Nowt so blind

Last night as it was getting dark I went out for a walk. All was fine to start with but on the high street I almost walked straight into someone else. As I said, it was getting dark, and this person was wearing dark clothes. I managed to avoid him but it was close. Unfortunately a few metres further on I walked straight into a small child and sent them flying across the pavement. I really do think that when children are out at this time, and it will happen more now it’s autumn, that they should wear bright clothes, or I just can’t see them.

I have the same problem out cycling. This morning I cycled into the back of a horse. In my opinion riders should take responsibility – be safe, be seen, after all. We should share the roads and to do that horse riders need to make sure their horses are more visible. There is plenty of hi vis gear out there which helps. After all it really isn’t easy to see a horse without the aid of fluorescent material — they are so well camouflaged and not remotely fucking huge.

I would imagine that by now you think I’ve lost the plot somewhat or that I’m sociopathic and that, even if I am visually impaired, there’s no excuse for this behaviour. Either that or you’ve worked out that I’m trying to make a point about our behaviour on the roads. If I walk into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? If I cycle into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? If I drive into a child and hurt them, who will you blame? Why is it only in the last case that you blame the child?

This post from a fire station is doing the rounds again. There are so many similar things that appear at this time of year, and indeed at all times of year. ‘Be safe, be seen’. But how do you make someone see you?

The text reads ‘The same child is in both photos. The only difference is how they’re dressed. As we approach shorter daylight hours, whether you walk, cycle, use public transport or drive, make sure you can be seen.’

Now I have a number of problems with these kind of photos, of which more later. For now, let’s think about what is going on with this text and what the aim of this is. Although the statement says pedestrians, cyclists and drivers should make themselves seen, it’s not clear who is trying to do the seeing. But ask yourself this, if you were walking would you expect to see a child? Or at least, see the child in time to avoid walking into them? I’m going to take a risk and go with ‘yes’ on this one. When we are walking we do generally expect to see other people in time to avoid walking into them. If we do walk into them and as a consequence cause them significant harm, we don’t then blame them for not being visible enough. When you’re walking the onus is generally on you to ‘look where you’re going’ so you, the moving person, avoid other people.

Yet when we drive, we expect people to make themselves seen. What changes? The first, is the speed you move at when you drive. When someone says they can’t see someone, what they mean is that at the speed they were travelling at they didn’t see them in time to take adequate safety measures. At that stage you can either opt for the admission that you’re driving too fast, or you can blame the person on the road. Since going faster (however illusory that is) is one of our prime reasons for driving, we tend to opt for the latter.

Connected with the speed of travel is the amount we have to process whilst driving. Not just the child who might run out, but the other vehicles around us, the cyclist in front of us, whether we have enough room to manoeuvre our huge metal box around, where we are going next, what the road signs say, what lane we need to select. So in our hurry to process this, rather than admit that driving might be problematic, we’d rather that other road users flag themselves up.

There are various ways to fix the problem of not being able to see a child in time. You can light the child up. But will this always work? The answer is broadly, no. Read this report on a man hit and killed whilst cycling. Both the driver who knocked him from his bike and the driver behind who killed him say they could not see him because of the glare of the sun. Paul James was wearing a hi vis jacket but according to the driver of the first car to hit him ‘The lighting coming through the trees and foliage on the side had created a flickering effect and I believe the high visibility jacket blended in with that.’ And this is the issue both with ‘hi vis’ clothing and with the expectation that you will make yourself seen. Bright yellow is only highly visible in certain light conditions, not all of them. Unless you expect humans to evolve into a form of reverse-chameleon, and to keep up an ever-changing coat colour that contrasts with its background, at some point they might blend in with their background, if you don’t look hard enough.

Which brings me back to those photos. Look again. There are a myriad of problems with comparing a few pixels on a screen (are you looking at this on a mobile phone? How does that compare with the big wide world?) with what you actually see when driving. The images are a very carefully chosen moment in time. The campaigners have made use of the fact that the small screen narrows what you can see. It doesn’t compare with the real world, but they claim it does to make a point. Out in the real world, everything is bigger. It’s also continually moving and changing. Shift the child from the dark of the tree to the glare of the road and what happens?

