Cycle safety: the bigger picture

Matt Briggs, widower of Kim Briggs and instigator of the Kim Briggs Campaign, recently commented “Not entirely sure why I am expected to fight other people’s causes? My own causes are exhausting enough”.

Mrs Briggs died in February 2016, as a result of injuries sustained in a collision with Charlie Alliston, as he cycled along Old Street, London. Alliston was riding a fixed wheel bike with no front brake and travelling at 18mph. Traffic lights were green in his favour when Mrs Briggs went to cross in front of him. When he swerved to avoid her, she apparently stepped back into his path.

The case has caused controversy and stirred up strong feelings. Alliston was a tabloid editors’ dream. Given the amount of hatred that gets directed at people on bikes, here was someone the press could really get their teeth into. Riding a bike designed for speed, rendered illegal on UK roads by the lack of a front brake, Alliston sounded off on social media, blaming Mrs Briggs for stepping out in front of him and showing little or no apparent remorse for his actions. He was a stereotypically reckless, arrogant young man who seemed to prove every criticism ever thrown at people who cycle. For anyone who does happen to get around on a bicycle, Alliston is a nightmare.

Alliston was found guilty of causing bodily harm by wanton and furious driving and sentenced to 18 months in a young offenders institution. He was cleared of manslaughter. Mr Briggs is now campaigning for a change in the law so that death and serious injury cycling offences are included in the Road Traffic Act.

Mr Briggs has also been tweeting to bicycle manufacturers and sellers, asking them to remove photos of any bikes without front brakes. Such bikes are legal for use on the track, but not on public highways. In addition, bikes are often sold without certain components in the expectation that the buyer will fit appropriate components of their choosing. Bikes are routinely sold without lights, yet these are a legal requirement at night. Many are also sold without pedals as users will want to choose their own and whilst this isn’t a legal requirement, it is obvious that the bikes are not useable without them (and they should have reflectors on the pedals).  Many retailers seem to have been receptive to Mr Briggs’ requests and have removed the photographs to which he has objected.

So what are these other causes which Briggs is expected to fight? I can only speak for myself and it is entirely possible that many other people are contacting him with several requests. For me, I don’t expect him to fight causes other than his own. I would however hope that he places his own cause within a greater context – that of road safety in general.

If we consider what happened to Kim Briggs, how could it have been prevented? Well she might have waited until traffic had stopped before she crossed. Alliston might have been travelling slower. He might have had a front brake and stopped more quickly. But these are immediate circumstances which might have been different. They are not an examination of deeper issues.

Old Street is not friendly towards vulnerable road users, either cyclists or pedestrians. It consists of up to four lanes of traffic, including a bus lane. It prioritises motor vehicles. If you’re on foot and in a hurry – tough, you have to wait for motorised traffic to stop. There is a cycle lane in parts and also a shared bus and bike lane, all of which means cyclists are squeezed out. There have been many occasions on busy roads when pedestrians have stepped out in front of me leaving me with no time to brake. Your choices on a bike are limited. You don’t want to hit anybody, you don’t want to go over the handlebars and you don’t want to land in front of a bus or swerve into the path of a lorry. Vulnerable road users do not have space on Old Street, or in the vast majority of the UK’s urban environments.

To survive on the roads, cyclists adopt, and it is recommended that they adopt, a kind of vehicular cycling in which you move at around the same speed as motorised traffic and prominently out into the lane. If the speed limit is 20mph this isn’t too difficult provided you’re fairly fit (although you’ll still get drivers speeding past you). On 30mph roads you need to be very fit.

As a method, vehicular cycling favours young men. You need to be bold, bordering on reckless; assertive bordering on aggressive; and have a confidence that borders on arrogance. All these are things that Wendy Joseph QC criticised Alliston for in her sentencing remarks. Whilst the environment does not excuse his behaviour, we do have to ask why we are creating and maintaining environments which encourage it. As a young man, Alliston belongs to the demographic most likely to be involved in road traffic collisions. We have designed an environment in which what should be faults actually become basic survival tools and in which only those most at risk of causing or being involved in collisions are likely even to try to survive.

So do I expect Matt Briggs to fight his campaign on a wider front? No, not really. His campaign looks to me like a very public expression of grief and although it is public, it is not something I would want to try to influence. What I would hope though is that in time he might come to realise the far greater problem on our roads. Because at the moment, Mr Briggs’ campaign is seized upon as a stick with which to beat anyone travelling by bike when what we should be working out is why our transport system brings us all into conflict.

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Be safe! Be seen!

Well I would be safer if you fucking looked

Every autumn, every time the clocks change, someone witters on about the importance of wearing hi viz for vulnerable road users. Sometimes it’s even a road safety “professional” and having recently got into a bit of a discussion with one of them on Twitter I decided this topic really warrants more than 140 characters.

First, I’ll declare my hand. When I cycle I generally wear something like this Endura jacket because it’s pretty bright without making me look like a luminous canary. I have a bright rear light, bright front light and I wear fluorescent silver snap bands on my ankles because I have to keep my trousers away from the chain and I might as well use something bright to do so. I know my get up is eye catching because drivers sometimes claim that my lights are too bright and they’re dazzled (no, I’m not polite to them). When I ride my horse I vary what I wear but I will generally go for something that can be seen at some distance over a hedge. It’s not that I’m anti being seen but I am against unexamined “common sense” arguments because I’m aware that these won’t necessarily keep me or anyone else safe. And if I can’t be bothered to look after myself, I certainly don’t want to put my horse at risk because I didn’t do my research.

There are two problems here – first, does hi viz protect the individual and second, does it make the roads safer for everyone? On the first, the evidence is actually fairly mixed. This study of conspicuity aids for motorcyclists found that what works varies according to environment. And this Nottingham PdD thesis found that actually, there’s a slightly raised risk of crashes amongst cyclists using conspicuity aids (yes, the author did adjust for other factors). So whilst being more visible by using hi viz might seem like an obvious choice, A. it won’t in some environments make me more visible and B. if it does, it might increase my risk of crashing (if for example I assume that someone must have seen my eye-searing outfit when actually the cockwombles are on their phone and haven’t looked).

