Cyclists fit for cities? 0 Comments

Cyclists fit for cities?

The bulk of what follows was written a couple of years ago, at a time when The Times newspaper was running a vehement pro-cyclist campaign under the heading “Cities fit for cyclists?” (hence the title of this blog) and Boris Johnson was Mayor of London (and commonly cycling without a crash helmet and whilst using a mobile phone).

The mood at the time was such that I could not get this article published. The Times’ campaign began in earnest when The Times journalist, Mary Bowers, was tragically and seriously injured while cycling by a lorry whose driver was having a hands-free phone conversation at the time and drove over Ms Bowers twice after forgetting to put the handbrake on. No rational person could fail to sympathise with Mary Bowers or fail to attribute blame to the lorry driver. The mood to which this gave rise was almost hysterical but The Times now appears to have finished its campaign and I sense from what I read in the media a distinct change of attitude. This is no doubt down to a fair extent to the death of Kim Briggs after being hit by a cyclist riding a fixed-wheel bicycle with no front brake. I would like, therefore, to re-present my previous criticisms of cyclists in London and my proposals for enhancing safety for all road users (cyclists included).

Readers should bear in mind that the situation was different when the following was first written but I am convinced that all the arguments put forward remain highly relevant.

In 2005, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 invited listeners to nominate their opinion as to ‘Who runs Britain?’  At the top of the list was José Manuel Barroso (not particularly surprising, but I preferred Health and Safety).  In any event, I am clear what my answer to the same question would be today:  cyclists and their advocates (notably The Times in their ‘Cities fit for Cyclists’ campaign and the Mayor of London).

The Times, Wednesday 2 September 2015, under the heading ‘Boris drives through ban on unsafe HGVs’, quoted Boris Johnson as saying that a ‘very disproportionate share of cyclist deaths and serious injuries are caused by lorries’ – the use of the words “caused by” is a classic statistical mistake (similar to saying that all road accidents in which one of the drivers involved was over the legal alcohol limit are “caused by” drink driving).   Can the problem of cycle safety be resolved entirely by placing the burden on other road users?  I don’t think so.

Anyone who drives regularly in London (and presumably other large cities, although I have no direct experience) knows that although it is true that some accidents involving cyclists may well be the fault of vehicle drivers, more than a few are in fact ‘caused’ by inexperienced or over-aggressive cyclists making the wrong manoeuvres at the wrong time and in the wrong place.  There are many things cyclists could do to enhance their own safety and other things which should (again in the interests of safety) be the subject of legislation.

I was for many years a keen cyclist in country districts in Kent.  I have never cycled in London and never would, not only because of the danger from cars and lorries but also because of the danger from some other cyclists.  Before moving to the country in 2012 (and for many years before that) I drove regularly in Central London and, like everyone else I have spoken to with similar experience, found it almost impossible to keep cyclists safe from their own behaviour.  Obvious and common examples are:

cycle pic 3(a) Jumping red lights at junctions;

cycle pic 8(b) Simply ignoring red lights at pedestrian crossings or (where there are no lights) riding swiftly across pedestrian crossings without regard to the presence of pedestrians (my partner has been knocked over twice when crossing supposedly safe road crossings in London and (in each case) the cyclist concerned rode off as quickly as possible without even a word of apology); 

(c) Riding the wrong way along one-way streets;

(d) Overtaking vehicles to their left (presumably what the proposals referred to in The Times article mentioned above are largely designed to protect cyclists from) even (and I have direct experience of this) when the vehicle concerned is indicating a left turn;

(e) Weaving in and out of moving traffic aggressively and at high speed (this particularly applies to cycle couriers);

(f) Cycling on pavements when they cannot get through stationary traffic (without regard to how many pedestrians may be using the pavement at the time);

cycle pic 6(g) Using mobile phones while riding (forbidden to motorists) – I do recall Boris Johnson, maybe before he became Mayor of London, protesting mightily against any suggestion that he be denied the freedom to do this;

(h) Listening to their iPods or similar through earplugs – as an experienced cyclist I suggest that the ability to hear what is going on around you (especially the sound of approaching vehicles) is crucial to cyclist’s safety; and

(i) Generally aggressive and occasionally violent behaviour towards other road users who the cyclist considers might be invading their space (which in the opinion of some cyclists seems to be most of the road around them).

