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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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?

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.

It’s only a joke

I get a little confused with my Twitter timeline sometimes. I catch the edge of a debate and someone somewhere is saying ‘I was only joking’ or ‘but it’s my account, I can say what I like’ (although usually at least one word is spelled incorrectly). Given who I follow, this is probably one of two arguments. It’s either an “outspoken” woman who has been threatened with violence, rape or murder, whose respondent has returned the ‘only joking’ defence, or it’s a cyclist pulling someone up on making random threats to cyclists, whose respondent likewise has claimed it was a bit of a joke, honest.

Over the last few days I’ve noticed increasing resemblances between those who want to shut women up by threatening violence and those who think that running cyclists over is funny. Don’t get me wrong. I realise there are substantial differences between what women are threatened with and the treatment meted out to cyclists. I don’t mean to be insensitive here but I do find the similarities instructive. In fact at one point the two arguments collided when one charming individual claimed I would argue about “road tax” less if I had more cock in my life. News flash, dick wad, I could have been engaged in a Viagra-fuelled marathon for the previous 48 hours and I’d still call you out on your idiocy.

The most obvious difference is in the threats being put forward. People who cycle are threatened with being run over, women are threatened with rape and other violent acts when they transgress gender boundaries. If women are strident, outspoken or heaven forfend, feisty, they don’t fit certain norms about female behaviour and so, according to some individuals, sex should be used to control the supposedly errant behaviour (this is by no means a new threat, it was old hat when Shakespeare wrote Taming of the Shrew). And those adjectives are not used to describe men: speaking out is only a transgression and only worth describing as such if it is women doing the talking.

There are other differences in the threats. The ones to cyclists tend to be scattergun, just a broad ‘I hate cyclists there in the way innit’ (grammar and spelling are rarely the anti-cyclist’s strong suit). The ones to women are very specifically targeted and sent directly to a named person.  But what then of the similarities? When pulled up on their behaviour those doing the threatening most frequently resort to saying ‘I was only joking’. This got me thinking. What does it mean to be joking? What are we relying on when we make a joke? What pact is going on that it will be understood as such?

We might start from a baseline that jokes are funny. However, what counts as funny varies from person to person, which is partly what makes the ‘only joking’ defence possible and so insidious. Didn’t get the joke? Well aren’t you the humourless one. I don’t find Miranda remotely funny, others think the series is hilarious. Mrs Brown’s Boys? What? I just don’t see it. There are only 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t. Now that is funny. Or pretentious bellendery. You choose.

Thus it’s not about whether or not the person hearing the joke finds it funny, but more about whether the intention was for it to be funny. And that intention can be light or dark. Humour is rarely purely joyous. Often it is used to survive dark situations and it is this sense of darkness that gives it its power and that makes the ‘only joking’ defence so problematic to combat.

In order to see if something is a joke or not, it helps to look at context. Frankie Boyle, no matter how offensive he might be, can fairly legitimately claim to be joking, since that is what he’s paid to do. Bomb threats at airports are never treated as a joke, so don’t try it. On public forums such as Twitter they may also get you into hot water. And again, the problem is context, and risk. How well do I know this person? Do I know this is a joke, based on how well I know them? If I don’t know them and have only 140 character soundbites in which to judge them, what are the odds it’s a joke? What are the dangers of assuming it’s a joke when it isn’t? (the airport might get blown up). What are the dangers of assuming it’s serious when it isn’t? (I might look stupid).

Now there are times when claiming in retrospect that something was a joke is roughly the equivalent of claiming the dog ate your homework. It lacks imagination and it’s obviously a post hoc excuse for something you’ve just realised is about to get you into trouble. You can see it here with Daisy Abela’s series of tweets:

Abela

She later claimed

DaisyIII

Now, when friends ask me if I’m joking or not, as her friend did, I tend not to respond with ‘I’m deadly serious’ unless, you know, I’m being serious. Plus, some people really need lessons on the public nature of Twitter. It isn’t Facebook.

Having received so many tweets that she locked her account, Ms Abela apparently opened a new one specifically to apologise for her tweets, though not for hitting a cyclist, which she now denies, by and large.

(Read tweets from the bottom up):

DaisyIV

When I asked her she would not explain why she’d seen fit to overtake when her way forward was not clear. (Hint, if the cyclist can easily catch up with you, you didn’t need to overtake though frankly if you need that explained to you, you are an idiot). She’s also not been entirely clear about why her story varied so much, except again to say it was a joke, just one the world in general didn’t get.