Which brings me to my next point. I can’t make someone look. It doesn’t matter what I wear, if they are not concentrating or think they don’t need to or are adjusting their CD player or using a mobile or speeding or whatever else it is drivers do, no amount of retroreflectives, Christmas tree lights or disco balls will make them see me in time to do something about it. For every “be safe be seen” campaign there need to be at least three “keep other people safe, watch what you’re doing” campaigns. The problem with putting the emphasis on the vulnerable road user to be lit up is that it takes the emphasis away from the person operating the dangerous machinery to be responsible for looking. That in the end could make us all less safe. Drivers crash into houses, emergency service vehicles, trees, street furniture (including traffic islands, which are pretty hi viz), and bridges. So whatever is causing crashes, it isn’t only lack of visibility on the part of the thing, or living being, crashed into.

The answer I got back to this point about things drivers crash into was along the lines of “but those things didn’t step into the car’s path” which is interesting for various reasons. Reporting of collisions on the road consistently gives cars agency when actually it should, one would hope, be the driver in charge. If anything it’s the driver’s path, not the car’s. But is it? Philosophically, is a pedestrian (or other road user) moving into the driver’s path? If I am walking from A to B across a town my path will intersect with those of other road users. Am I stepping into their path or are they in mine?

De jure the answer is complex. There is no jay walking offence in the UK. Some people are aware that pedestrians have right of way at junctions if they are crossing as a car approaches. Whilst one would not want to test out the theory, there’s no particular reason to assume that the road is any more a driver’s than it is mine as a pedestrian. As this article on jay walking in the US makes clear, there is something in the evolution of transport that has placed the motor vehicle above pedestrians. At some point, the path became the car drivers’, not the vulnerable road users’ and even though in the UK this has not been enshrined in law, in practice I’m not going to argue with a lorry. Or a Ford Fiesta for that matter. De facto the path has become the drivers’ but not, in the UK, for any particular legal reason, more because might has become right and this has been designed into road layout. To get across a busy road, I as a pedestrian must press a button or request that traffic stop as a favour. Drivers do not assume that actually the vulnerable road user is just as important as they are and that therefore, it might be the car crossing the pedestrian’s path and not vice versa.

So practically, what do I do to try to ensure that I’m safe and seen? Well in my experience, I am at greatest risk riding or cycling when someone in a motor vehicle is overtaking. It isn’t that they don’t see me – it’s that they see me and decide it’s OK to risk my life in an effort to get where they want to more quickly. On a bike my key strategy is road positioning and a hypersensitivity to what is around me. On my horse, again it’s road positioning and hypersensitivity, but without transferring that sensitivity to him.

I bought my horse, Charlie, for about 20% of what you would expect to pay for a horse of his age, type and experience because he had had an accident on the road and had lost confidence. I spent months convincing him that it was OK, that I would look after him, that I knew where the tractors, the buses, the rattling trailers were and I would keep him safe and away from them. Did I achieve this by wearing luminous yellow? No. That might be common sense but it makes no horse sense. I did it by being aware, planning ahead, moving him to a place that was safe when I thought something he couldn’t cope with was approaching. I keep him safe by looking and planning ahead, and by assuming that no-one else on the road is doing the same. It works a whole lot better than just shoving fluorescent on and hoping some dimwit notices me.

Cycling terms explained

A handy guide to all those terms the cyclist in your life uses that befuddle you. NB unlikely to make you less befuddled than you were before. May make you more irate

Cake: essential fuel for cycling. It is in no way, shape or form unhealthy. Anyone who says otherwise is not your friend.

Cycle path: a path which according to the Highway Code you can use and according to non-cycling motorists you must use, on pain of, well, something or other. Irritating them probably. Unlikely to be fit for purpose. Will probably feature broken glass and irate pedestrians who tell you it isn’t a cycle path, despite the prominent blue signs saying it is a cycle path. Ontologically they may have a point as despite the signage, it is unlikely to be a path you want to cycle on and it’s still less likely it will end somewhere you want to cycle to.

Goes a bit Sustrans: see cycle path. Not, unfortunately for the organisation, a compliment. Refers to a more than usually awful facility, often with random and inexplicable barriers. May also be overgrown, disrupted by tree roots, narrow or so rural you need an MTB. Or just a tractor.

Helmet: confers magical abilities to avoid all damage to anyone on a bike hit by a car, lorry or even freight train. Worried about fractures to things other than your head? Concerned that a truck might actually turn your internal organs to mulch? Don’t be. Wearing a helmet will protect you against all those things and more. Try wearing one when you’re drunk and negotiating stairs, as statistically it’s more dangerous than cycling to the shops

High viz: similar to helmets. Has magical properties which insure that drivers will actually look when they haven’t otherwise bothered. Must be worn at all times by cyclists so that motorists who are on their phone/ speeding/eating breakfast/ generally just a bit distracted and can’t be arsed to look think “fuck me my retinas are being seared by retroreflectives perhaps I’d better concentrate whilst operating dangerous machinery”

Keirin: not a Scooby but I’m assuming that one day the bloke on the scooter will win

MGIF: must get in front. A reference to drivers who haven’t grasped sections 162-169 of the Highway Code and believe that they have a divine right to be in front of a bike, even in situations in which clearly the bike would be faster if only they hadn’t plonked their car in the way

N+1 : The number of bikes you should own, where n= the number of bikes you currently own. Once dismissed by an acquaintance of mine on the grounds that maths is tricky. Car drivers eh.

Rain: stuff that makes you wet. This is a problem that can be solved using a towel. Contrary to what non-cyclists will have you believe does not also make you melt or make cycling impossible.

