Why omitting commas could be literally fatal!

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August 7, 2011

Does anybody remember the case of Derek Bentley?

He was a British teenager hanged for his part in the murder of a police officer. When Bentley told his accomplice to ‘let him have it’, it was interpreted that this was an incitement to kill the policeman. In his defense, it was argued that Bentley may have actually meant for the gunman to hand the gun to the officer.

So much for verbal ambiguity. Watch the following video and tell me who (in terms of driving rules) is in the wrong here.

So the cycle looks and signals before his exit, just as a car driver would be expected to do, and the car almost hits him. But should the cyclist have been in the right-hand lane at all? I wasn’t sure and double-checked the Highway Code.

Shockingly, the specific rule (77) regarding cyclists on roundabouts is totally ambiguous and is confusing road users throughout the UK. Here is the unedited rule:

‘You may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement or verge. If you decide to ride round keeping to the left-hand lane you should
be aware that drivers may not easily see you
take extra care when cycling across exits. You may need to signal right to show you are not leaving the roundabout
watch out for vehicles crossing your path to leave or join the roundabout’ (1)

The lack of an absolute rule about lane use by cyclists, together with the fact that the second sentence begins ‘if’, has led many cyclists to presume they have the discretion to choose which lane to use. This may indeed be the case.

However, if it is compulsory that the cyclist uses the left-hand lane, the Highway Code is guilty of poor grammar leading to ambiguity.

How could the Highway Code improve this. Here are two suggestions:

1. The best way would be to add a rule that specifies that cyclist either must use the left hand lane or that they do indeed have a choice.

2. A less satisfactory way (but consistent with good grammar) would be to rewrite the rule thus:

‘You may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement or verge; if you decide to ride round, keeping to the left-hand lane, you should…’

The semi-colon signifies that the two sentences are related and should be read in conjunction. The commas around ‘keeping to the left-hand lane’ indicates a subordinate clause, which is, in effect saying: ‘if you decide to ride (rather than walk round), you should do the following (while keeping to the left hand lane).

So there you have it: poor grammar leads to confusion…and that’s just what you don’t need on Britain’s busy roundabouts.

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Thanks for reading

1. DirectGov, ‘http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/TravelAndTransport/Highwaycode/DG_069837’, Crown Copyright, accessed 7th Aug 2011