No surrender to the busybodies: a rejoinder to Matt Seaton

Matt Seaton, a long-time writer on motoring matters in the British press, has a column in today’s Guardian in which he advocates a licensing scheme for cyclists. This would be a compulsory licence before anyone could cycle on the public highway in the UK, and the reason given is that it would teach cyclists to break the “bad habits” which give cyclists a “bad name”: things like jumping red lights and cycling without lights and on the pavement. As a long-time cyclist and motorist, I say this is a really stupid idea for every reason you can conceive. (More: Devil’s Kitchen).

As I think I’ve said here before, my experience of the road is unusual in that my least common experience of it is as a motorist. I walk, I use public transport, I cycle, and I drive goods vehicles. And there are good reasons why motorists have to train, acquire licences and pay road tax and cyclists don’t, which is that motor vehicles are, without exception, heavy, difficult to control, and capable of causing enormous damage to anything they hit. Just coming into contact with another vehicle will cause damage to it, and hitting it could kill someone inside. While it is possible for a cyclist to cause injury to a pedestrian or another cyclist, the chances are much less, because the weight involved is barely more than that of the rider and the stopping distances are much shorter (not quite on a sixpence, but not substantial). We do not pay tax because the wear and tear we cause to the road is negligible; probably not worth the cost of administering the scheme.

Seaton’s reasons for supporting licensing is simply a matter of what others think of us. People don’t like it when cyclists jump red lights. So what? They tut-tut because they are sitting there in their car, in a jam, wishing they were somewhere else. The cyclist will get home that bit quicker (and most likely, less quickly than the motorist). The fact that “it’s against the law” is an excuse to get irritated at a personal frustration that someone else has a way of avoiding. Do you know what annoys me more as a truck driver? Getting stuck on a narrow two-lane road because there is a cyclist in front of me who could safely cycle on the pavement if it were legal, but doesn’t, because it isn’t. I think that irritates car drivers as well - much like getting stuck behind a truck which cannot go faster than 40mph because that’s illegal on a single-carriageway road, however wide. The law is crazy, and in fact it is routinely ignored (in some cases, police officers have told drivers to do 50), and when it is observed it causes accidents because of drivers overtaking.

These people who moan about light jumpers are just busybodies who should really be told, whenever they call in to bellyache on the various radio phone-in programmes, to mind their own business. Cyclists are legally required to act more or less like motorists even though they plainly are not. Yes, we have a few token cycle paths, but often these are more dangerous than the main roads they replace (a case in point: the Blue 75 cycle route along Lower Marsh Lane east of Kingston on Thames, on which I have had two near misses with trucks accessing the sewage works and other industry). When we do cycle on the roads, we occasionally drive into car doors thoughtlessly opened by those of the same race whose indignation Seaton supposes we should placate. I was very nearly run down at the Fountain roundabout in New Malden a few months ago by the driver of a Volvo FM12 (40-tonne truck) who did not bother looking to see me approaching when I had right of way!

And as for the children mentioned in the article who were knocked down by cyclists in recent months, his reference to “cyclists running reds” should read “cyclists not paying attention”. People get run down by drivers, and cyclists, not paying due attention, whether they are breaking the law or not. Cyclists “run reds” every day, mostly without knocking down pedestrians. They also ride quite legally along open stretches, and run into pedestrians who run out without looking (I’ve seen a cyclist knocked off in the past by stupid pedestrians at West Croydon bus station who assumed that the stationary or slow buses were the only people on that stretch of open A-class road).

And needless to say, licensing would not cut the numbers of pedestrians killed by anything like the degree to which licensing keeps bad drivers off the road. People learn to drive dogmatically (for example, by keeping rigidly to speed limits, treating unlaned wide roads as if they were laned, and not coming out of a turning by coming out halfway and blocking traffic, an absolute necessity in some places), and then promptly unlearn these habits after they pass. But more than that, people learn to drive with their driving instructor, while they learn to ride a bike as a hobby as a small child. They are often riding on the road long before they even think of getting in the front passenger seat of a car. How would a licensing scheme be enforced on children, particularly if they are not responsible for their own actions? But besides keeping off the people who simply don’t know how to drive, driving licensing does not keep off plain bad drivers in between passing their tests and getting caught for killing someone or causing serious damage with their stupid driving. And it wouldn’t do the same for cyclists either. It would be an extra annoyance, would cost money, would keep perfectly good cyclists off the road because a state-appointed inspector was not satisfied with a 30-minute slice of their cycling, and far from removing our supposed “tremendous sense of self-righteous entitlement”, it would increase it.

And for the same reason, such a scheme wouldn’t seriously improve the image of cyclists. People would pass their tests, and then cycle as they normally do until they got caught. And some never would. Some would still evade capture because they can cycle faster than a police officer could run. And the likely reason the City of London police can waste time on catching cyclists jumping red lights is that they only have the square mile to police. If there are officers to waste on this, they should be redeployed or laid off. And before I forget - Matt Seaton, shame on you for suggesting that we accept regulation we don’t need to suit busybodies.

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