Mary Dejevsky

A crackdown on bad cyclists can’t come soon enough

E-bikes are becoming a growing menace in London (Getty images)

Doesn’t it sound wonderful? The police are eyeing a device that could immobilise electric bikes and electric scooters in a split second by zapping them with pulses fired from special backpacks. The prospect conjures up an image of righteous ‘ghostbusters’ – as per the 1980s sci-fi film – able to stop the new breed of motorised troublemakers in their tracks. 

The device – which is being partly developed by a Ministry of Defence Laboratory – is both tantalising and simple, as the best ideas are. Electromagnetic pulses would trick the batteries that power these vehicles into thinking they are overheating, so they cut out, leaving their riders to make a run for it with their loot on foot. 

If you can flout one law with impunity, why not another?

As exciting as this report in the Times sounds, though, we are not quite at the point of seeing these devices in operation on our city streets, alas. This is first and foremost because the latter-day proton backpacks are still at a developmental stage and, as we all know, the passage from drawing board to reality can be long and winding. Even if it were to be rushed into production, the record of the public sector, including the police, is hardly unblemished when it comes to introducing new technology. 

There is also the small matter of training and expertise. With these zapping devices, success requires considerable precision on the part of the person who fires, which also takes us back to our old friend ‘health and safety’. Along with the tests needed to find out how well the zappers really work, there must be tests to ensure, quite rightly, that any electromagnetic pulses that might be misfired don’t cause mayhem on the streets, still less immobilise errant pedestrians. All in all, we could be in for a long wait. 

That said, however, something has to be done to reduce the attractiveness of these vehicles to criminals and – no less important – to clarify and enforce the law as it does or doesn’t relate to these vehicles. 

The government has also this week vowed to crack down on killer cyclists: causing death by dangerous cycling could carry a life sentence under plans being backed by ministers. The legislation, still at an early stage, should help give the police another weapon in their fight against errant cyclists.

Something clearly needs to be done to address the issue of bad cycling, not least when it comes to dealing with those riding more powerful, and sometimes illegal, e-bikes. One problem, of course, has to do with the ease of escape for criminals on an e-bike or e-scooter. But even when caught, there is a judicial grey zone that currently protects these vehicles and their riders. 

E-scooter rental schemes were introduced in 2020 on a trial basis; anyone who bought one could use it legally only on private roads. The initial trial period for e-scooters expired, but was effectively extended on the nod until at least the end of this month. Not for us, a Paris-style referendum. As for people not being allowed to use them on public roads, go into any big electronics or bike store and you will see phalanxes of e-scooters and e-bikes. If there is this sort of market for them, does either seller or buyer actually believe that they will be used on only on little patches of wasteland or country estates?

I wonder how many people have been fined for riding a private e-scooter on a public road? A lot fewer, I would bet, than car drivers transgressing Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

For a law to exist without being enforced, however, leaves the law discredited. If you can flout one law with impunity, why not another? The question of using these e-scooters on the road is not the only inconsistency. Everything to do with e-bikes and e-scooters in relation to the law urgently needs at very least clarification.

One absolute basic is the difficulty of pinning responsibility on any one person. If mopeds have to be licensed, why not e-bikes and e-scooters? Why shouldn’t someone who has been injured or had their own vehicle damaged by an e-bike or e-scooter be able to trace the owner, if not the user? Bad behaviour is bad with mere pedal power – add electric power and it takes on a whole new dimension. If local authorities set 20mph speed limits for cars and motorbikes, in part as a safety measure, how can this not apply to cycles too, powered or not?

Two recent cases have highlighted some of the glaring deficiencies of the law as it stands. The latest was the quashing of the manslaughter conviction handed down to a pedestrian who had challenged a cyclist riding on the pavement. The cyclist, Celia Ward, had died after falling from her bike in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, and the pedestrian, Auriol Grey, was held responsible. An effect of the judgment, as I wrote at the time, was to risk handing cyclists more rights than pedestrians. The appeal judges ruled unanimously this month that the conviction was unsafe and the judge had been wrong in his direction to the jury.  

The other was at an inquest which was told that a cyclist could not be prosecuted after knocking down a pedestrian who later died after suffering head injuries because, although he was exceeding the prescribed speed limit (in London’s Regent’s Park), the limit applied only to cars. This is absurd. If there is a speed limit, it needs to apply to all road users, even if few pedal cyclists approach anything like 20mph. If motorists can face prosecution for causing death by dangerous driving, cyclists, e-cyclists and e-scooterists should too. Most drivers, like most cyclists, do not set out with the intention of causing harm, still less killing someone. But if they do, should they not face the same force of the law?

This host of inconsistencies is the reason why, even as we hail the rougher justice that could be applied by police zapping the bike batteries of suspected felons, the wider legal picture should not be neglected. The law as it applies to bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters, and whatever sort of conveyance might come next, needs to be updated to reflect the reality on the roads. Those on two wheels should be held as responsible for their conduct as those on four or more.