use roads as safely as possible. My Department’s cycle safety forum brings together the main interested partners, including the Association of Chief Police Officers and motoring and freight organisations. With Transport for London, we have established a taskforce to raise awareness of safety among drivers and to take targeted enforcement action against a small minority of potentially dangerous operators, drivers and vehicles.

We have encouraged behavioural change and raised awareness on the safety of cyclists with the Think Cyclist campaign. We are funding the widely recognised Bikeability training scheme. By March 2013, more than 1 million children had been trained, and between April 2013 and March 2015, we expect more than 616,000 further training places to be delivered. The House will want to be aware that Bikeability is not just for children, and some councils already providing free or subsidised training for adults.

I will turn to the legal position on the licensing of bus drivers with sciatica or other medical conditions. We operate high medical standards for all drivers. They are set out in the second and third European Union directives on driving licences, which came into force in Great Britain on 1 January 1997 and 19 January 2013. Annex III of the third directive sets out the minimum standards of medical fitness to drive that are to be applied by all member states, but member states may set higher standards if they so wish.

There are stricter medical standards for drivers of lorries and buses, and rightly so. Such professional drivers must have a medical examination when they first apply for a licence, and then every five years from the age of 45 and every year from the age of 65. From 19 January 2013, new applicants are required to renew their bus or lorry licence every five years and provide a self-declaration about their health. Section 92(2)(a) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 only requires licence holders to inform the DVLA about a medical condition that may affect fitness to drive if that condition is likely to extend beyond three months in duration.

Sciatica is a well-known problem, with intermittent symptoms, but not a disease as such, and for this reason, it is not currently a condition that the DVLA would need to be informed of in the interests of road safety. However, it is for the driver to ensure that where they are suffering from a medical condition that is temporary in its duration, they are fit to drive.

I will now turn to the process of training for professional drivers. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has created a national standard for drivers of buses and coaches that sets out the knowledge and skills required to be a safe and responsible driver. The standard includes advice on how to react to vulnerable road users, including cyclists. The competences described by the standard underpin our bus-driving test.

The theory test for bus drivers includes questions relating to vulnerable road users, including cyclists. Professional drivers must also hold a driver certificate of professional competence, which involves most drivers undertaking 35 hours of training over a period of five years. We have had calls from Transport for London and others that this periodic training should include mandatory elements specifically about vulnerable road users, and we are actively considering how a voluntary scheme to include driver safety training could work. We do not have the power to specify individual hours of training that must be taken, but we will work with training providers to encourage the inclusion of this issue in the courses that we approve.

On the subject of justice for families of victims, despite our efforts on training and medical standards for professional drivers, accidents can occur and the consequences, obviously, can be fatal. It is important that we have the right support systems in place for the families of victims of road traffic fatalities. The Crown Prosecution Service is an active member of the justice for vulnerable road users group, which is chaired by the Department for Transport and has representatives from non-governmental organisations, voluntary groups and various ministerial agencies.

The CPS recognises our obligation to victims of crime, and road traffic crime is no exception. The latest guidance on victims is in a document entitled, “Homicide Cases—Guidance on CPS service to bereaved families”. Road traffic crime victims and their families are placed on the same footing as those families suffering in the aftermath of a homicide. The CPS works across various Government agencies, providing practical guidance to making improvements in prosecuting such cases. The CPS has been working with my Department on the proposed drug-driving offence and with the Ministry of Justice on its recommendation to create a new offence of death by disqualified driving.

I also note the point surrounding the communications from the company, and although I would not wish to make excuses for the company, I know that lawyers representing insurers can often caution operators not to speak to anyone else involved in such cases, but there is no similar excuse that the CPS could extend for not keeping people in the loop.

My hon. Friend asked what lessons have been learnt and what actions are being taken following the tragic incident to improve the safety of cyclists around buses. The Department strongly supports improving the safety of cyclists and welcomes initiatives to gather intelligence on the effectiveness of innovative technology. TfL is planning to test two different camera or radar-based detection systems in the summer, designed to improve the safety of cyclists.

Earlier this month, the bus operator, First West of England, started trialling, for the first time, state-of-the-art cycle safety technology on three of its buses on a busy route in Bristol. That is part of an ongoing trial funded by four West of England local authorities that has also involved Wessex Bus. CycleEye technology developed by the Bristol engineering company Fusion Processing Ltd, was created to reduce the growing number of cyclist collisions and casualties across the country involving large commercial vehicles. It cleverly uses radar and camera sensors to identify when the risk for the cyclist is increased by being in the vehicle’s blind spot, and it gives an audible alert to the driver’s cab. A preliminary trial in London is in progress, and we will consider its implications when there are more data.

In summary, I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are committed to cycle safety and to doing more to improve the safety of vulnerable road users—among whom I include myself, since I cycle every day when I am working in London. In total, we are spending more than twice what the previous Administration spent on cycling. In addition, the Department for Transport’s local sustainable transport fund is providing £540 million for local authorities to prioritise sustainable transport projects, of which 28%—£151 million—is being allocated to cycling projects. However, we will not become complacent, and as I have said already, one death is one too many. That is why I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend once again for securing this important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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