Road tax: abolished in 1937. Millions of motorists apparently still pay it, which makes them irritable and gives them a sense of entitlement

SMIDSY: Sorry mate I didn’t see you. Used by certain motorists in the belief that not seeing someone absolves them of responsibility in a collision. Actually an admission of incompetence and the need for a sight test

VED: a tax based on vehicle emissions. Millions of motorists believe cyclists should pay it despite the evidence that A. they already do if they own a car B. cycles would be zero rated and therefore in Band A (£0) C. it doesn’t cover the full cost of the roads D. they’re usually already paying income tax and council tax both of which actually do go towards funding roads

Sad but true: Childhood bullying is a good preparation for cycling on England’s roads

As a schoolchild I was subjected to some horrendous bullying for the crime of being (drrrrumroll) ginger. Explaining this, as an adult, it’s not unusual for other adults to ask why I didn’t just dye my hair, which amazes me because even at the age of 11 I had worked out that the problem wasn’t me being ginger. The problem was other people’s attitudes to me being ginger and those attitudes would have become more entrenched, not less, if I had dyed my hair brown. By the time I was in my teens I had worked out that it was important not to change but to maintain my appearance. If people rejected me because of the colour of my hair they weren’t worth knowing. As a reason for discriminating against someone, this was less than skin deep.

There is no doubt that the bullying scarred me. I attribute much of my later depression to the treatment I received at school. However, I wouldn’t necessarily change what happened because as an adult, it gave me something else. I realised that if I had changed my hair to brown and fitted in, there would have been something else that I or someone else had been picked on for. If my hair had fitted in, something else, probably even more minor, wouldn’t have done. The end result of kowtowing to bullies is that we all end up looking and acting in very similar ways to escape the process of bullying and yet this doesn’t prevent bullying. It encourages it by giving bullies the result that they want.

Whilst as a young teenager I was almost constantly told I was ugly and undesirable, in my late teens something changed. Men began to see me as someone they really, really wanted to shag. I’m under no illusions that their emotions were anything more complex than that but suddenly I was considered something of a trophy because of the very looks which had been mocked a couple of years before. It was confusing, and to be honest meant I didn’t really respect the men who were judging my appearance. I wasn’t pleased that they were judging me positively. They had already judged me so negatively and I was bright enough to realise that the issue wasn’t a positive or negative pronouncement on my appearance. The issue was that they were judging me on my appearance at all. I realised that good looks were a fortunate chance, not an achievement. For this realisation I am grateful. (I know that appearance is often an important part of attraction. It isn’t however a reason to shout at people across the street and loudly announce your verdict on their appearance).

This knowledge of bullying has stood me in good stead when it comes to cycling on English roads. Apart from anything else, it’s given me the confidence to judge what I’m up to based on facts, not on other people’s prejudices. It’s why I so dislike the othering of cyclists – that sense that what one does, they are all responsible for because they are all other and different, and linked together by that difference. Thus when someone argues that cyclists would be more popular if only they obeyed the rules, I don’t just agree. Instead, I looked beyond the surface and analyse what else might be going on.

When new kid on the Twitter block @CyclePledge emerged s/he made what might at first glance seem a reasonable case. That is: ask a few people what they dislike about cyclists. Listen to the response “It’s because they don’t obey the Highway Code” and set out to do two things, first get cyclists to pledge to obey the Highway Code and second try to prove that they already obey it. Cycle Pledge has taken something of a battering and I’d rather not add to it, but I do feel it necessary to explain why I object.

One of the things I learned from being bullied is that if you have an image problem, it’s a distinct possibility that the problem is in the eye of the beholder, not with you. Thus it’s quite likely that if people think cyclists don’t obey traffic regulations, the problem is one of perception rather than reality. And indeed this is the case. In the majority of collisions involving bikes, the fault lies with the driver, not the cyclist. The majority of cyclists stop at red lights despite the fact that road design and generalised fear make it quite tempting not to. Added to this, anecdotally, I find that when I’m told off for doing something wrong on a bike, I’m actually obeying the law and the other person is just wrong (e.g. when you’re cycling on a cycle path and get told off for cycling on the pavement by someone who’s just unobservant). Add into this the whole “road tax” argument and you can see that dislike of cyclists is based on perceptions, not what cyclists are actually doing. People don’t like cyclists and then look for reasons to justify this.

It becomes more obvious that “not obeying the Highway Code” is just an excuse when you look at who actually breaks traffic regulations i.e. motorists. The majority of drivers break laws concerning mobile phones and driving. According to the RAC   83% of drivers admit they speed regularly, whilst 92% say they are law-abiding, a stat that says almost all you need to know about attitudes to breaking traffic regulations. Indeed the notion that motorists are law abiding extends to the argument that speed is safe and the laws are wrong. There are whole websites devoted to giving warnings of the location of speed cameras and drivers complain when cameras are hidden although the obvious way to avoid a speeding fine is just not to speed.

Thus, if law breaking were a genuine reason not to like a group of road users, motorists would be amongst the most hated group in society, but they’re not. Instead, their ways around obeying the law are generally tolerated and sometimes lauded. So if law breakers are OK, you can see that no amount of pledging to obey the Highway Code is going to make anyone like a cyclist – because that’s not the real reason for the dislike. My bullying was less to do with my hair colour, more specifically to do with the fact that I didn’t care that I looked different and so made people feel insecure. Cyclists too are disliked for being part of a minority that challenges entrenched thinking.

There is an instructive asymmetry at play here. The children who bullied me for my hair colour were being obviously and thoroughly unreasonable. Adults expressing dislike for cyclists on the grounds that they disobey rules are on the face of it being reasonable which is why it’s easy to fall for their argument. Add in the fact that out of all cyclists everywhere some of them will break the rules at some point and you give people the perfect opportunity to say “yes, that’s right, yesterday I saw a cyclist on the pavement”. But, being bullied taught me much about human behaviour, principally that people will pick on difference and then rationalise their prejudice, and that is what is happening when people say they dislike cyclists for law breaking. As noted above, if law breaking, particularly dangerous law breaking, were their real problem, it would be drivers they hated.

Thus when Cycle Pledge argues that cyclists should pledge to say they obey the Highway Code, all s/he is really doing is promising that gingers will dye their hair. It’s confirming someone’s prejudice, not tackling it. The seeming reasonableness of the request make it more dangerous, not less. It’s the same prejudice being pandered to, it’s just managed to disguise itself with the semblance of rationality. It’s failing to get at the root cause of the dislike and instead tackling the post hoc justification for it.

