Strict liability: why it’s a life-saver

Tufty Club book cover (RoSPA)

Whenever ‘strict liability’ is mooted, UK motorists react with horror. Yet it’s normal in the Netherlands for cyclists (and pedestrians) to be given this sliver of protection.

Who is at fault in bike v car smashes? In the Netherlands, it’s always the motorist at fault.

In this very short video, Hans Voerknecht, International coordinator, Fiets Beraad (‘Bicycle Council’), explains how this works in practice.

‘Strict liability’ doesn’t mean ‘terrorist cyclists’ smashing into static cars for compensation payments: motorists are not liable in these cases. But, when moving, motorists have a duty of care not to hit vulnerable road users.

The UK is only one of four Western European countries that doesn’t have ‘strict liability’ to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

Strict liability entitles a crash victim to compensation unless the driver can prove the cyclist or pedestrian was at fault. In the case of children and the elderly, or those with physical or mental impairments, motorists would be liable irrespective of the victim’s actions.

Strict liability encourages more careful driving (and cycling, because a cyclist would be deemed to be at fault for crashing into a pedestrian). Strict liability would be a matter of civil rather than criminal law so would not affect criminal prosecutions.

Strict liability is supported by: The Environmental Law Foundation; Safer Streets Coalition; Play England; Roadpeace and CTC.

For more on strict liability, read what Roadpeace and CTC have to say. There’s also an excellent 2007 article in New Statesmen by Mark Lynas. The comments section after the article contains poignant contributions from the families of some road smash victims.

Sadly, the comments were later added to by some incredibly unfeeling motorists. And, of course, as is almost always the case, there was a ‘get orrrrffffff my road, I pay for it’ comment:

“Motorists pay for the roads so if you don’t drive then don’t complain about the cost (we pay more than the government spends on roads so we subsidise public transport).” ‘Rixington’.

  • Vox Pop

    As a high mileage driver I totally agree that 'Strict Liability' should be introduced in the UK. I see irresponsible driver behavior on a daily basis and this would be a deterrent. I also believe that all drivers should have to take a re-test every 5 years. As a minibus driver I have had to for the last 20 years and I know it has improved my driving. Additionally there should be a blanket 20-30mph in all built up areas and 40-50mph on all country roads. IT IS TIME FOR SOME POSITIVE ACTION!

  • Downfader

    I would love to see this. TBH my view changed in recent years after seeing the growing decline (theres an oxymoron for you “growing decline” LOL) in driving standards. It also seems common for bad drivers and good drivers to defend bad driving and in many cases blame the victim.

    Pedestrians and cyclists need a helping hand here. We also need to be more proactive about our rights and the wrongs against us. Lastly we all (drivers included) need to realise this is not a segregated problem, eg a cyclists problem, or a drivers problem; everything is interelated and linked. We all need to work together to make the roads safe and pleasant to use.

  • terraplane49

    At last!!!.I've been saying for years that if only cycling bodies would campaign against the myth of “road tax”we would begin to see a change in the way we are treated by the great?British motorist.So far ,however,they have shown themselves to be gutless and/or uninterested.As to the idea of strict liability,it can't come soon enough,and I say that as a motorist as well as a cyclist,as it would have the added effect of forcing cyclists to behave themselves around pedestrians,thereby opening the possibilty of shared use town-centres on the Continental model.

  • terraplane49

    Absolutely.What I can't understand is the “us and them”mentality that permeates British society on so many fronts.We need to find a way to show people that we are all affected in similar ways by situations and events.Also such a law as strict liability would encourage many more people to try alternatives to the car for short journeys if they felt there was genuine legal protection as opposed to lip-service.

  • carlton

    What these “I pay tax” drivers never consider is that nearly all of cyclists own a car and therefore pay tax.Its that he often prefers to be on his bikeThis aggresive comment is said with no thought.. The amount of “Total” cyclists is probably quite low.