Why should cyclists behaving in these ways be indulged, and, given that cyclists are road users (traffic, not pedestrians) why they should not be subject to similar rules as the users of other vehicles including, in particular, motorcycles?  As an experienced cyclist and motorist, if I were to be asked the question of which of a car or cycle (I’ve never ridden a motorcycle) requires the greatest expertise to control safely, I would undoubtedly say a bicycle.  Cars do not have to balance and modern cars are very safe and easy to control (in many ways the car in fact now controls the driver).  Bicycles have to be balanced (self-riding cycles – I don’t think so).  I was taught when learning to drive that in overtaking a cyclist a driver should always allow sufficient room for the cyclist to fall over!  Yet, cyclists are advantaged over any other road users in the following ways:

1) They are not required to have any training (anyone in any state of health or of any age can pick up a ‘Boris Bike’ and ride in heavy traffic in London, even if he or she has not ridden a bicycle for many years), or to be licensed and carry number plates (so safety cameras could pick up instances of unlawful or reckless behaviour and identify the perpetrators);

cycle pic 42) Unlike motorcyclists, cyclists are not required to minimise the physical damage likely to be caused to them by accidents by wearing crash helmets (again, the Mayor sets a poor example by being pictured on many occasions riding without this protection);

cycle image 12 3) Cyclists do not (I always did when I cycled), so far as I have observed in London, use rear view mirrors (a motorcyclist would, in all probability, be banned from riding if he were to ride a motorcycle with no mirrors) and;

4) Unlike other road users, cyclists are not required to insure themselves against any physical or other damage they may cause.

I deal with another issue separately, not because it is unimportant (believe it or not I care for cyclists’ safety), but because it would be difficult to make it a legal requirement.  Why do not cyclists, when the light is poor enough for automatic car headlights to turn themselves on, not always wear high visibility clothing?  Some do, but so many times as a driver at night or in otherwise poor visibility I see cyclists who are almost invisible in dark clothing.  Cycle lights are not enough.   They are hard to see in car headlights: what is needed are fluorescent displays which a motorist can’t mistake: one of the best I find are pedal attachments which, as they turn, shout ‘cyclist’ at drivers. High visibility is the biggest contributor to safety.

cycle pic 2

If The Times and the former Mayor had their way, then despite all of the above concerns cyclists will be further advantaged by the expenditure of huge amounts of public money on providing them with cycleways divided off from the main carriageway by walls high enough for a vehicle not to be able to cross without injury:  what used to be two way streets in the London Borough of Camden, for example, are now nearly all one way for motor vehicles.  This causes increased congestion, which is generally seen as a cost to the public and to business:  it has yet to be explained to me exactly why and how the economic benefits (I don’t question the health benefits, although cyclists in cities are best advised to wear masks to filter out the fumes of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide which are a feature of urban life) of cycling are great enough to justify this imbalance.

Against this background, it has been seriously proposed that the law in the UK should be changed to make the driver of any vehicle in collision with a cycle automatically guilty irrespective of fault.  This proposal is outrageous, and completely contradicts the basis of liability in tort law, which is that it is the guilty party who pays, subject to any reduction for contributory negligence by the claimant.  The justification is sometimes given that the motorist will be insured and the cyclist will probably not be.  Any such law, however, would undoubtedly increase the number of insurance premiums for drivers and unfairly so (and in any event, as I suggested above, there is no reason why cyclists as road users should not themselves be required to take out suitable insurance).

I have not overlooked the fact that laws close to this are in force in other European countries.  In France, since 1985, the Badinter law requires that the non-driver victim of a road accident is compensated in full by the driver involved. This is said on the website for www.cycleinjury.co.uk to have the aim of avoiding ‘endless discussions before the court as to who is responsible’.  That is absurd.  In all other cases of tort liability in the UK, the courts have no difficulty in attributing fault, including the extent of contributory negligence.  On www.cycling-embassy.org.uk, I read that the Netherlands and Denmark have a law of ‘strict liability to protect vulnerable road users from more powerful road users’. The same site states ‘This makes Dutch and Danish drivers more cautious around cyclists and pedestrians and is responsible for their safe roads.’  That is, I think, a huge over-statement.  When the author says ‘safe roads’ he means, ‘roads safe for cyclists’ whereas I think the objective should be ‘roads safe for all road users, including pedestrians’.

What we need is a proper debate on how to make roads safe for all road users, not a one-sided and biased campaign by the country’s alleged newspaper of record.  In summary, what I propose is that:

* Cyclists should be required to undergo training and pass a basic test;

cycle image 11* On passing the test, cyclists should be required to carry number plates for identification;

* Crash helmets should be made compulsory;

* The use by cyclists of mobile phones when riding should be banned;

* Cyclists should be compelled to take out third party insurance; and

* The basic training and test should be left to deal with the issues of high visibility clothing and the use of earplugs connected to sound devices.

I challenge anyone to say that (and why) any of these proposals are unreasonable.

Over to the real extremists to criticise these moderate proposals, which I stress, again, are primarily intended to improve safety for everyone, cyclists included.

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