The better option would be to campaign for cyclists to have designated spaces. At the moment, when you examine the design of our roads, towns and cities, what you see is space for cars, with a little room for pedestrians and very little specifically for cyclists. Our environment is designed to say “cyclists are not one of us, there is no room for them”. Redesign towns so that cyclists are included and are part of the accepted norm and you should find a shift in social attitudes towards that acceptance. Cyclists will stop being other when they are included within public spaces rather than designed out of them.

A Tale of Three Overtakes

I’m very fortunate with my current commute. It’s short, it’s on fairly quiet country roads and there’s so little congestion that there are no traffic lights. However, as any reasonably experienced person who travels by bike will know, there will always be flashpoints. The main two to watch for are risky overtaking and junctions (and that lovely overlapping set, risky overtaking at junctions).

Overtaking seems to spark vociferous debate as there is a clash between cyclists’ need to remain safe versus drivers’ need to get somewhere in a hurry. You would hope that, for the sake of basic humanity, safety would win but generally it doesn’t. As justification for their impatience, many non-cycling drivers just resort to a “why are you on the road” attitude as justification for their own, at best reckless, behaviour. But the other morning I encountered, in quick succession, three different types of overtaking behaviour that clearly showed what the problems are and why it is often so unnecessary for drivers to act in the way that they do.

It started out gently, with drivers coming past leaving me enough room, overtaking in reasonable places and indeed managing to hang back until we’d reached a reasonable place (hint, that’s not on a blind bend). However, I then realised I was approaching the back of a queue of traffic, an unusual situation at that point of the commute. Taking a deep breath of country air and looking at the state of the road, I realised that someone was moving sheep. Now I accept that you cannot stay behind a cyclist travelling at 15mph on the basis that there might be someone moving a flock of sheep half a mile ahead of you. I don’t mind people overtaking carefully and reasonably and don’t expect them to know the exact road conditions for the next 5 miles. However, it does show that no matter how impatient you are to get past a cyclist, doesn’t mean the rest of your commute is all going to be sweetness and light.

Think about your commute in totality. Is it all one long smooth ride, apart from a couple of cyclists travelling at 12 mph that you feel you need to get past? In that case, congratulations and what are you worried about? You’re lucky, it’s a nice journey, give them room, admire the view. Or is it messy and snarled up? Are you often queuing behind other cars, cars which like your own are carrying around 25% of their capacity? Are you in the queue at lights behind lorries and vans? Are there cars parked along the route that mean that passing oncoming traffic is difficult? In which case why are you blaming the entire situation on a couple of cyclists, whose vehicles are carrying 100% of their possible capacity and who are doing around the same average speed as you? Is it possible that you’re actually just a bit frustrated and have decided to take it out on them because they’re a bit different, they represent an alternative that you find unsettling and when you whinge on Facebook all your mates press “Like” and talk about road tax and red lights?

The sheep reached their field, the cars and vans sped up and I kept going. I went through a village with a 30 limit. After this the road carries on into open countryside and the limit is the national one i.e. 60mph. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to travel at 60 since it is a limit and not a target. It doesn’t even mean it would ever be safe to do 60 on that stretch. It just means that no-one’s really got around to working out what an appropriate limit would be and they’ve stuck to the default option. So a driver decided to squeeze past me just as two cars were coming the opposite way. I’ve had worse but it was too close and too fast. And unnecessary as within a few seconds there was no oncoming traffic at all so they could have had the whole of the other lane. And then it became doubly unnecessary as within 50 yards the driver turned right into a side road.

It does seem that many drivers are unaware of basic physics. Accelerating and decelerating wastes energy. Thus accelerating to overtake and then braking to make a turn will increase your fuel bill. If you know that you are going to turn off within the next few yards, just wait. Don’t take a risk with someone else’s safety, think ahead, drop down a gear, stay behind, make your turning, save fuel, make the road feel a bit safer for everyone. And you know what, if it does take up more of your time, it will only be about 30 seconds. Trust me, I know, I went past the side road just as the impatient Herbert  was parking up. I muttered under my breath. As someone who likes to think several steps ahead, I get confused by people who don’t, especially when they’re (nominally) in control of a ton of metal.

Nearing my destination, the road narrows considerably. I work in a small town that can be something of a bottleneck, particularly since people park on the road. The streets are narrow and there are often large vehicles on them meaning that anyone driving is likely to end up in a passing situation. On a bike you can generally slip through, provided of course that some numpty hasn’t just overtaken you and then plonked their car somewhere in the oh-so-surprising realisation that their way forward isn’t clear. To try to prevent these unnecessary overtakes, I tend to take primary position. That is, as recommended by the Department for Transport, I move into the centre of the lane. This makes it harder for people to overtake and in general makes it clear that there’s no need to bother. It doesn’t stop everyone of course and I have had people overtake when I’m in primary and the vehicle in front has its brake lights on (here’s the thing, you can see it, it’s a vehicle, it’s not a surprise, it’s quite big, its brake lights are on, that means it’s braking. That means it’s fucking pointless overtaking me only to end up behind it, numbnuts).

The road heads downhill into a 30 zone. Since I’m generally doing about 25mph by this time, overtaking me means breaking the speed limit, another reason to take primary. I could hear a vehicle behind me and from the engine noise thought that the driver might overtake but I was very close to a narrow bridge with a blind summit. Since I can pass cars on the bridge, but they can’t pass each other, I didn’t see any point in moving over. It would in all probability have resulted in the driver having to brake on the bridge, whereas I was confident I could just keep going over it. On a bike, you are the engine, so you are aware of the extra energy it takes to keep braking and if you can maintain rhythm, you do. The driver however had other ideas and as soon as I was over the bridge, and despite the narrow roads, he barged passed. It was a classic punishment overtake: I don’t care, I’m in charge, it’s my road, I’m in a car, I pay road tax, I want to be in front, and I’m bigger so I’m going anyway.

