There’s no “war” on Britain’s roads

Last Wednesday there was a programme on BBC1 called “The War on Britain’s Roads”, which was based on footage shot from cyclists’ helmets, and included various encounters with dangerous drivers and cyclists and confrontations that sometimes resulted, including a physical assault. They also interviewed a policeman who deals with cycling-related offences and confrontations as well as a woman whose daughter was killed by a truck driver making a left turn. There was a truck driver and a cab driver interviewed as well as two of the cycle filmers, and there was also the usual bellyaching about cyclists jumping red lights and how that could get them killed. It was obvious, though, that the major threat to cyclists’ safety came from aggressive car drivers and negligent truck drivers.

Two of the people interviewed were cyclists who shoot footage of their journeys on helmet-mounted cameras, and upload clips of their encounters with other road users, usually drivers, to YouTube. They included cab drivers who passed them too close as well as an articulated lorry driver who pulled his truck out into a roundabout right in front of a cyclist approaching from the right, forcing him to stop suddenly (he in fact had right of way, and nearly got dragged under the wheels because he thought the driver had acknowledged him). However, towards the end one of the ‘vigilantes’ filmed a cyclist riding straight through a red light, and later caught up with him (at a subsequent red light where he did stop) and forcefully got his attention by grabbing his rucksack.

Given that cyclists jumping red lights is one of the more common complaints about cyclists’ behaviour, it was natural that it should be included in the programme, but there should have been some attempt at balancing it by explaining why cyclists do it: because all too often, there is no safe space for cyclists at red lights because car drivers have stopped in the cyclists’ space, if there was any. By crossing a junction when the lights are red, they make sure they are out of the way when vehicles are accelerating, ensuring their own safety and avoiding slowing anyone else down — the drivers who complain about light jumping would be annoyed again if they were delayed getting away from a junction because of a cyclist (or if they lost a turn). Red light jumping on its own (I am not talking about when a cyclist speeds across a busy junction without looking, or is racing) is of no great significance because cyclists are of less bulk, can cause less damage, travel more slowly and thus have much longer thinking and stopping distances than almost any motor vehicle. The law should be changed so that cyclists who behave recklessly in such situations can be prosecuted, but not those who simply pass through a red light.

Picture of a cycle crossing over a dual carriageway, with a green surface and a symbol of a bicycle on it. A woman is getting ready to ride off on the left, while three pedestrians use it to cross from the other side (instead of the pedestrian crossing which is off to the right).I’m regularly a pedestrian, a cyclist, a car driver and a truck driver. I also use public transport. I’ve seen ridiculous behaviour by all four of these categories. One scene was shown where a cyclist using a dedicated cycle path had to dodge a pedestrian who walked into the lane without bothering to look; this happens a lot when dedicated cycle paths are crossed by pedestrian paths or when there is a cycle and pedestrian crossing over a main road next to each other, as is the case with one crossing over a dual carriageway I use regularly in Kingston: on a great many occasions I find a pedestrian in front of me at the cycle crossing or just about to walk diagonally across it to join the pedestrian crossing over the other carriageway. However, I have also seen a cyclist entering a road which has been reserved for pedestrians and cyclists (and there are signs telling cyclists to slow down and that pedestrians have priority) at full speed and shouting “CYCLIST!” expecting the pedestrians to step — or jump — out of his way.

However, a lot of stupid behaviour does not a “war” make, and I have no doubt that this programme sensationalised the issue. Cyclists riding along minding their own business and drivers giving them clearance does not make good TV, and I doubt that the vigilantes who post this material on YouTube do not include those bits either. It is good that more people are cycling; cyclists cause zero pollution when riding, they take up less road space, they cause hardly any wear on the roads, and when ridden carefully they are far less likely to cause injury or damage than any motor vehicle. Although I have no problem with the police pulling over and punishing reckless and dangerous cyclists, I am resistant to rules such as compulsory helmets, number plates and insurance, and to exaggerate the problem of bad cycling would strengthen the cause for these kinds of measures which would make it more difficult and involved to start cycling, and would push people back towards their cars. The programme quite amply demonstrated the extreme danger cyclists face, and the footage, even if not the commentary, clearly showed where the danger was coming from — and most of it is not coming from cyclists. The rules should be different for cyclists, because they are a lesser hazard and face greater dangers.

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