Safety Catch

Words: Guy Andrews

In 1992 when Chris Boardman won gold in Barcelona very few people in the world outside of cycling had heard of him. In the UK he was only really familiar to those of us who read the cycling press or rode the occasional time trial in the North West.

Cycling was small news in 1992. Those of us involved in the cycling press watched as the newspapers went gold medal crazy for a day or two. Then Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie took over, and the press moved on. Chris Boardman’s follow up in the mainstream media was all about the Lotus superbike and his ‘silly helmet’ and that was the end of that.

At that time I rode a bike to work in London. That evening, when Boardman won the Olympic pursuit, I was riding out to a race and as I weaved through the stationary traffic, a motorist leant out of his window and told me Boardman had won. I was delighted and so was he. This was the first time somebody acknowledged that I, as a cyclist, existed, and an exchange with a car driver took place that did not question my parentage. For once I felt included, identified and proud.

Riding in London has been an extraordinary experience, mainly in how humans behave towards one another. I have been punched (twice), kicked, spat on, been ‘egged’ and called all sorts of colourful names. And I’ve been knocked off too (who hasn’t?) car-doored (twice), run into the kerb (a particular favourite of cabbies it seems…).

When I first moved to London it was buses, skip lorries and cabs we all knew to avoid. Nowadays every moving vehicle is a potential hazard. I’m not sure there was a tipping point as such, it’s just gotten worse. Four-by-fours and the attitude that goes with them have been a notable shift and the school run is a particular problem area in London – put the two together and it’s a disaster. Cyclists long for half term and the back end of August when the roads are empty and the 4 x 4s have decamped to Tuscany, although the problem is only amplified when they return: too many journeys and too much traffic.

People take the most ludicrous risks to get their kids to school: drive too fast, don’t pay attention and then… But you know all this, you don’t need me to tell you. Cycling in London during the last summer, for a couple of weeks at any rate, was a joy though. The Wiggo effect and the all-round good feeling spread through the public and the traffic was courteous for a while. A cab even stopped to let me out in some traffic (the shock nearly brought me off) and it reminded me of that summer evening in 1992.

The statistics are still pretty frightening though. The fact that the majority of road deaths in London this year involve ‘professional’ drivers makes me wonder why we let people with no concern for others drive at all. Scaffolding lorries are particularly troublesome. It makes you wonder why we don’t have a personality test rather than a driving test. If they’d happily beat the shit out of you in a pub for not supporting the right football team, they’re hardly going to pass you with due consideration on a country lane, are they?

Cycling in fast traffic is like a race, although don’t expect anyone to be looking out for you, like pointing out potholes or warning you of parked cars. Consideration for others is something that even fellow ‘cyclists’ now ignore. I am not a particularly anarchic rider, nor am I dangerous, risky or aggressive. I know a lot of riders who can be and I see some shocking riding these days – not just jumping red lights and coasting through pedestrian crossings, but idiots doing really stupid, dangerous stuff. To the bystander, this is seen as cyclists being cyclists and we all get blamed.

We need to pull together, abide by the rules and stop shouting at one another. As Alexi Sayle once said in an interview: “When we start behaving badly, we’re just the same as them.” He’s right. It’s all about everybody having courtesy. That and slowing down a bit.

But the needs of the few far outweigh the needs of the many when it comes to sharing the roads. I’ve long thought that maybe we should pay to ride on the road, take a riding test, wear a helmet even… if I thought it would make a difference, which it won’t. In the UK the car is king, over all of us. It’s a cultural thing and deeply rooted in the psyche of the British. Statistically we’re as much at risk walking down the pavement as we are on a bike – I guarantee one driver will ride head-long at the pedestrians at Highbury Corner every night I pass through on my bike. I regularly see it; twenty or thirty unprotected pedestrians forced to scatter by one simpleton who’s late for his tea.

You see, when you get behind the wheel of a car in Britain, you are immediately in the right; you’re the boss. And that’s the bit that needs to change. An insurance assessor once said to me: “If you want to kill someone and get away with it, buy them a bike and run them over.”

Until the police, government and public realise that there is a huge disconnect here, nothing will change. If British Cycling are reading, I ask them to encourage our latest group of winners to do something for all cyclists in Britain. We need to change attitudes rather than get distracted with road ‘safety’ issues that aren’t really that important – the time is now.


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8 Responses to “Safety Catch”

  1. Says:

    I’m not a ‘cyclist’ I’m a brother, father of two young boys, husband, son, uncle, ex-soildier who stood on guard for his country, friend to many, enemy to none I’m aware of. Think less of the label think more of the person!

  2. ian Says:

    Hopefully Brad being knocked, although terrible, could be the impetutus for change for the greater good?

  3. meadowend Says:

    How right you are. I have been commuting by bike through London for three years – but I’ve now stopped. I no longer have the energy or motivation after a long day at work to do battle with the buses, white van men, other cyclists or pedestrians who seem either out to kill me or leap infront of me, even after looking.

    It’s just too exhausting, and I’m concerned that each day I manage it unscathed the odds of my making it the next day are smaller (I know they’re not, but it’s hard to believe when your own wellbeing is at stake).

  4. Phausto Says:

    Well said & switch a few terms and locations, and you’ve got my home town of Seattle. (And please use LeMond in place of Wiggo.)