Inevitably I caught up with him. And this is the bit so many drivers find so difficult to accept. I’m using a nippy form of transport that can fit through small spaces. It isn’t allowed on motorways because on large open roads it’s comparatively slow.  However, in the crowded conditions you find in towns and cities, although bikes may have a lower top speed than cars, their average speed will be at least as fast, if not faster. Since I wasn’t impressed by the driver’s behaviour and didn’t see why he should get away with bullying unchecked, I told him what I thought of his lack of road awareness. His response was “it was a mistake, there’s no need for that”. Well I would venture to suggest that it’s a “mistake” that could be avoided in future by A. not bullying people and B. not assuming that you have the right to the road and that you will be faster. If that’s too much to cope with, go for C. obey the Highway Code, in particular rules 162 to 169.

Anyone on the road needs to realise there might be anything ahead. Whatever it is, it has a right to be there. There’s no need to assume that somehow you and your journey are more important, for whatever spurious reason you feel like making up. If your journey is shit, it’s unlikely to be because of one thing. Be honest with yourself. Is it really that cyclist? Or is it actually all the other stuff, other stuff that you accept, because it’s easier just to scapegoat a minority group. Plan ahead. If you are going to turn off shortly, is it really necessary to overtake? How much time will it actually save? And how much fuel will it use up if you have to accelerate and then brake, rather than maintain a steady speed. Don’t assume that because you’re in a car, and because it can go faster than a bike, it will actually be faster in the conditions in which you’re driving. And remember, don’t overtake if you cannot see whether or not your way forward is clear. In a small town with narrow windy roads where visibility is restricted to around 50 yards, if that, you cannot see whether or not your way forward is clear. So don’t overtake, it’s in the Highway Code. If you don’t like that, then just accept that you’re using a vehicle that makes less than optimum use of the available space. And the reason that cyclist is in the middle of the lane? It’s a warning that it’s not safe or appropriate to overtake. If they’re wrong, it won’t cost you much. If you’re wrong, you put your life and theirs in danger. Is it really worth it?

Chris Hoy, cycling and the borg…

…or, Please stop blaming me for what that other person did

Hoy tweet

I suspect that Hoy’s had enough feedback from this tweet by now. In one sentence he managed to sum up all that’s wrong with “othering” and the pervasive attitude in British society that cycling is different and odd.

So why do I think Hoy is wrong? To illustrate this, I’ll discuss two things: first the way in which drivers are treated when they act criminally and second the accusations levelled at cyclists and the way in which they are held collectively responsible for the behaviour of others, behaviour over which they have no control.

In discussing driver behaviour I’ve looked at my local papers for the last couple of days. So pervasive is adverse driver behaviour that there’s no real need to look any further. Leanne Burnell has just been released from jail after killing a cyclist. She is not allowed anywhere near where the cyclist used to live. Burnell and her boyfriend were racing in a 30mph zone when they killed Amy Hofmeister. But is anyone saying that these two give drivers a bad name through their actions? After all they have basically murdered someone. Are they a small minority that give other drivers a bad rep by being irresponsible? If they are, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the reporting.

This drunk driver isn’t being held up as an example of why people dislike drivers. And then there’s teaching assistant Emma Walker, who decided to travel at twice the speed limit and drive on the wrong side of the road whilst her passengers begged her to stop. Walker got away with it but her three friends variously suffered brain damage, a dislocated hip meaning a shortened leg, a broken neck and a ruptured spleen. So is Walker giving drivers a bad reputation, and if not, why not? To answer this, let’s examine what it is cyclists are blamed for.

Cycle1

So this cyclist is blamed for their own death despite the fact that the actual stats on red light jumping tell a different story. As for outrunning cars, well yes cyclists will filter if cars are going slower, which they generally are in rush hour traffic. The Twit in question had no idea about the details of the accident or who had caused it, they just blamed the cyclist on the grounds that “they” ALL go through red lights.

Moving on:

Road tax

Now there are multiple problems with this. Road tax was abolished in 1937; VED is a tax on pollutants and bikes would be zero-rated; in the UK roads are public highways we all have a right to use; payment of something doesn’t confer a right to violence because you’re a bit irritated, and so on. But what you can see in that tweet is that cyclists are hated on erroneous grounds. Road tax is a side issue, it’s an excuse to justify a hatred that stems from something else. Nothing I do on a bike, whether stopping at a red light or not, is going to change this person’s prejudices because they aren’t based on facts.

And again:

hungover driver

It isn’t for this person to decide whether or not others have a need to be on the road. Driving with a hangover is at best inadvisable. And if your blood-alcohol content is still over the limit, it’s illegal. Again, cyclists doing nothing wrong, driver possibly breaking the law.
And the last one for today:

Cycle2.jpg

Again, cycling side by side isn’t actually illegal. Drivers accuse cyclists of doing something wrong even when cyclists are acting within the law. Thus whatever cyclists do, whether they act legally or illegally, this invective will be directed at them. Whereas no matter what drivers do, whether it’s actually killing someone, maiming their friends, or just threatening random violence against strangers, the individual is deemed to be responsible, not the group. So what is going on here?

Essentially driving is seen as a normal activity that almost every adult does. It’s the default option. There’s always an assumption that you’ve travelled by car or that you will travel by car. For evidence just look at invitations you get to events and the instructions for how to get there. Thus the behaviour, because it’s “normal” is disassociated from the person doing it. A person driving badly is an individual doing something normal but doing it wrongly.

In contrast, cycling is something other and different. People will ask you why you cycle, but they will rarely ask you why you drive. Thus if you cycle, you’re not disassociated from the activity, it is assumed to be part of your identity. And as such you’re then identified with everyone else who cycles, because this random abnormal behaviour identifies you and marks you out with “them”. Thus you can be blamed for what someone else does, as if you’re all part of some borg hive mind. And along with the blame comes the punishment – it’s OK to run one cyclist over because once someone saw another cyclist somewhere else doing something wrong.

Cyclists are not disliked for their law breaking. Most of the time they’re not breaking the law and much of the time those accusing them of so doing don’t really know what the law states. Cyclists are disliked for transgressing social boundaries, for not doing what’s “normal”, for questioning a consumerist culture and a lifestyle that relies completely on the motorcar.

