The recent cluster of cycling deaths on London’s streets has brought road cycling back into the spotlight. It is unfortunate, of course, that it has taken 6 deaths in the space of a fortnight for people to sit up and pay attention. Now it’s all fine for motorists to complain that cyclists are self-righteous wankers (and there are no drivers who are self-righteous wankers? Come off it.) who dress in Lycra and take serious, often foolhardy, risks with their lives, but drivers have no room to talk given the numbers of undetected motoring offences I see every day in London.
With any debate of this nature, cycling is always likely to excite some passionate, if not excitable, views. I have spent some time in the last week or so scanning the comments threads on the recent spate of blogs that highlight the problems cyclists face when riding on urban streets. The comments, particularly those from motorists, are some of the most ill-informed and point to a basic and often wilful ignorance of the Highway Code.
Here are some of the more enduring myths that motorists have when they engage in a ‘debate’ over the rights and wrongs of cycling.
1. “I pay road tax”
This is the myth that’s heard the most. It’s also been debunked endlessly. There is no such thing as “road tax” and there hasn’t been since the 1920s. There is Vehicle Excise Duty and it is, as its name suggests, an excise duty – payable to HM Customs – that all motorists have to pay. It’s essentially a tax on pollution . If you don’t want to pay it, you can always cycle (cheaper) or take public transport (expensive). The choice is yours.
I had an encounter on a comments thread during which the other person claimed that he/she “believed Vehicle Excise Duty was the same as road tax”, which somehow made it true. I told him/her that just because “people believe in fairies and unicorns it doesn’t make them any more real”. There was no reply.
2. Cycling is dangerous
This is based on the notion that driving a car is inherently safer than riding a bike, because the driver feels that he/she is safer inside a two ton metal, glass and plastic box. It sort of makes sense… being surrounded by all that stuff. It’s like the cyclists who think that helmets have magical powers that render the wearer safe. They don’t. Thing is, most car bodies are not armoured; they’re made out of lightweight metal. Have you ever seen a car that’s been side-impacted by a lorry? It’s a mess. Even the numbers of motoring fatalities aren’t on the motorist’s side. According to this Guardian article from 2012, the numbers of road fatalities are on the rise.
1,901 people died in road accidents in Great Britain last year – a rise of 51 since 2010, but still one third lower than the average number of fatalities between 2005 and 2009.
The figures, released by the Department for Transport, also show that the number of deaths to pedestrians and car occupants rose by 12% and 6% respectively, while there were drops in the numbers of bus and coach occupants (-22%), motorcyclists and (-10%) pedal cyclists (-4%) killed.
Over a thousand road deaths caused by a combination of factors: drink-driving, being in a hurry (speeding), reckless driving and not paying attention (put your goddam phone away!). It’s not as bad as Ireland, but still isn’t good. According to ROSPA, there were 118 cyclist deaths last year. Again, it’s nothing to brag about but anyone can see that 118 is less than 1,901. But that’s one in five cyclists dying on the roads, often for a range of factors, some of which I’ve talked about on this blog. A UCL study from last year notes that cycling is still safer than driving. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, many motorists are lulled into a false sense of security while they’re driving and it is because of this that some feel that they can take greater risks. Cyclists and motorcyclists feel everything because they’re exposed to the elements. The experience is much more immediate and real. For the cyclist perhaps more so, because of the amount of physical effort need to pedal at a decent cadence.
3. Cyclists jump red lights
What? And motorists never jump red lights? This myth really needs to be put to bed. In the last three days I have seen no less than 5 motorists jump red lights, some of them at pelican crossings. I sat on a bus last year and the driver jumped seven red lights in a row. Let’s get something straight: some road-users jump red lights. To say that all cyclists jump reds is a sweeping generalization. It’s like saying that – as an urban cyclist – I believe that all Mercedes drivers are selfish dickheads. They clearly aren’t but most of the ones that I’ve met are selfish dickheads.
4. If you ride on the road, you should be insured and that includes cyclists
This is another ‘belief’. Many cyclists are motorists and are already insured and all cycling instructors are insured – often through their employer – because of the nature of their work. Insisting that cyclists be insured to ride on the road is like saying users of mobility scooters and pedestrians should be insured. Where does it end?