DaisyV

So what’s going on here? I mean apart from post hoc justification because the police were involved.

In Ms Abela’s case I think that’s all there is to it. She’s desperately looking for a way out because if what she said was serious, she had just confessed to deliberately driving into someone whilst drunk. However, often there is something else going on. The idea that something is a joke depends on trust and understanding between the joker and the listener. There’s an unwritten compact between the two. Now when this trust is broken, something more sinister is occurring.

There is a form of abuse known as gaslighting in which the abuser feeds someone misinformation so that they will call into doubt their own perception and memory. It is manipulative behaviour and the ‘only joking’ defence seems to me to be related to it. It’s putting the onus on the listener – it’s their behaviour that is called into question. The joker, oh they were only ever joking, don’t you know. Thus the listener, initially convinced that the statements were serious may well start to question their perception of events. Even if they don’t question their own perception, they’re still left on shifting sands because it is difficult to prove that it really was not a joke. The contract over what is or is not a joke has been broken.

In the case of the anti-cycling idiots, the ‘only joking’ defence is plainly daft. In the case of those who have threatened rape it is altogether nastier. First they are trying to control women by threatening sexual violence, then they are trying to undermine women by claiming that they don’t have a grasp on reality, that they cannot tell threat from joke. However, in both cases the abuse and threats come from a similar source. Women are threatened when they acts in ways not perceived as ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’ enough by those doing the threatening. Cyclists are threatened because they too are seen as transgressing boundaries. Cyclists are not buying into a consumerist car culture. They’re not as invested in the materialism of car ownership as many anti-cyclists are. They probably own cars as well, they just choose not to use them the whole time. In both cases, threats are an expression of fear.

Now I’m off for a strident, shrewish, hysterical pedal on my bike, whilst shouting like a fishwife. And no, that isn’t a joke.

A letter to the landlord of the Bathurst Arms

Over the weekend, someone picked up on a Facebook status update by James Walker, landlord of a pub in the Cotswolds. The comments went viral, as cyclists on Twitter were none too happy about his claim that he would hit a bike whilst doing 60 mph. As Mr Walker had emails, tweets and opprobrium piled on him, he apologised. However, his comments show the kind of abuse casually thrown at cyclists, so I felt the need to reply.

BPJlKOECEAATF8V

Dear Mr Walker

I realise that by now you have apologised for your remarks. I realise that they’ve ‘gone viral’ and that you’ve had a hard lesson to learn. I know that many, many people have emailed and tweeted you. Nonetheless, I will have my say because it seems to me that the lesson you most need to learn is that cyclists are people with a voice. We will talk back and speak up. You may have felt that you could threaten us with impunity but you need to realise, fully, that this is not the case.

I find your jealousy quite striking. You have a need to belittle cyclists physically as ‘weak kneed’ and hiding behind hi-tech gear. Oh Mr Walker, do you not see the irony of then threatening to smash them with a 4×4? What is that, if it’s not ‘thousands of pounds of hi tech gear’? How much athletic ability does it take to operate a car, Mr Walker? How much do you reveal your need to feel powerful, your need to override your impotence by overriding their bicycles. There you are sitting behind the wheel of your car, and there are those cyclists, out there, in front, and what can you do other than sit there and fume and fantasise that you are fast and powerful when the sad reality is that you are nothing without your car, and you know that.

And to add to your violent threats we have a nice little line in racism. Good old Brits, they don’t cycle. No, that’s for those pesky Latin types. Oh but Mr Walker, you went viral on the wrong day to make that jibe, very much the wrong day Mr Walker. Your little diatribe about weak kneed cyclists hit the web just as Chris Froome battled with Mont Ventoux. Do you know about Ventoux, Mr Walker? It’s a mountain, nicknamed the Giant or sometimes Beast of Provence.  It has a Storm Pass though I prefer the French “col de tempêtes”. Near the summit of Ventoux is a shrine to a cyclist. Not some weak-kneed individual mown down by an idiot in a 4×4, but a shrine to Tom Simpson who, when climbing the Ventoux in the 1967 Tour, rode beyond the point of exhaustion. Such is the toughness of the Tour de France, Mr Walker (do you live up to your name, I wonder, do you walk anywhere?) such is its toughness that even fit young men such as Simpson felt the need for a cocktail of brandy and amphetamines that in the heat killed him.