  • carltonreid

    The pedestrian angle needs to be stressed, partly because pedestrian orgs need to get behind strict liability, too. Not everybody's a cyclist, but pretty much everybody is a pedestrian, even if it's just walking from the car-park to an office or from the kerb to a shop doorway.

  • carltonreid

    I'm a cyclist. I'm a motorist. I'm a pedestrian. That's the norm in the Netherlands: we need more folks to be 'multi-skilled'. Perhaps being a 'two wheeler' (motorised or not) could be made part of the (shockingly easy to pass) driving test?

  • carltonreid

    Dear Carlton…I've never replied on a forum to someone with the same name before!

    You're right, most adult cyclists are motorists too so pay road tax and it's one argument to use when accosted with the 'road tax' gibe but, basically, the tax doesn't exist and so doesn't pay for roads, so the argument is pretty much moot.

  • terraplane49

    Could'nt agree more.However on the subject of the driving test,I tend to
    feel that the problem is not how easy the test is,but rather how to convince
    people that it is actually a good idea to give a damn about other
    people.Perhaps a demonstration of the knock-on effect of caring is what we
    need to aim for,[or not caring,for that matter].What do you think?

  • GarethDent

    I am strongly in favour of strict liability, but I think that a legal response can only be part of the solution. We have to find ways to get motorists see cyclists as people, just like them, who happen at that point in time to be on bicycles. Fear of the law is insufficient on its own.

    As a cyclist, pedestrian and motorist I think the most stunning and daily illustration of the problem can be seen in supermarket car parks where pedestrians walk to their cars with their shopping morph into drivers and then act aggressively towards pedestrians. It is simply amazing.

  • carltonreid

    Good example, Gareth.

    Another, of course, can be seen on the school run. Parents drop off
    their little darlings (who've been cossetted in a two-town
    exoskeleton) and then drive off with little regard for the off-spring
    of other parents. I see this every day and it always amazes me.
    Drivers speed off, cut corners and do all sorts of mad things to get
    to work on time, and don't seem to care there are going to be children
    around from 8.30 to 9pm.

  • Callum

    Strict liability works well in countries that provide constitutional rights – like most EU countries. Would it work in countries that provide remedies instead – like English common law?
    Another question is whether cyclists would need to take out third party insurance.

  • Downfader

    I actually changed my route to and from work because of school runs. My shifts either start or end around either time and I have seen a fair amount of school mums going bananas behind the wheel. One woman I saw had 5 kids in the back, all unrestrained and all climbing all over the place. I wasnt the only one to shout about seatbelts either.

    You just know these women are the first to “question” another parent about their camera at the school play, LOL!

  • carltonreid

    Everybody has tight schedules nowadays but a loaded weapon is still a
    loaded weapon: not enough people visualize their cars as potential

    Even if they kill no-one, all the rushing around makes it awful out
    there for unprotected road users.

  • RA

    Hi.. directed here via a friend.. good stuff.
    I'd love to see this but the main problem is the vested interests of lawyers.

    Lawyers make an awful lot of money out of the arguments over liability. Big law firms have the ear of government and many MPs are lawyers.

  • carltonreid


    And it has always been so. I'm reading a book at the moment called
    'The Motor Car and Politics 1896-1970' which shows that road deaths
    have never been taken seriously.

    Very similar arguments to those of Strict Liability were exercised in
    1930s and the freedom of the motorists to kill and injure was always
    given precedence. Of course, legislators – and lawyers, judges etc etc
    - have long been motorists.

    Given that all these arguments have been knocking around for 80 years
    - and nothing really substantive have been done to protect
    pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers – I can't see any political
    move against motorists. Depressing, really.

    The only sure way of increasing safety is for more cyclists to be on
    the roads. Chicken and egg thing, of course.

  • GarethDent

    I have found myself thinking quite a bit about this issue this week. In particular the impact on cyclists of strict liability. I am a member of the CTC and therefore benefit from their 3rd party insurance. If strict liability was to apply to cyclists in respect of pedestrians then it would not be long before it was being pointed out by the media that all cyclists should have third party insurance. If this had the effect of deterring cycling (similar argument to the compulsory helmets one), it could be counter-productive.