Then there are the numbers of uninsured drivers on Britain’s roads. It’s estimated that there are over a million of them. Yes, motorists whose insurance payments are up to date have a right to be angry about uninsured drivers. Their premiums increase because of them. According to The Guardian, Britain has the highest number of uninsured drivers in Europe. Many of the accidents on Britain’s roads are caused by uninsured drivers.
5. Cyclists don’t know the rules of the road.
Yes, there are a lot of bad cyclists out there. I almost got hit by one as I was going through a green light in Ealing as he was jumping a red light. I had another one pull out of minor road while I was travelling along the major road. When I remonstrated with him I got a ‘V’ sign for my trouble. Then there are the motorists who pull out from a minor road without bothering to look for cyclists and motorcyclists. An experienced cyclist could be travelling at 20mph, perhaps faster and there are some motorists who lull themselves into thinking that anything on two wheels is slower.
Then there was an occasion when I was behind someone in a four-wheel drive who didn’t indicate once in the half a mile or so that I’d followed them. Use your indicators! Or how about the driver who’s in the wrong lane on the Hammersmith gyratory and fails to indicate while changing lanes? It isn’t just cyclists who do this kind of thing. Drivers do it too – all the time. Pick your lane early and if you find you’re in the wrong lane, look behind and signal your intention to change lanes to other road users.
There are some motorists who think it’s fine to park on double yellow or zig-zag lines. I often see drivers parking on the double yellow line on Bridge Avenue in Hammersmith. One woman told me that it was okay to park on double yellow lines (on a bend) because “it was Saturday”. Double yellow lines are there for a reason and are enforceable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Then there are the numbers of drivers who are driving without a license or operating a vehicle that’s ringed or displaying a false number plate. Some people don’t care for the rules of the road. They think they’re above them.
6. Cyclists weave in and out of traffic
This is called “filtering” and it’s a perfectly reasonable and legitimate thing to do when you’re faced with a long queue of traffic. Motorcyclists and moped riders also filter. The motorist’s objection appears to be based on two things: 1) Why should I have to sit here in a long queue of traffic, while they get to ride to the front on the queue? 2. The bicycle has no engine, therefore it’s dangerous to filter. My reply to the first is, “start cycling or get a moped, then you won’t have to sit in traffic” and second, get used to cyclists filtering (and read the Highway Code). Having an engine is completely irrelevant.
Of course, cyclists also need to avoid potholes and this means swerving to avoid them. Riding into a pothole can be dangerous. It could also damage your bike and you could injure your spine. The motorists is protected by shock absorbers and the most that could happen is that they damage their suspension. Their spines will not suffer as a consequence.
7. Cyclists should wear helmets
Since when did cycling helmets come with magical powers? Never and the things that are going to keep you safe are your eyes and your road position. I always make eye contact with other road users and I look back frequently. If I make a turn, I always perform a lifesaver check. I know that a helmet will protect the head in event of a crash but what about the other bones of the body? Should all cyclists be thinking of wearing full body armour too? Absurd.
8. Cyclists should ride on the pavement or in the gutter where I can’t see them
First, it’s illegal to cycle on the pavement unless where indicated. Second, riding in the gutter is not only uncomfortable but it could lead to punctures and skidding on wet drain covers. Staying out of sight is how many cyclists end up being killed or injured by motorists. Many cycle paths that run adjacent to roads aren’t cleaned regularly and there will be debris, including broken glass, lying in them. I can’t think of many motorists who want to damage their car or risk a puncture because they think it’s “safer” to do so. Can you? For the cyclist, it’s often better to ride on the road, than to ride on a detritus-strewn cycle path.
9. Cyclists should stick to cycle lanes and paths
Most cycle lanes are designed by people who don’t ride bikes, therefore many of them are actually dangerous. Some cycle lanes run close to give way lines or will encourage riders to overtake larger vehicles on the left. Cycle lanes need to be segregated and the Advance Stop Boxes need to be properly enforced.
Even if a cyclist uses the cycle lane, some drivers won’t give the cyclist enough room and will overtake far too closely. The safe recommended overtaking distance is three feet or a metre. This is another cause of accidents.
Some motorists clearly have a sense of entitlement and much of it is based entirely upon myths and the belief that because they drive a car, then they’re better than anyone who uses public transport – often seen by them as the “poor man’s mode of transport”. To these people, the cyclist is an inferior form of life that serves the same function as the tenant does to the self-styled homeowner (who rents their home from the bank).
There is no hierarchy of road users. Everyone needs to remember this.