  5. regsf (@regsf) Says:

    Cycled in London during a six month stay a year ago. I’m from San Francisco, so the combo of “other” side of the road and the intensity of the traffic was fearsome.

  6. Alastair Sexton-Jones Says:

    This is a good read and much more measured than my Tweets today. I am a keen cyclist and, yet an unashamed Petrol Head (I am on my 7th Alfa Romeo and watch Top Gear) but I find the gulf between motorists and cyclists in Britain equally depressing and infuriating. I have cycled in many European countries and while lots of their towns have fallen into the same trap as Britain in allowing town and street planning to be dominated by the car it matters so much less in France or Belgium or Holland because of the attitude of all other road users. In the UK, however, car drivers (well, those who don’t also cycle) perceive roads as for their sole use and anyone else is in the way. The difference is, there isn’t much you can do when a 38 tonne truck is impeding your progress but a cyclist? Easy prey.

    There is a theory that travelling Scottish football supporters started behaving so they could show up the English. It worked. Maybe we need to do something similar. I will wear my hi-viz vest, keep my lights flashing and keep the volume low on my MP3. I will keep stopping at red lights even when I need momentum to get up the next hill. I will stop at pedestrian crossings even for those who just step out while still texting. And I will still hold my place in the road where I need to be for safety rather than in the cycle lane/gutter “where I belong”.

    In return, I want the next driver doing 38 in a 30 zone, using their mobile phone who kills a cyclist they “just didn’t see” to be prosecuted for manslaughter.

  7. Howard Porter Says:

    Motorist who cause cycling accidents should have to cycle 500 miles before getting their licence back! Of course this would be on top of any law court rulings.

  8. Squidward Tenticles Says:

    I feel that it is very naïve to think that the crashes involving Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton might lead to any change in attitudes towards cyclists in Britain. Firstly, the attitude that ‘the motorist is the Lord of the highway’ has dominated the transport debate in Britain for over a century. Current attitudes to car use and ‘road safety’ have hardly changed since the social elite first appropriated the public road for their personal use and promoted the idea that it was the duty of ‘the lower orders’ to ‘keep out of the way’ or suffer the consequences.

    There is also the problem that, in the existing hierarchy of the roads, it is the cyclist who occupies the lowest level, being treated as being a member of an ‘out-group’ who poses a potential threat to the car-driving social norm, and as such subject to all the irrational hatred and discrimination that members of out-groups tend to suffer at the hands of more dominant and powerful social groups. This central problem is well documented by academic research, as with the Transport Research Laboratory’s report ‘Drivers’ perceptions of cyclists’ which notes that cyclists are ‘not perceived to be high on most drivers’ road user status hierarchy’ and that ‘road users who are deemed to be of a low status are treated with less care and consideration’. Jon Sutton’s recent article in The Psychologist ‘Vulnerable road users’ reaches much the same conclusions.

    That cyclists in Britain are treated as being members of an out-group is also a reflection of Britain’s right wing, hierarchical, authoritarian and status-obsessed ‘society’. In such a ‘society’ (some politicians have even argued that ‘there is no such thing as society’ at all) doing anything that favours the interests of less powerful minority groups, such as cyclists, at the expense of higher status, more dominant groups, such as motorists, very much ‘goes against the grain’. This is especially the case when the car is one of societies’ most powerful symbols of personal status and power. Also, responsible road use is all about recognising that one has a responsibility towards others, especially when in charge of something as potentially lethal as a motor vehicle. However, this is something that is hardly in tune with the dominant social ethos which holds no one has any responsibility for anyone other then one’s self and one’s immediate family.

    There is also the problem that people like Bradley Wiggins are themselves spectacularly uninformed when it comes to road safety issues, as shown by Wiggin’s idiotic suggestions that cycle helmets, designed only to reduce the impact in a simple sub 12 Mph fall involving no more than 90 Joules of energy, can somehow ‘save lives’ in a high impact crash involving a motor vehicle. Even worse Wiggins has argued that a cyclist who does not wear a helmet is in no position to argue about bad driving if they are knocked off! Talk about ‘With friends like these!’

    The response to Wiggin’s crash might even be seen as being part of something of a backlash against the rise in the profile of cycling and cyclists that came in the wake of the Olympics and Wiggin’s Tour win, something that must have really worried many in car-centric in Britain. This is most in evidence in the comments pages of publications such as The Daily Mail, as might be expected, but I also wonder what underlying psychology led to Wiggins’ effigy being one of those chosen for burning at the recent Lewes bonfire?

    I doubt that even the circumstances surrounding Wiggins’ crash will be the subject of any real considered analysis. It needs to be acknowledged that a claim of ‘I didn’t see you’ should not be treated as a ‘Get out of jail free card’, but rather taken as proof that the driver failed to take a proper observation. Even more so it needs to be recognised that in many, perhaps even most cases, the driver did actually see the cyclist perfectly well, but then thought: ‘It’s only a bloody cyclist, I am pulling out and they can just put their brakes on if they don’t like it’, perhaps compounded by a mistaken view that all cyclists travel at no more than 8 Mph. More likely it will be ‘business as usual’, with the debate perhaps being diverted into an argument that all cyclists should be forced to wear a polystyrene hat before been allowed to venture onto ‘the motorists’ roads.

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