  • carltonreid

    Strict liability is there to protect 'weaker' individuals in the road
    foodchain. As cyclists would be deemed at fault ofor hitting
    pedestrians it would make a lot of sense to have 3rd party insurance.

    Would this discourage cycling? I don't know. I believe it's compulsory
    in Switzerland with no detrimental effect.

  • GarethDent

    I definitely would like to see this change to the driving test – 'fraid I am not convinced strict liability would massively benefit cycling – have blogged about my doubts here

  • neiltaylor

    I wrote a letter to the Dept of Transport in 1998 raising this issue. It was referred to as 'rebuttable presumption' then, but meant the same thing.
    Alastair Sayles replied: '…in many cases though a road crash might have tragic consequences for the non motorist the driver may not have been at fault. Moreover the principle of innocent until proven guilty is fundamental to British law.'

  • carltonreid

    'Accidently' firing off a loaded gun and killing somebody isn't
    usually seen as a no-fault crime; minimum sentence is manslaughter
    unless shooter can prove extenuating circumstances.

    It's now almost a cliche, but kill with a car and who's gonna convict
    you? Too much 'there but for the grace of God go I.'

  • Downfader

    Neil, I operate heavy machinery in my job. Of the responsibilities I have some include to operate them in a safe and correct manner either by myself or around others. If I fail to do so and someone gets hurt then I can lose my job (or be suspended at the very least).

    To me a motorvehicle is heavy machinery. Operation should be strict and controlled, and Mr Sayles idea of British law is/was misrepresented. Unfortunately we have to stop seeing these collisions as “accidents” and instead as failure to operate a machine safely.

    Of all the accidents I have read of locally the majority seem to have been caused by the driver either being distracted (phone, satnav, not looking where they should be, etc) or impatient (one it seems ran a red, she is on trial this week)

    I think also that many think this applies legally to the motorist and that they can be locked up (thanks to the Daily mail brigade), when infact the liability is for insurers to pay out and only really that iirc.

  • WestfieldWanderer

    Which are the 4 European countries that don't have the Strict Liability law, apart from Britain, that is?

  • carltonreid

    Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and Romania.

    Not exactly big hitters.

  • WestfieldWanderer

    Thanks. So, Britain is actually one of FIVE European countries. As you say, none of them are “big hitters”, but one of them still thinks so… ;-)

  • Johnboythelost

    I am a pedestrian, cyclist and occasional driver of borrowed/rented motor vehicles. I therefore do not pay any 'road fund tax' (there is no such thing by the way-it was abolished by Winston Churchill when he was Minister of Transport in the '30s precisely because he did not approve of one section of road users being able to claim that they paid for and therefore 'owned' the road), or compulsory insurance. I am therefore exactly the sort of person that a certain minority of drivers beleve should not be on the road at all.

    However, I would be more than happy to pay a Vehicle Exise Duty and compulsory 3rd party insurance as a cyclist-I already have insurance anyway-but I want 2 things in return.

    One is 'strict liability'. The other, which I seriously believe would improve cycling and driving in city heavy traffic, is a 'cycle only' phase at traffic lights, long enough for cyclists of all abilities to be able to clear the junction before motor traffic gets there.

  • Peter Foster1

    What is happening on strict liability? The CTC don't seem to be pushing it?

  • Peter Foster1

    What is happening on strict liability? The CTC don’t seem to be pushing it?

  • Calaistripper

    I would like the UK to become a normal country like the rest of Europe, the island mentality is like Japan. completely self obsessed.

  • Tim

    Carlton, given the tone of this article I would be very interested to know how you feel about the articles from Wagenbuur ( ) and Hembrow ( ).

    They both seem to insist that strict (or presumed) liability is not a big issue when it comes to making cycling safe, pleasant and therefore popular in the Netherlands.

  • carltonreid

    “Presumed” liability is one small part of the solution to saner, safer roads, but not in isolation, has to be part of a multi-pronged approach.