As British women cyclists bring home more gold from the Track Cycling World Championships, we are reminded that in London, female cyclists are more likely to be killed or seriously injured than are their male counterparts. One blogger recently worked out that in one area, it is only women who are killed . Now I think his map drawing is a little selective, but one thing is true. As the BBC reported back in 2009, in collisions between cyclists and lorries, the victim is far more likely to be female than male, even though fewer women cycle.
From this there follows speculation. What were the women doing? Is it because they wait at red lights and so lorries turn over the top of them? Are they more hesitant and less assertive than their male counterparts? Is their road positioning less good? All of which strikes me as just so much victim blaming. The question should not be ‘why are female cyclists more likely to be hit?’ rather it should be ‘why are lorry drivers more likely to hit female cyclists?’ The emphasis in the latter is altogether different. Why is it that lorry drivers quite frequently turn over the top of female cyclists? Do they not see them? Do they see them and just not care? What is it about driver perception that makes drivers more likely to register the presence of male cyclists than female cyclists?
My own observation with drivers overtaking is that their ‘thought process’, if I can dignify it with that name, goes approximately like this: Cyclist in front, cyclist slow, must overtake cyclist. They will then overtake, oblivious of the traffic conditions ahead, thereby risking shaving off someone’s right knee simply to get to the back of a queue of traffic clearly visible 20 metres in front of them. But with female cyclists the problem seems to be worse and the thought process deteriorates into: Woman on bike in front, women really, really slow, must overtake slow cyclist.
Most of the time when I’m overtaken, the driver severely underestimates my speed, cutting back in too tightly so that I have to slam on the brakes to avoid being clipped by their inside rear wheel. They simply don’t realise how fast a woman on a bike can go. My evidence is anecdotal, based on my experience and observation but not currently backed up by stats. Nonetheless, my experience is that women get pushed around on the road, just as they often get pushed around in life.
To be clear this is not straightforwardly about sexism. I’m not saying that male drivers are such sexist idiots that they think it’s OK to mow down women. I think there’s something rather different and more subtle going on. Drivers in general, male and female, often fail to see cyclists, both male and female. However, I do think that women are generally less respected, actually by both sexes. There is an assumption that women should be more passive and that they should give way. On the roads this means an assumption that female cyclists should move over, should not be ‘in the way’, should be compliant and should move, or brake, or whatever it takes so that motor vehicles can continue unimpeded.
We can see something similar in the rows over ‘yummy mummies’ and their prams. Yummy mummies, those posh, upper-middle class women with buggies the size of a small family car, have the audacity to take up too much room. That, in these rows, seems to be their principle sin. They occupy space. And here we have an interesting example of the intersection between class and gender. The middle classes take up room. Sit in a quiet pub when someone from a public school walks in and you’ll know them immediately. Their presence and their voice will fill the room as they enter. And yummy mummies act like this because their class allows them to. But in having this confidence, this ability to let their presence intrude on the notice of others, they cease to adhere to the conventions of their gender that they be quiet and unobtrusive. Much of modern western society prefers its women to be a size zero and little more than a coat hanger. Yummy mummies break the gender rules by occupying space.
I break the rules myself but in a rather different way. My old Dawes bike is a man’s bike with a large, diamond frame. I ride fast and I ride confidently. When I’m on the road my space is mine. Oh I respect other people, but I demand that they respect me. So when I’m on a cycle path about to overtake someone, out of the corner of their eye they see someone moving quickly, confidently and assertively. And on numerous occasions I’ve heard a mother turn to her child and say ‘move over so the man can come past, oh…’ The ‘oh’ and the rather puzzled look is what happens when gender expectations conflict. They’ve seen someone moving assertively so they assume I’m male. Then they look properly, see a small-featured face, long curly hair and a very slight and very definitely female body and realise that actually, a rather petite woman is acting in a way more often associated with men.
Of the various complaints that I hear about cyclists, some of the most common are that they are ‘in the way’, that they are a problem to pass or that they slow the traffic down. They are occupying space that drivers want. And since women are supposed to occupy less space, their sin is worse. To those drivers who are anti-cycling, cyclists are other. They are lower, lesser, further down the pecking order and if there’s one thing lower than a cyclist, it’s a female cyclist. Cyclists on the whole are expected to get out of the way, female cyclists even more so. We do not expect women to intrude.
To return to the question, why are lorry drivers less likely to see women, it’s because they care less. Women are less visible to them. Drivers look but don’t see. They don’t often care to register the presence of a cyclist and they care even less to register the presence of a woman on a bike. But this lack of ability to see female cyclists tells us about the way all cyclists are viewed. Ultimately, there are drivers out there who really do think it’s OK to go straight over the top of you. In the case of Mary Bowers, for ten seconds she was in front of the driver who later ran her over, whilst they both waited at traffic lights. But he was having a phone conversation and he just didn’t see her. This is not about her behaviour as a cyclist – it’s about his perception as a driver. When we look, we see what is important to us. Cyclists are often not viewed as important enough, and women even less so.