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OFF THE RADAR: Cyclists are not the problem

BikeBiz: OFF THE RADAR: Cyclists are not the problem

John Stevenson

Jan 7

John Stevenson, Future’s editor-in-chief of cycling publications, takes on the cyclist-baiting columnists and points out that safety isn’t just the responsibility of bike riders...

To read some of the newspapers in the last few weeks, you’d think that western civilisation was in danger of collapsing, destroyed by a raging horde of red-light-jumping, unlit, pavement-riding, iPod-wearing, Lycra-clad, brakeless-fixie-riding lawless bike riders.

There’s scant evidence that any of these allegedly dreadful infractions actually has any significant effect on road safety. Riders jumping red lights, for example, are not involved in a large number of crashes. Hardly surprising, as nobody is going to deliberately put themselves under a bus by jumping a red light; they’re going to get well ahead of the stopped traffic and make sure the coast is clear.

Unfortunately, though, we buy into these anti-cyclist stories and turn on ourselves. Take the most egregious recent example, the Sunday Times’ and Daily Mail’s orgy of victim-blaming directed at ‘zombie cyclists’ using MP3 players. A careful reading of that article reveals exactly no proven instances of a cyclist hurting someone or coming to harm because they were wearing headphones. Nevertheless, forum discussions were full of agreement from cyclists that wearing headphones while riding was Bad with a capital B.

Cyclists who join in with the mass media’s attacks on us seem to believe that if we would just obey every last road rule, the rest of society would accept us. Motorists would stop cutting us up and giving us a hard time for not paying the mythical ‘road tax’ if we stopped at every last red light; councils wouldn’t build mixed-use and separated paths if people didn’t ride on the pavement, and so on.

But the iPod zombie story demonstrates quite the opposite. Here’s something entirely made up by journalists who have clearly decided to write a cyclist-bashing story – or recycle the anecdotes in a cyclist-bashing press release, given how similar the Mail’s and the Times’ stories were. Even if we all behaved perfectly, people like this would make up new reasons to hate us. Let’s not help them out. It’s time to stop joining in the anti-bike game.

The number of other road users hurt by cyclists is tiny, compared to the 3,000 road deaths per year and the 600 or so pedestrians killed by motor vehicles. While we’re not killing other road users, we’re also not filling the air with fumes and particulates, not helping to warm up the planet, not damaging road surfaces, not creating congestion, not needing vast swathes of parking space and not dropping dead of heart attacks and other diseases of sloth at anywhere near the general rate.

The problem on the roads remains that far too many people should not be in charge of a motorised steel weapon. When roughly 40 pedestrians a year are killed by motor vehicles on the pavement, it’s hard to understand why pavement cycling and other trivial breaches of the Highway Code attract such vitriol.

Yes, cyclists break the rules. But when we do, in the vast majority of cases, nobody dies. When motorists break the rules, people die, and that’s where our outrage should be directed.