So the next way to fix this is for drivers to slow down. I can see rabbits running across a road when I’m driving so I’m sure the average driver should be able to see a person, even a small one. If you cannot, then I would seriously consider how good your eyesight is. The other thing that would actually make a difference is to design streets so that we reduce risk to vulnerable road users and ensure that mistakes made by drivers do not impact on those outside of vehicles.

Consider again that slogan ‘be safe, be seen’. The sentence ‘I saw the child’, makes ‘I’ the subject of the verb and the child the object. ‘I’ am doing the seeing. But the sentence ‘the child was seen’ is in the passive voice. Passive voice is often used as a sneaky way to avoid responsibility for what is happening. Don’t want to admit to who did something? Use passive voice. But when we are driving, we do need to step up and take responsibility. As drivers, we should be the subject of the verb. We are in the driving seat, literally.

These pictures are a rhetorical device, a way of evading responsibility. They encourage a lack of vision. They put responsibility on people to be seen – but you cannot make someone see you. And if you expect people to burn themselves onto your retina in the latest high visibility gear, you’ll stop looking in all situations, including the ones in which it obviously doesn’t help anyway. If you are blinded by sunlight, you need to stop or slow down. If you are travelling around a steep bend (it isn’t blind if you slow down enough) then you will not see someone in whatever they are wearing, until you are very close to them. It really is very simple, make sure you can stop in the distance you can see. No-one can make you see – you must observe.

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.

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.

Twitter, tax and the right to use the road: A parable for our times

I’ve had an uneasy couple of days cycling but perhaps not for any obvious reasons. Last Sunday a cyclist from the Iceni Velo Club in Norwich was knocked off his bike. I live in Devon, I don’t know him and there’s no particular reason this should unsettle me beyond basic human empathy. The cyclist is relatively OK and although cyclists are sometimes injured and worse, cycling is a relatively safe form of transport. However, now when I ride I have an uneasy sense of driver hatred.

Toby Hockley  was on a sportive. He was pedalling along minding his own business when, according to him, a car travelling in the opposite direction took a bend too fast and came over to his side of the road. It knocked him and his bike into the hedge. By the time he was on his feet again, car and driver had disappeared. This is his account of a hit and run. However, he did not report this to the police. Instead, they went looking for him and for the oddest of reasons.

Shortly after Hockley was hit, someone who I will refer to as Jane Doe posted the following on Twitter, a micro-blogging site: Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier – I have right of way he doesn’t even pay road tax! #bloodycyclists

Yes, that really is what she said. With no knowledge of what had happened to Hockley, the Twitter cycling community took screenshots of the tweet and various others on Doe’s account. They questioned her and also alerted the police. Norfolk police then tweeted her regarding this apparent road traffic collision. First the cycling blogs got hold of the story, then the national press. Of course it could have been an idle boast (!). At this stage no-one knew if she had actually hit anybody. Then twyclists from the Iceni Club said no, one of their members had been hit.

So this is a young woman who thinks it is OK to hit a vulnerable road user, OK to drive off without stopping and so OK to do all of this that she can announce it in public. To be clear # are intended to make it easier for Twitter users to search on various terms. But Jane Doe was not internet savvy. She had mentioned her employers on her Twitter account and she had a Facebook page which was accessible to anybody. It was astonishing in its ordinariness. Flick through Facebook and there are a million Jane Doe’s. This was not some extraordinarily callous young woman with a history of violence but someone who, outwardly at least, seemed pretty innocuous.  And yet this ordinary young woman was expecting no redress when she boasted about hitting someone with a tonne of metal moving at speed. Possibly she expected people to agree with her. And in fact BBC Norfolk had the gall to ask if she had a point, should cyclists pay road tax.