Thus in arguing that the actions of a few cyclists taint those of the many, Hoy feeds into a prejudice rather than questioning it. He is validating the assumption that cyclists are other, different, blameworthy. Hoy thinks cyclists should earn respect on the road. Did Emma Walker earn respect for drivers? Did Emma Way, when she knocked down a cyclist and boasted about it? Once you realise that cyclists are a bullied minority, the notion that they should earn respect takes on a rather nastier tone. It’s like telling a bullied school child that the problem lies with them, that if only they would change their behaviour the bullies would go away rather than realising that the problem lies with the stupidity of the bullies. Cyclists shouldn’t have to earn respect any more than any other road group. The shift in attitude needs to come from the idiots who blame all cyclists for the behaviour of one cyclist. We need deeper cultural shifts so that the vulnerable are respected, not mocked and threatened. Shame on you Hoy, for adding to a bullying culture.

And don’t overtake there, either

I was going downhill at around 18-20 mph in a 20 zone. As I do in these situations, I took primary position. I do this because when I am going at or near the speed limit, drivers should not need or want to overtake me. Putting myself in the middle of the lane forces them to make a proper overtaking manoeuvre if they are going to get past, makes them think about whether it’s necessary, and makes it safer for me because if they do overtake, I can move over. If you’re already in the gutter, the kind of person who will overtake you in a 20 zone is unlikely to give you any room, and you won’t have any margin for safety.

It was hammering with rain and to be honest I would have felt safer going more slowly given the amount of water currently on Devon’s roads, but doing 15mph in a 20 zone gives even more opportunity for aggressive, unnecessary and dangerous overtaking. Sure enough, I heard a driver behind me and from the engine sound it was evident that he was going to try passing me despite the fact that it would involve breaking the speed limit, the road was wet and dangerous and visibility was poor. Not only that but we were approaching a traffic island. I moved further out into the lane to discourage him, he drove past anyway, forcing me over to the gutter and causing me to brake.

I almost caught him at the next roundabout. I did catch up with him at the next set of traffic lights, ¼ mile down the road. From there for the next 3 miles it was basically nose-to-tail traffic into Exeter. Nothing to do with cyclists, you understand, just drivers trying to get into an already crowded city. I stopped my bike in front of him, blocking him in.

Now I am fully aware that this is risky behaviour. There’s a personal risk in what the driver might attempt and a wider risk in that by annoying a driver, you might make their behaviour to the next person on a bike worse. You risk confirming their prejudices. However, I was dealing with somebody who was already driving recklessly, breaking traffic laws and also, basically, being a bullying unpleasant excuse for a human being. I see no particular reason to be polite to somebody who has just risked my life and I don’t see why I should let bullying pass unnoticed.

He wound his window down and shouted ‘you should be on the bike path’. There is no bike path where he overtook me. The one that is available near those lights is on the wrong side of the road and only goes somewhere I didn’t need to be. I pointed this out. I pointed out his manifest failings as a driver and the various laws and parts of the Highway Code he had broken. He and his passenger sat there grinning smugly. I’m not really sure why overtaking a cyclist dangerously on the way to the back of a 3 mile tailback would give anybody cause to feel smug but apparently it did. I upped the swearing quotient. Suddenly he looked a lot less smug and started trying to outswear me. Bad move. It’s not just my vocabulary, which after years hanging out on the wrong websites is colourful to say the least. It’s the sheer bloody-minded inventiveness and volume with which I will cheerfully project expressions of which nice, middle-class women really should not be aware.

I pedalled off, after pointing out to him that since he was stuck in a queue, there was no way he could catch me up. And, lest you fear that I will never be an ambassador for cycling and that I have angered a driver unnecessarily, do bear in mind that he angered me unnecessarily. And as I left, the last thing I heard was another driver shouting “Shut up, baldy” at him. It’s not nice, but the comic timing has had me giggling to myself ever since.

The helmet debate rears its ugly head. Again

It’s usually bubbling away not far from the service. “They wear silly hats” and “they should wear helmets” are two of the favourite sticks with which to beat cyclists. It kicked off again on Twitter last week as Beverley Turner wrote an article entitled “It’s not just skiers who should wear helmets” and proceeded to berate cyclists for taking “unnecessary “ risks.

Turner is the wife of James Cracknell who, as she says herself in the article, was hit by a truck whilst cycling in America in 2010. Turner’s and Cracknell’s response is to campaign for cyclists to wear helmets which may on the face of it seem like a good and worthy thing. But think about it for a bit longer. Would you rather be hit by a truck whilst wearing a helmet, or just not be hit by a truck in the first place? And if you were charged with preventing injuries, would you provide people with lots of protective clothing, or find the cause of the injuries and try to stop them happening? Because there is a world of difference between saying “wear a helmet in case a truck hits you” and “let’s have separate infrastructure so you don’t get hit by a truck”. The first assumes that cycling is inherently dangerous and it’s entirely the cyclist’s responsibility to mitigate risks. The second examines the root cause of accidents and seeks to produce infrastructure that prevents those accidents.

I write this blog in a personal capacity but my day job entails examining data to improve its quality, and to ensure that it can bear the weight of the argument placed on it. Good quality data means that decisions can be made to help prevent incidents, whether that be by targeting the behaviour of at-risk groups or working out what type of infrastructure is most associated with collisions. I tend to start by asking questions which are deceptively simple but perhaps counterintuitive. Thus when examining the cycling and helmet debate I would actually disassociate head injuries from cycling and ask the following. What is your aim? Do you want to reduce incidents of head injuries? Or do you want to make cycling safer?

If your answer is that you want to reduce head injuries, then think about how and why they most commonly occur. To be fair to Turner, this information isn’t actually that readily available and does take some research to find. There is some data on head injuries here on the gov.uk website. Head injuries account for a little over 2% of A&E admissions in England. However, finding out how many of those are cyclists is more of an issue. There are stats for Canada and the US however. According to these, over the ten years between 1997 to 2007, 15% of deaths from TBI (traumatic brain injury) were motorists, 0.6% were cyclists. Now this does not mean that as an individual you are more or less likely to die of TBI when cycling than when driving, since it gives no indication of the extent to which either activity is carried out. However, it does mean that if you wanted to launch a public health campaign to reduce head injuries, you’d do well to target motorists, since out of every 20 deaths from TBI, 3 are motorists.