Thus just as your mocking, jibing jealousy went viral, Chris Froome, a gallant Brit, showed the Spanish and the French and the Belgians how you tackle a mountain such as Ventoux. The cyclists now are clean, after what happened to Simpson that kind of drugs use was banned. But Froome needed oxygen once he’d finished. Do you know what it’s like to put that much effort into anything, Mr Walker? Well do you? Do you have any idea, a single inkling, a tiny soupcon, a smidgeon of a suspicion about what it feels like to push past a pain barrier and to keep battling, fighting on and up to reach the top? I suspect, Mr Walker, that your pace is more sedentary, that your knowledge of physical effort is a little limited.

And so, well, you know now, don’t you Mr Walker. You’ve been told about car tax. You’ve been told about who pays for the roads. You know that 80% of cyclists also drive. You know that cyclists like pubs and that they are less likely to drink in yours these days (personally, if I owned a pub near North Cerney right now, I’d be offering every cyclist a discounted lunch and a free soft drink, and greeting them with a big sign telling them they can watch the TdF and stuff themselves silly, because cyclists, as you would know if you were any kind of businessman, are basically just big wallets on wheels).

And so you apologised. You say it is unreserved and then go onto explain yourself. You wanted to raise the issue of harmonious road use, when you threatened to plough into vulnerable road users at 60mph (9/10 people hit by a car at 40mph will die. What do you think happens when you’re going 50% faster, Mr Walker?) And you were concerned about safety, whilst you threatened people. Threatening someone whilst purporting to be worried about them is the preserve of the worst kind of manipulative bully, Mr Walker. You felt this group were putting themselves at risk. At risk of what? An act of deliberate, unprovoked violence?

Your apology shows your true colours. One group of cyclists did something you felt was unsafe, or was it really their nonchalance that annoyed you? That seems to bother you, fit young men, able to take risks, is that what really bugged you? Either way, you saw a few cyclists and you then denigrated all of them. You saw fit to lump together millions of individuals as if they were just one, giant irritant that you could knock aside.

And you say you respect athletes. How about you just respect human beings? Those soft, squidgy, easily killed human beings you have suddenly found some regard for, now you know they will answer back.  Because today in London, another cyclist was killed. Another person trying to get from A to B died when a lorry was driven into them. Our roads should be safe and if you really want to debate harmonious road use and you really want to make them safe, start by checking your own attitude, Mr Walker.

Dear Cab Driver

I got left hooked by a taxi driver today. I’ve had closer passes but it was unnecessary so I tried to have a word with him. The conversation was something of an eye opener and made it clearer to me why some people overtake cyclists with so little care. This is a copy of an email I sent to the firm. I will see how they react before I consider naming and shaming.

Dear Sir or Madam

 

Today at a few minutes after 10am I was cycling along a slip road by the side of the Axx just to the south of [redacted]. As I approached the turning to the [redacted] Hotel I was overtaken by a taxi cab which then immediately turned into the Hotel, passing within a few feet of my bike’s front wheel.

 

Rule 167 of the Highway Code states ‘DO NOT overtake where you might come into conflict with other road users’. This includes ‘approaching or at a road junction on either side of the road’. Further this rule explicitly states that you should ‘stay behind if you are following a cyclist approaching a roundabout or junction, and you intend to turn left’.

 

I caught up with the driver at the Hotel and asked him, politely, if he was aware of the Highway Code’s rules concerning overtaking. He said I was being sarcastic. I told him that by overtaking too close to a junction he had carved me up. His response was ‘How can I carve you up, you’re on a bike’. This is the kind of attitude that saw Sir Bradley Wiggins knocked from his bicycle. Given that it is perfectly possible for cyclists to do 40mph+ and that almost any cyclist is capable of doing 20mph it is perfectly possible to carve up a cyclist and it is also highly dangerous. Whatever your driver’s personal feelings towards cyclists he needs to stay within the law and the Highway Code and he needs to respect other road users.

 

I asked the driver for a card or an ID number. He refused and made to drive off. His parting words to me were ‘At least I’m not as ugly as you’. I would suggest to you that an eye test might be of use to him.

 

I spoke to your customer who gave me the firm’s telephone number from a card the driver had given him. The fare had come from Exeter St David’s Station. The plate included the figures ‘BJ10’.  The driver was elderly, white and male. From this information, the time and location you should be able to identify your driver.

 

What action you take is your own business. I have copied in Exeter’s MP, who cycles around Exeter himself. Rest assured I will never give you any custom again nor will I recommend [company name] to anyone. I refuse to give money to a business whose drivers have so little regard for other road users. And I would also feel completely unsafe in a vehicle with a driver who is so blatantly disrespectful towards women.

 

Yours faithfully

Helen Blackman