At this point, all the polite words fail me and all I really want to do is swear. A lot. Moving on. Whether or not anyone pays any tax anywhere NO-ONE not even Jane Doe, the hare-brained selfish little nonentity that she is, deserves to get hit by a tonne of metal. Road tax does not actually exist although even the DfT for reasons I cannot fathom still uses the term as a colloquialism for VED. VED is an emissions tax. It gives no right to use the road, it is a tax on harmful emissions. If we subjected bicycles to VED they would fall into Band A, low emissions and so would not incur a charge at all. Thus we would spend millions if we were to bring bikes into the VED system. Anybody not knowing this is pig ignorant.

The thing is, for all Doe’s vitriolic idiocy, she is a very long way from being alone in her contempt and hatred for a group of vulnerable road users. Search on #cyclists on Twitter and threats to harm them are legion. One such came from a woman who threatened to ‘bonnet’ cyclists not on a cycle path. When questioned on this she frantically back pedalled (no pun intended) saying that she only disliked three cyclists in particular, the ones who had held her up when she needed to see her sick niece, and that she had only been concerned for their safety. Threatening someone and then saying you are worried about their safety is what the sickest of bullies do. It’s like waving a loaded gun and saying people ought to wear a bullet-proof vest. If you need to be somewhere in a hurry, leave earlier, don’t threaten to mow people down just because you are having a bad day.

Of course one could say that cyclists bring this on themselves by breaking the law. By cycling on the pavement, jumping red lights and cycling without lights on, cyclists, the reasoning goes, bring this on themselves. This is in fact putting the cart before the horse. Some drivers, frustrated at the difference between what driving promises and what it delivers, hate cyclists because cyclists achieve what drivers cannot – a pleasant commute relatively unhindered by traffic jams. So they look for a cause for their hatred and claim it is cyclists law-breaking behaviour rather than admit it is due to their own peevishness.

The reality is that both cyclists and drivers often break traffic regulations and they shouldn’t. When drivers do this it is routinely accepted. No-one starts hating all drivers because some of them talk on their mobile phones whilst driving. Yet cyclists are hated and not because they break the law. If that were the case we’d hate drivers too. If you look at Doe’s reasoning it is entirely false. Road tax is a non-argument. Likewise the woman who threatened to drive into cyclists who weren’t on a cycle path was told in no uncertain terms that cyclists are not legally obliged to use cycle paths, that those paths are often inadequate and that faster cyclists are advised to stay on the road.

Drivers don’t hate cyclists because cyclists break the law. Those drivers who hate cyclists barely even know the law. But what these drivers need to realise is that we are all connected. A cyclist gets hit in Norwich and cyclists everywhere know about it. For all that the internet may have had negative effects on the way that we communicate it also has positives. Like it or not, we are part of a community both on the roads and on the net. The way we behave on the roads affects all of us. All that #bloodycyclists are trying to do is to get from A to B without harm and injury. And whilst they are doing so, whether within the bounds of the law or not, you should not wish harm on another human being.

And if and when you choose to tweet about #bloodycyclists try the following. Take out the word ‘cyclist’ and replace it with ‘human’. Take out the word ‘car’ or ‘bonnet’ and replace it with the name of any weapon. Read it again,  and ask yourself, is it acceptable to threaten another human with a lethal weapon, just because you think you can get away with it?

Cycling, sex difference and the problems with victim blaming

As British women cyclists bring home more gold from the Track Cycling World Championships, we are reminded that in London, female cyclists are more likely to be killed or seriously injured than are their male counterparts. One blogger recently worked out that in one area, it is only women who are killed . Now I think his map drawing is a little selective, but one thing is true. As the BBC reported back in 2009, in collisions between cyclists and lorries, the victim is far more likely to be female than male, even though fewer women cycle.

From this there follows speculation. What were the women doing? Is it because they wait at red lights and so lorries turn over the top of them? Are they more hesitant and less assertive than their male counterparts? Is their road positioning less good? All of which strikes me as just so much victim blaming. The question should not be ‘why are female cyclists more likely to be hit?’ rather it should be ‘why are lorry drivers more likely to hit female cyclists?’ The emphasis in the latter is altogether different. Why is it that lorry drivers quite frequently turn over the top of female cyclists? Do they not see them? Do they see them and just not care? What is it about driver perception that makes drivers more likely to register the presence of male cyclists than female cyclists?

