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Cycling and the law: how can dogs and bikes coexist on shared paths?

Cycling law expert Mark Hambleton takes a look at what you need to know if you encounter dogs on shared paths

Recently I was cycling along a ‘shared use’ (cycle) path when I was attacked by a Jack Russell. Luckily, no great harm was done because the dog’s bite didn’t break my skin, but what would have happened if my encounter and injuries had been more serious? This seems to be a question that many cyclists (and dog owners) share.

First of all I want to say a) I love walking dogs – we had a family dog growing up and I’d take her walking for miles and b) I cycle considerately on ‘shared use’ paths – I don’t treat it as my personal racetrack.  

What are the potential consequences of a collision with a dog on a shared use path?

It struck me that the most severe consequences of a collision with a dog (or taking evasive action to avoid riding into the dog) would be:

  • injury to, or death of, the cyclist or dog

  • financial losses (travel costs while unable to cycle, time off work, treatment costs, veterinary bills, loss of no claims bonus on pet insurance policy)
  • bicycle, clothing and/or equipment damage
  • fear or reluctance to use shared use cycle paths in the future

In my experience, the majority of cyclists on shared use paths probably cycle at between 8mph and 14mph. Even at the lower end of that spectrum, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to react to the unpredictable behaviour of dogs if they are not properly controlled.

Many dog owners have told me that they have absolute control of their dogs while they’re off their leads, an argument that I’ve even heard in comments on my blogs. I don’t believe that’s true – after all, they’re still animals – but it misses the point anyway. Cycling along these paths, we’re unable to distinguish between dogs that may or may not cause us a problem. Keeping dogs on a short lead eliminates that uncertainty – it’s an easy fix.

What about taking legal action?

Starting with the guidance in the Highway Code, it states that you shouldn’t let a dog out on the road on its own, and that you should keep it on a short lead when on a pavement or shared path. Cyclists are encouraged to take care when passing people and give them plenty of room, whilst being prepared to slow down and stop if necessary.

Should you have an accident involving an animal your solicitor will need to consider the merits of claims in negligence and pursuant to the Animals Act:

  1. Negligence is a long-standing common law principle where you will need to establish (amongst other things) that the other individual involved did not act with the level of care you were entitled to expect.
  2. The Animals Act came into force in 1971 and sets out the criteria that must be established to succeed with a civil liability claim for damage done by animals.

The main difference between these two legal standards is that fault on the part of the dog owner is not required to succeed with a claim under the Animals Act.

It’s a complex area and that’s reflected in the case law, so here are a few interesting ones to illustrate this:

  • A cyclist recovered damages (£65k) following an accident on a cycle path caused by a dog on a retractable lead. The dog leapt towards the cyclist and the lead became tangled up in the wheels, causing the rider to come off, fracturing his skull. He required extensive treatment and seven weeks off work, hence the compensation.
  • A man cycling in a public park suffered a fractured pelvis when a dog, running off its lead, ran under the wheel of his bicycle, causing him to fall off. He succeeded with his claim against the dog owner after he had been in hospital for a month and off work for six months.
  • A female cyclist suffered multiple facial fractures when she braked to perform an emergency stop, to avoid a dog running of its lead, and went over her handlebar. I’m not sure if this case has been concluded but I expect the claim will be successful.
  • This article has focused on the hazards uncontrolled dogs pose. However, in another instructive case involving horses, I recently represented a cyclist in a successful claim against a rider whose horse jumped towards my client as he passed by, kicking him so hard he fractured his femur.

Each of these cases illustrate how accidents involving animals can result in awards of compensation for injured cyclists. For these cases to have succeeded under negligence, some fault would have to be proven. However, under the Animals Act the priority is that specific (non-fault based) criteria are met.

What might be relevant should you have a claim?

The facts of each case need to be carefully explored and witness evidence gathered. In most cases, the parties may consider bringing civil claims against one another i.e. dog owners may seek to claim damages for veterinary bills from cyclists at the same time as cyclists claiming for injuries/financial losses from the dog owner.

In either situation, each party is likely to be asked to provide evidence of its insurance whether that is in the form of general public liability insurance or specific pet/cycle insurance because the losing party normally pays the winning party’s damages and costs.

Generally speaking, I think cyclists have a strong basis for civil claims for damages as a result of accidents caused by dogs off their leads or on such long leads that effective control cannot be maintained by the owner.

It follows that it would be difficult for dog owners to recover the veterinary costs unless they could show the cyclist had been particularly reckless in terms of speed/failure to warn/overly close proximity to the dog walker.

Cyclists and dogs can coexist on shared paths, it only takes one small change: ensure dogs are kept on leads.

After taking up cycling to commute between Bristol and Bath, Mark has seen all sorts of incidents and has become a keen advocate for cycling and protecting the rights of cyclists.

Mark is now lucky enough to combine his passion for cycling with his day job as a cycling solicitor at Royds Withy King.

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