Cycle safety – more than just red lights and helmets

Strangely, Boris has so far been silent on the issue of using mobile phones while cycling

Strangely, Boris has so far been silent on the issue of mobile phones and cycling

Oh dear, oh dear. First there was Boris and his comments about cyclists running red lights and wearing headphones. Then there was Operation Safeway, with 2,500 police offices deployed at major junctions across London to hand out safety advice to cyclists. And now traffic police in London have reportedly been given targets for the number of cyclists they have to ticket each month.

All this in response to the recent spate of people being killed or seriously injured while cycling in London. Anyone would think it was their fault they got knocked off their bikes.

Actually, anyone would – and they do. That’s the problem.

In a recent YouGov poll, almost 70 per cent of people surveyed believed cyclists were either jointly or wholly responsible for accidents.

Read any online discussion about cycle safety and you’ll quickly learn what many people think we’re doing wrong. We run red lights. We don’t wear helmets or hi-viz, or use lights at night. We weave in and out of traffic. We sneak up on the inside of drivers. In short, we have such a flagrant disregard for both the rules of the road and our own safety that it’s a wonder more of us don’t get killed.

Except that’s not really true. If you look at the statistics, this so-called risky behaviour – the kind that Boris was banging on about just recently – is only responsible for a mere four per cent of collisions involving cyclists and motorists. The overwhelming majority – around two thirds – are solely the fault of the driver.

For anyone who cycles regularly, particularly in London, this probably comes as no great surprise. I’m fortunate enough to have never had any serious collisions on my bike – but near misses are an almost daily occurrence.

Like the driver who decided to turn left from the right hand lane as I was heading home the other evening. Or like the driver who overtook me on my way into work the other day, only to then immediately turn left.

In both cases I stopped in time. The drivers probably had no idea they’d nearly hit me, and I doubt anyone else noticed what had happened.

After all, a non-accident isn’t as conspicuous as, say, a cyclist running a red light, is it?

This obsession with cyclists and red lights would be understandable if we were the only ones breaking the law. But we’re not. I regularly see motorists speeding, running red lights and talking on mobile phones while driving. One driver was even spotted eating breakfast sitting behind the wheel of his car.

Yet somehow no-one seems to notice this (well, apart from the cyclist who filmed the driver with his bowl of cereal).

It’s precisely because this kind of behaviour is so common that it’s barely remarked upon. It’s normal. Speeding up when the lights have turned amber, stopping in the advance stop box at the lights, turning without indicating, going a mile or two over the speed limit, blocking a cycle lane…these are all things many drivers have done. And for some reason – presumably because no one got hurt in the process – this seems to make it OK. A forgivable lapse.

But when it comes to cyclists and red lights, this familiarity doesn’t apply. It seems like drivers just see a cyclist ignoring the rules of the road – the same rules that they, as drivers, are expected to follow – and they don’t like it. And that’s where the discussion ends.

Your average driver probably isn’t a cyclist, and probably has no idea what it’s like to ride a bike in heavy traffic. They almost certainly wouldn’t understand that, in certain situations, going through a red light might just be the safest thing a cyclist could do.

I’m not suggesting we should be allowed to run red lights, or that all drivers are the same. I know they’re not. I know there are some very good drivers out there.

But what I am saying is that we need the debate about cycle safety to move away from just focusing on cyclists’ behaviour. We need non-cyclists to understand that cycle safety is a lot more complex than just red lights and helmets – and that their behaviour has a lot to do with it.

After all, as the statistics show, there’s only so much we can do to protect ourselves – the rest is up to other road users.

4 thoughts on “Cycle safety – more than just red lights and helmets

  1. there aren’t many permanent traffic lights on my regular routes but one local road has two sets of ‘temporary’ lights (in place for a year now) due to subsidence and I think cyclists are sometimes the only ones who stop at them on red now as drivers are so used to them they are ignored. It’s alarming for me when I’m jumped from behind when I’m stopped at a red by a car running the light or I see a car at the far end when I’m riding through the works and have to be ready for them to run the light and meet me head on. Like you say, drivers should spend a week in a cyclist’s shoes and get a view of how the motor traffic behaves around them and that might give them little perspective, and this should apply to politicians in particular

  2. Excellent article. I’ve stopped cycling to work recently because of all the near misses I used to have, combined with the recent deaths. Not all drivers are bad (in a driver) but the ones that over take me as I’m actually turning right (yes) and pull out of a junction in front of me while I’m speeding down the bus lane are the ones that scare me.

    I saw a recent study that tested whether hi-vis clothing and helmets meant drivers were more likely to give cyclists more room – they weren’t. The only thing that did was the word “police” on their back. Maybe we all need to start impersonating police officers.

  3. Great post – and very true – level of ignorance is ridiculous and drivers rarely realise that little impatient moments, such as overtaking before immediately turning left cause so much grievance.

  4. Well said! In my neck of the woods, there aren’t many bike sensors at lights. If I don’t run them, I don’t go. They would find my withered bones waiting for a green light.

    I agree, there are terrible cyclists and drivers. its just more chic to complain about those of us on 2 wheels!

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