The Center for Disease Control in the US has done extensive research on TBI.  As they point out:

Data are critical to understand traumatic brain injury (TBI) as an important public health problem. This data can help inform TBI prevention strategies, identify research and education priorities, and support the need for services among those living with a TBI

If you dig around on the CDC’s website it becomes apparent that falls are one of the major causes of TBI and that it is the over 75s who are most at risk of death from them. However, nobody is suggesting that over 75s routinely wear helmets. Instead, they concentrate on falls prevention. This is because when an activity is seen as routine and normal we do not generally recommend protective clothing whereas when an activity is seen as risky we do recommend protective clothing, regardless of the objective degree of risk involved in either activity.

So, if you want to prevent head injuries, cyclists are not of major concern. But what if you want to keep cyclists safe? As this blog shows, cyclists are safer when separate from motorised traffic. A helmet only really comes into play after you collide with something. If I were trying to make things safer, I would be looking at reducing the collisions. If a truck turns left over the top of you, a piece of polystyrene on your head is not your best friend. Full body armour made out of something tougher than Kevlar might be of some assistance but better still, keep people on bikes separate from trucks.

Thus you can see that an argument that concentrates on head injuries in cyclists is not objectively the best way either to tackle head injuries, or to make cycling safer. Instead, it is based on subjective assumptions about risk. The problem with subjective risk is that it is by its nature based on society’s prejudices rather than facts. And where cyclists are concerned this is a particular problem because in the UK, so many people are determined to portray cyclists as a bit weird, different, awkward and, on the whole, determined law breakers and risk takers. Turner has (inadvertently?) picked up on this and unfortunately reinforced it. If cycling requires safety equipment then it isn’t a normal, everyday activity. If it isn’t a normal, everyday activity, then it requires safety equipment.

Cycling then is something other than the norm. It is a feature of othering that the out group are seen as a homogenous mass, defined and linked by one particular feature or activity, in this case riding a bike. In order to see the problem here, ask yourself the following question. Do all these activities carry the same degree of risk:

A Sunday cycle at 8mph along a towpath with no motorised traffic
A commute along the same towpath, plus some minor roads and cycle paths, at an average of 15mph
Blasting downhill in the pitch black on an MTB at speeds of up to 25mph on purely off-road tracks riddled with rocks, tree roots, ditches and rabbit burrows
Training for a road race at an average speed of 20mph on fast, busy rural roads

If your answer to this is “yes” then I would politely suggest that you don’t embark on a career as an actuary. It’s rather like saying that popping out to the supermarket in the family estate car carries the same risks as off-road rallying or training to be a formula 1 driver.

Insisting that all cyclists, no matter what they are up to, wear a helmet makes all cycling seem equally dangerous when in fact, cycling is a hugely varied activity with varying risks. If I were riding a sportive in large groups with other riders I would wear a helmet. If I cycle in icy conditions I wear a helmet. If I’m nipping to the corner shop via a segregated bike path, I reserve the right to leave my helmet at home. People on bikes need to be humanised, not presented with a polystyrene lid as if it is a cure all.

The weakness of Turner’s argument carried through into her supporters’ tweets. Amongst others, we have this gem:

Cycling tweet

As a rhetorical device it is interesting. Take a successful, transport-related safety campaign, in this case seat belts. Seat belts used not to be popular, the government made them compulsory and enforced the law on this point. Now the majority of the population simply belt up and accept that seat belts save lives. Then link this with a much more contentious argument and claim that the two are the same in the hope that anyone arguing against the compulsory wearing of helmets feels like a numpty and suddenly agrees that yes, a helmet is just like a seat belt. Ignore the fact that seat belts are designed to stop you being propelled through a sheet of glass when the metal box you are travelling in is suddenly brought to a complete and sudden stop as it slams into something else, whereas helmets are designed to take a bit of impact as you skid along the ground having come off your bike.

Faced with arguments against the compulsory wearing of helmets, Turner and her allies opted for wilful misunderstanding, lumping their opponents together as ‘anti-helmet’. They didn’t acknowledge that very few people are anti-helmet whereas quite a few are against making it mandatory to wear a helmet whilst cycling. I’m not sure if this was just a lack of ability to grasp the difference between the two positions or a wilful attempt to discredit those who are against compulsion by making it appear as if they are also against helmets.

Turner then made personal comments about those who didn’t agree with her articles:

BevTurner2

The fact that Turner thinks people on bikes are genuinely worried about messing up their hair says rather more about her than about any cyclist. It’s not an argument I’ve ever heard against helmet use. Personally I’ve only ever seen it used as an imaginary argument against helmet use by those in favour of compulsion. The ‘were you bullied’ argument is a little more worrying. It smacks of high school. It’s almost as if Turner is displaying her own credentials thus: “I was popular at school, I believe this, I believe I’m right, and popular. I think you’re wrong, and you were bullied, and I’m going to remind you of this, and play on your insecurities because essentially I’m still at school, and I’m still a bit of a bully.” Turner needs to get her head around the fact that in the adult world, producing evidence counts for rather more than being the popular one.

This comment about having no pictures of loved ones is more of the same:

BevTurner

It’s as if Turner thinks those who are in favour of evidence and who use graphs are unpopular and unloved, in contrast with herself, with her happy family, as evidenced by her photograph with a smiling cherub. Another interpretation is that some people just prefer to keep their loved ones away from Twitter. There are rather unpleasant stalkers around so I’d rather keep personal photos off Twitter and stick to the facts. Play the ball, not the person. Otherwise people will rather assume you can’t play the ball.

Finally, Turner ended her article with a rather telling statement. She imagines what Schumacher’s wife is going through and remarks:

Even if she is angered by the fact that he may have ignored resort warnings to avoid off-piste runs due to obscured rocks, she can, for now, take heart in the fact that he wore a helmet.

Turner is nothing if not heteronormative. She doesn’t question Schumacher’s risky, off-piste skiing but says that instead ‘A good man does that for his family as much as for himself.’ Thus because a former racing car driver decides to go for an off-piste ski, Turner argues that good male cyclists will wear helmets, or they don’t love their families. And if they argue against this, oh look, they have graphs, not babies. Really, even Telegraph readers deserve better.

