Saturday, April 16, 2011

More thought on bikes

On the train yesterday three young women were drinking raspberry bellinis. The fourth in the set of seats was hiding from them behind a copy of the Independent. This allowed me to see the front page. This morning I googled it. I was shocked, though not surprised, by the article, ‘Save our cyclists: Clamour for flood of avoidable road deaths to be stemmed’. I was horrified though not surprised by some of the comments. In the eyes of some Independent readers cyclists seem to be not only an inconvenience to drivers, but the undeserving recipients of too much money spent on protecting them and, obviously, all arrogant idiots who would only be improved by a head injury.

What is all this about? I would have thought that the advantage other drivers get from fewer people being in cars far outweighs the slight frustration of driving a little more carefully because slower and more vulnerable cyclists are sharing the road. I was given a lift from Hayes House to the railway station in Sheffield last week. Googlemaps suggests three different routes varying from 1.4 to 2.2 miles and estimating around 7 minutes for the journey. At something after five in the evening it took more than half an hour and I missed my train. As we inched forward at a couple of miles an hour a seemingly endless stream of cyclists passed us. I can imagine that is very irritating to the sorts of drivers who think Jeremy Clarkson is a god. It is not, however, the bikes that cause the delay but the other people thoughtless enough to want to drive their cars in rush hour too. Damn them, not the cyclists weaving their way through the almost stationary pollution producing obstacles. I mentioned this to my friend Julia when I eventually arrived at her house (by bus) and she recounted the story of a cyclist who she heard would have knocked a child down if not stopped by the quick thinking lorry driver who blasted his horn and frightened the child to a standstill. I am not contending that there are not idiots on bikes and that these idiots can’t do damage but every time prejudice against cyclists is mentioned everyone has a story confirming the prejudice.

Because I am sad I looked up the government statistics for road casualties for the UK in 2008 (the last year with full data). In that year there were a total of 230,905 reported casualties of all severities with 2538 people killed. People driving whilst over the legal limit of alcohol were involved in 13,020 casualties with 430 deaths. In the same year 115 pedal cyclists were killed and 2,450 were seriously injured.

When a cyclist is involved most reported accidents (93%) involve two vehicles, the bike and another compared to all reported accidents (59%), which presumably means that 41% of reported accidents involved a vehicle and a pedestrian. 95% of the casualties resulting from a pedal cyclist accident are pedal cyclists. 2% of pedal cyclist accidents involve a pedestrian and in 2008 this resulted in eight deaths and 143 serious injuries for the cyclist. The same set of accidents resulted in 1 pedestrian death and 54 serious injuries. This is very obviously one death and 54 serious injuries too many but in 2008 6,642 pedestrians died or were seriously injured in traffic accidents. How come the drivers who killed or seriously injured 99.2% of pedestrians are less vilified than the cyclists who kill or seriously injure 0.8%? Or the drink drivers who caused over 13,000 casualties, 430 deaths?

I know looking at numbers may be boring but it puts the whole thing into context. There are dangerous cyclists but they do not cause anything like the slaughter on the roads caused by people in powered vehicles. The danger of vilifying cyclists is that you tend to take less care over someone you perceive as worthless than those to whom you accord some measure of respect. I don’t have any problem with the idea of prosecuting cyclists who, because of dangerous riding, cause death or injury to others but I would like to see the safety of pedestrians and cyclists taken much more seriously.

Having recently taken to the road myself on a rather flash girly bike I am far more aware of the respect, or lack of it, accorded to cyclists than at any time since passing my cycling proficiency test almost forty years ago. Apparently research has shown that drivers are more courteous to women bikers than male cyclists. Crikey! Somewhere in the comments section in the Independent someone remarked that in Europe the person in the more powerful vehicle is automatically judged to be at fault. I quite like that. If you plough into someone more vulnerable, even someone who is not where you think they should be (the gutter is full of drains, potholes & broken glass), you are held responsible whether you are driving an HGV or a pedal cycle. If you are at fault you should be prosecuted. The other suggestion I liked was that before you are allowed to drive a powered vehicle you should be required to ride a bike in traffic. For professional drivers I think this should be something imposed annually. You want to drive for a living you have to spend a full day cycling through heavy traffic.

The taxi driver who pulled into the path of my brother-in-law recently as he cycled down a steep hill won’t be prosecuted because Robin didn’t die although, judging from the state of his helmet, he might easily have. Sentence the driver not just to a couple of days retraining but include a day on a bike.

And whilst I’m wishing for the impossible, I’d like cycle lanes to include double yellow lines and not fade away into hostile traffic.

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