The common rights of cyclists, Aug 27th 1900 (and finally)



Sir,—I must admit that I misunderstood Mr. Shaxby. The “commonplace situation” about which I expressed my opinion was the ordinary case of a country road, where there may or may not be a footpath and where the pedestrian walking along the road is not bound to diverge to right or left to make a straighter path for the well-behaved and bell-ringing cyclist. I failed to grasp the almost magnificent audacity of Mr. Shaxby’s actual proposal. Now, however, I believe that I understand his contention, and I admire his courage exceedingly.

It concerns cycling in towns. Mr. Shaxby says Whether “in a town too small for the elaborate regulation of traffic” the “walking public”  have “ the right to block the highway to such an extent that ‘respectable’ cyclist, must dismount and walk” 1 have no hesitation in answering that, in my opinion, they have—subject to certain reservations. The reservations are that, as Mr. Shaxby by “cyclists” means “persons cycling,” so by “walking public” I mean individuals walking along the street in order to get to some place where they wish to be—not persons standing about for the purpose of impeding the thoroughfare. Also that if the cyclist has skill enough to ride at such a pace and in such directions as to avoid collision he is free to do it and is not bound to dismount and wheel his cycle. The ground of my opinion is that the Judges have many times decided that, footpath or no footpath pedestrians have a right to walk in any part of the road they choose and that persons driving vehicles have no right to knock them over for doing so. ‘The vehicle makes no difference; everybody may use the road and the person who comes first is not bound to get out of the way of person who comes later because the latter happens to be moving faster. The overtaking passenger must pass the person he overtakes in the best way he can and the former is not bound to make way for him. I have not the slightest doubt that the same law applies to cyclists. Well, then, says Mr. Shaxby, “new laws are needed.” All I have to say is that I think he is right to say “laws.” He will have to get an Act of Parliament. So important a change is probably not within the powers of a County Council. The way in which the case practically arises is that crowds walk along a road in a town to go to a football match, race meeting, or other place of common resort. At other times pedestrians mostly prefer the pavement, but on such occasion they overflow in the road. The carriages that pass through these crowds here take care not to run over them. So, at present, do the cyclist. But when Mr Shaxby gets his new laws, he will ring his bell and the walking crowd will scatter before him—at the risk of fine or imprisonment. He really will then be like the oriental potentates I alluded to in my previous letter, who have men with sticks running in front of them to beat any one who does not get out of the way quick enough. He seems to base this claim on the fact, that the pedestrians have the pavement to walk upon. That consideration has never yet availed persons driving horses who had views of the duties of pedestrians resembling Mr. Shaxby’s. No one can tell whether Mr. Shaxby will be able to persuade the Legislature to give effect to his notions of general convenience. If he cares to know my opinion upon so uncertain a matter, I do not think he will. Unless and until he does, there is one caution that I would urge him, in the friendliest spirit, to accept. I gather that he meditates a heroic endeavour to get the existing law altered by defying it. He proposes to charge, ringing his bell (like a medieval knight with a war cry) into a crowd of pedestrians using the roadway, “get knocked over by a few obstreperous people and explain the case to a magistrate.” What I fear is that the obstreperous people will all get out of his way until he catches somebody who is too infirm, too deaf, too unwieldy, or too deep in the throng, to have realized the situation. That person will, doubtless, knock Mr. Shaxby over, but it is too probable that he (or she) may be knocked over by the same impact. Now the infirm and the unwieldy have a most deplorable tendency accidentally to sustain fatal injuries when knocked over and should such a result ensue the magistrate would have something to explain to Mr Shaxby. I, Sir, have had occasion to attend a great many trials for manslaughter in the counties of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire and have had opportunities of ascertaining the views upon such subjects of most of her Majesty’s Judges. I seriously adjure Mr. Shaxby not to carry out his plan in any of the three counties I have mentioned.

            I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

                                                            HERBERT STEPHEN.

The Times, Monday, Aug 27, 1900; pg. 6


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