Power, politeness and the invalidation of anger

Or, is it ever OK to swear at someone?

Last Sunday, Helen Lewis posted a blog laying out her rules for using Twitter. On the face of it, as a series of rules to avoid flame wars, it seemed quite reasonable. However, Jude Elliott-Jones, an editor and human rights campaigner, objected strongly to West’s post arguing that Lewis is ‘actually shameless. Those are basically “how to keep your privilege & be the victim” rules’. I confess I didn’t really understand her point at first. Then Jason Rose, Head of Media for the Scottish Green Party revealed this advert, the latest charm offensive from Niceway Code, and suddenly I realised exactly what Elliot-Jones was getting at.

Niceway Code

You have to hand it to Niceway Code. Although they’ve probably set back cycle campaigning by about ten years, they have a knack for summing up everything that is wrong with British society in easy to understand, rather childish graphics.

I freely confess, I flip the birdie at drivers. I don’t do it because I’m rude. I may well be rude but that’s not the cause of my behaviour. I do it in response to drivers doing something dangerous, generally an overtaking manoeuvre that is some combination of too fast, too close and totally unnecessary. And yet according to this advert, it is my reaction that is wrong, not the behaviour that provoked it.

The Niceway Code is clearly invalidating my angry response by telling me that I should tolerate whatever it is drivers, the dominant group in society, dish out. They can act in ways that endanger my life but being rude back just isn’t nice and I shouldn’t do it. I should be polite. The Niceway Code is attempting to police my conduct, to shut me up, to take away the one defence I do have when drivers threaten me and that’s to be thoroughly impolite back. Frankly I think a one-fingered salute is a pretty minor response to imminent death but according to NWC it is ‘wrong’.

This is about controlling and policing someone’s behaviour. It’s about being dominant and thus being able to state the terms on which you will interact with someone. NWC  is stating that my anger is unjustified and by so doing are stating that the behaviour which provoked me is sanctioned. Careless, risky, dangerous driving, that’s fine. Daring to be rude about it, that isn’t. You know that bewildered/ angry look that drivers give you after you’ve sworn at them? They either genuinely don’t know what they did wrong, or they do know but they really don’t want to back down and admit it. NWC validates both these responses.

Likewise Lewis is saying that her own behaviour was fine and that it is Elliot-Jones, as the angry one, who is in the wrong. As deputy editor of the New Statesman, Lewis is in a privileged position. She is able to be heard, and she’s now dictating the terms of communication for those who do not have her platform. There is some history between the two. As I understand it Lewis offered Elliot-Jones a payment of £50 for an article (I may be wrong and will delete if that is the case). If it is the case, even at rather low blogging rates that pays for 330 words. It is an insulting offer.

Telling somebody to be polite, or nice, invalidates their anger. I don’t condone all angry reactions. Some people, on the internet and in real life, use anger to intimidate people into silence. However, in other cases anger can be a valid reaction. I get tired, as a woman, of being told that my anger is somehow inappropriate and unwomanly. There are insults specifically directed at women (fishwife, shrew) that mock their right to be angry. So when is it appropriate? When is it OK for me to shout, swear and scream blue murder at someone?

If I were screaming at someone who had less power than I do, that would be wrong. It would be bullying and intimidation. If I flip a finger at a car driver, that’s unproblematic. Since I’m on a bike and am a vulnerable road user, if I’m angry at them, locked in their safe metal box, they should consider the possibility that the problem lies with them, not me. If you are in a position of power and someone is angry with you, instead of policing their reaction, insisting on politeness and further trying to bend them to your will, have a think about whether or not you’ve just abused your power.

Dear Niceway Code

I realise that since your official launch on August 5 this year you’ve had a lot to contend with. Come to think of it, the soft launch the previous week couldn’t have been much fun either. I guess you’ve learned the hard way that cycling activists are erudite, informed and happy to express their views. Or you may be thinking that we’re just opinionated gobshites.

I know your campaign’s been dismantled by many bloggers and journalists. The Cycling Embassy nicely (sorry) rounded them all up. The highlight for me was Jake Bate’s systematic dismantling of your efforts in social media. So why then am I adding to your misery? Well to be honest, I don’t want to cause you misery. I appreciate that, whoever was in charge, the person at the sharp end, staffing your Twitter account at 8pm on a Friday night, didn’t ask for this gig. However, I’ve tried pointing out to you the problem with your premiss and you’re not really listening. You have argued in the past that since drivers perceive cyclists’ law breaking to be a problem, the two groups would get along better if cyclists stopped breaking the law. Many people have pointed out to you that you need to challenge drivers’ perceptions, not cyclists’ behaviour. And here is a picture that sums this up for you, and this is why I’m writing to you.

Audi driver

 

As you can see, all the cyclists are waiting at a red light. I can see at least 10 in this picture so if Bradley Wiggins’ former manager is right and 90% of cyclists jump red lights, 90 went through the lights ahead of them, in the red phase. That’s a mother of a long red phase, or a lot of very quick and organised cyclists. So note, these cyclists are just there. They’re not doing anything wrong.

The driver in  contrast is breaking the law but is so unbothered about this that he’s quite happy to post evidence of his behaviour on a public forum, unsurprisingly since 81% of drivers break the law in this way. And he’s whinging. He’s breaking the law and he’s whinging about a law-abiding group of people. Now do you see our problem? Now do you see why it’s taking me so much effort not to call you a bunch of incompetent, ignorant, un-analytical, pissnumpty wombles who are actually doing a lot of damage by simply reinforcing and encouraging negative stereotypes whilst doing sweet fanny adams about actual law-breaking and dangerous behaviour?

Anyway, Niceway Code, there you have it. One picture which shows you everything that is wrong with your campaign. It is the people in charge of the heavy objects who are irresponsible lawbreakers. And somehow they’ve convinced you that the people getting from A to B using an ecologically sound form of transport that reduces congestion are in the wrong. And if you can’t see why that’s wrong, you’re thicker than I thought.