My own observation with drivers overtaking is that their ‘thought process’, if I can dignify it with that name, goes approximately like this: Cyclist in front, cyclist slow, must overtake cyclist. They will then overtake, oblivious of the traffic conditions ahead, thereby risking shaving off someone’s right knee simply to get to the back of a queue of traffic clearly visible 20 metres in front of them. But with female cyclists the problem seems to be worse and the thought process deteriorates into: Woman on bike in front, women really, really slow, must overtake slow cyclist.

Most of the time when I’m overtaken, the driver severely underestimates my speed, cutting back in too tightly so that I have to slam on the brakes to avoid being clipped by their inside rear wheel. They simply don’t realise how fast a woman on a bike can go. My evidence is anecdotal, based on my experience and observation but not currently backed up by stats. Nonetheless, my experience is that women get pushed around on the road, just as they often get pushed around in life.

To be clear this is not straightforwardly about sexism. I’m not saying that male drivers are such sexist idiots that they think it’s OK to mow down women. I think there’s something rather different and more subtle going on. Drivers in general, male and female, often fail to see cyclists, both male and female. However, I do think that women are generally less respected, actually by both sexes. There is an assumption that women should be more passive and that they should give way. On the roads this means an assumption that female cyclists should move over, should not be ‘in the way’, should be compliant and should move, or brake, or whatever it takes so that motor vehicles can continue unimpeded.

We can see something similar in the rows over ‘yummy mummies’ and their prams. Yummy mummies, those posh, upper-middle class women with buggies the size of a small family car, have the audacity to take up too much room. That, in these rows, seems to be their principle sin. They occupy space. And here we have an interesting example of the intersection between class and gender. The middle classes take up room. Sit in a quiet pub when someone from a public school walks in and you’ll know them immediately. Their presence and their voice will fill the room as they enter. And yummy mummies act like this because their class allows them to. But in having this confidence, this ability to let their presence intrude on the notice of others, they cease to adhere to the conventions of their gender that they be quiet and unobtrusive. Much of modern western society prefers its women to be a size zero and little more than a coat hanger. Yummy mummies break the gender rules by occupying space.

I break the rules myself but in a rather different way. My old Dawes bike is a man’s bike with a large, diamond frame. I ride fast and I ride confidently. When I’m on the road my space is mine. Oh I respect other people, but I demand that they respect me. So when I’m on a cycle path about to overtake someone, out of the corner of their eye they see someone moving quickly, confidently and assertively. And on numerous occasions I’ve heard a mother turn to her child and say ‘move over so the man can come past, oh…’ The ‘oh’ and the rather puzzled look is what happens when gender expectations conflict. They’ve seen someone moving assertively so they assume I’m male. Then they look properly, see a small-featured face, long curly hair and a very slight and very definitely female body and realise that actually, a rather petite woman is acting in a way more often associated with men.

Of the various complaints that I hear about cyclists, some of the most common are that they are ‘in the way’, that they are a problem to pass or that they slow the traffic down. They are occupying space that drivers want. And since women are supposed to occupy less space, their sin is worse. To those drivers who are anti-cycling, cyclists are other. They are lower, lesser, further down the pecking order and if there’s one thing lower than a cyclist, it’s a female cyclist. Cyclists on the whole are expected to get out of the way, female cyclists even more so. We do not expect women to intrude.

To return to the question, why are lorry drivers less likely to see women, it’s because they care less. Women are less visible to them. Drivers look but don’t see. They don’t often care to register the presence of a cyclist and they care even less to register the presence of a woman on a bike. But this lack of ability to see female cyclists tells us about the way all cyclists are viewed. Ultimately, there are drivers out there who really do think it’s OK to go straight over the top of you. In the case of Mary Bowers, for ten seconds she was in front of the driver who later ran her over, whilst they both waited at traffic lights. But he was having a phone conversation and he just didn’t see her. This is not about her behaviour as a cyclist – it’s about his perception as a driver. When we look, we see what is important to us. Cyclists are often not viewed as important enough, and women even less so.