Back to basics in the anti-cycling war

The country has gone mad on taking a side in the cycling vs drivers war. Since the death of Kim Briggs, the pedestrian who was tragically killed by the cyclist Charlie Alliston last year.

In 2016, there were 400 pedestrians killed in traffic related accidents – one of which was due to a cyclist.

Alliston has been cleared of charges of manslaughter, and charged with “wanton or furious driving”. An offence which many people have never heard of. The archaic conviction was common in the nineteenth century with causing bodily harm by wanton and furious driving of non-motorised vehicles such as carriages, and bicycles.

Vehicles of course, follow different rules. Bikes aren’t vehicles, and as cases of cyclists killing pedestrians are extremely rare, the law has never been updated to include cycling in the Road Traffic Act. That is a point to remember, that these cases are extremely rare, unfortunate and could have been prevented.

The tragic accident began with a collision which happens daily in London. Foolhardy cyclists senseless enough to weave in and out of moving traffic in a busy city, and pedestrians crossing the road while looking at their phones. Yet, on this occasion the unsuccessful efforts of both parties to avert a collision, led to Mrs Briggs dying of a brain injury in hospital.

 

Both parties are at fault in this situation. However Alliston is undoubtedly more so, as even without the intention of causing an accident, he was knowingly: riding a fixed gear bike without a front brake on the roads in a busy city, endangering himself and others, and not obeying the highway code.

To do that on any road is a recipe for disaster, let alone in the busiest city in the country.

Fixed-gear bikes are becoming more popular on the road. However, they belong on the track and not in busy city centres where as long as the wheels are moving, so are the pedals and the legs attached to them. Which makes it extremely difficult to brake, without considering braking to prevent a collision.

In his campaign to introduce new legislation into the Road Traffic Act, the husband of Mrs Briggs’ says: “With the fixed-wheel bike without the front brake the only means of braking is reverse pedalling… That’s totally inadequate and we’ve seen that with my wife’s death.”

The problem with this story is how much media attention it has drawn and how many opinions it has attracted. The cyclist vs driver war has been fuelled by hateful comments towards cyclists as a result of this story. But why?

Mrs Briggs’ husband is campaigning for a change in the law so it is fair for everybody. Allowing for: cycling to be incorporated into the Road Traffic Act, death by dangerous cycling, and death by careless cycling to be included.  The simple fact the crown prosecution service have charged Alliston with an archaic offence shows there is a gap in what can be charged for these rare situations; and as Briggs’ says: “It’s not so much a new law as just bringing the current law up to date”.

I can confidently say that many cyclists would agree to this legislation to be introduced. As most of cyclists climb aboard their bikes with the intention of keeping themselves and others safe.

Briggs, a London cyclist himself said his campaign for a change in the law was not “witch-hunt against cyclists”, but dealing with the specific issue of “reckless cyclists and those people who choose to ride fixed-wheel bikes without the additional front brake” he added.

When I saw this video of a cycling courier in London, I was horrified that anybody could ride that dangerously. Not only endangering themselves but everybody else on the road with no second thought.

On the one hand, videos like this can be found all over the internet. With reckless cyclists happily riding dangerously, cutting up other road users, riding through red lights and on the wrong side of the road, simply without following any of the highway code.

On the other hand, so can videos with footage shaming drivers by passing too close, cutting up cyclists, overtaking on corners and double white lines. Yet, as I have written before, cyclists will never win the collision war because the only people defending cyclists, are cyclists.

The only media outlets I have seen offering a balanced argument is the cycling publications. The Sunday Times, mocked the government for investing money in cycling. Journalist Adam Boulton, led his column last Sunday with the headline: “At last the wheels are coming off our senseless worship of bicycles” and accused Cycling UK of “cherry picking their facts” in relation to statistics of cycling related injuries; despite claiming on Twitter he is a cyclist himself.

 

 

The London Standard used the insensitive phrase of “Dangerous cyclist mowed down pedestrian”. The Guardian, accused of double standards, went with the unbalanced view that cyclists can get away with such an offence but a motorist would not. In other stories, the newspaper led with ‘cyclist accused of killing woman shouted at her after collision’.

While Cycling Weekly attempted to neutralise the debate and explain to the anti-cyclist media, that no cyclist is applauding or condoning what happened. There are cyclists who are just as horrified at the videos like the one above; and who immediately said Alliston was in the wrong for riding a fixie without brakes – the facts remain the same.

Lets go back to basics here.  Statistics by the Department for Transport show that over 3,000 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in the year up to June 2016.

How many were reported on the same level as the Alliston case by the national media?

In regards to these reported cases involving drivers at fault: how many drivers have sided with the dead or injured cyclist?

In situations more locally, how many drivers have apologised to a cyclist for passing too close, overtaking in unsafe places, or pulling out of/ pulling into junctions without consideration for anyone on the road?

The irritation throughout this case comes from the anti-cycling supporters firing up the flame balls ready to toss at the cyclists, after one accident. It says a lot about the attitudes of road users in the UK and the reforms which need to be made.

 

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Cyclists will never win the collision war

Whether it is an accident with a car, a bus, or a pedestrian, cyclists will never win the collision war, even if it is not their fault.

Recently, while out riding with my cyclist friend–who works as a collision investigator for the police–we were discussing collisions with buses and bikes. He had reported three incidents to our local Stagecoach branch about near misses between the drivers and himself.

The first happened in winter while riding at night: “lit up like a Christmas tree” (in the words of the Stagecoach boss after seeing the CCTV footage), the driver did not see my fellow cyclist, and even after the Stagecoach boss described to the driver where the accident occurred, worryingly the driver does not recall seeing a cyclist.

The second occasion involved going through the one-way system in Lancaster when a bus driver didn’t look in his mirror before pulling out in front of him. And during the final incident, he was a spectator watching a similar thing happen to another cyclist in front of him. On this occasion, if it wasn’t for the way the pavement split into a verge, the cyclist in front would have been squashed by the bus, and the driver of the big metal box would probably have been none the wiser.

On the final occasion, which happened minutes before I met him for a bike ride, we began with a trip to the bus station to report the incident, which was subsequently dealt with and passed on appropriately. On the other occasions, the bus drivers were sent on a driving course and apparently have since changed their attitude towards cyclists and of course, will thoroughly check their mirrors before pulling out.

Later on that week, I recalled the incident to my grandfather who is a retired bus driver for Stagecoach, and before I had even finished the description of the incident he replied with: “bloody cyclists, it is their own fault.”

Which brought me to the conclusion that despite having many cyclists in the family, the said person still has that attitude. If I can’t change his opinion on cyclists (I asked him if he would still have that attitude if it was me and my bike that was nearly squashed by a bus), then no amount of campaigning for cycle safety is going to change attitudes towards cyclists.

A few days after the ride when we discussed the incidents, I had my own bike accident.

Setting off on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was riding down Morecambe promenade on my own when, without looking, two young children ran across the path and straight into me. I flew straight over the handlebars and hit the floor hard without really knowing how I got there.

I could hear the screams of two young children crying their eyes out as they lay on the floor next to me, and then the pain of my possible broken elbow hit me. The mother of the children ran over to them, while another lady ran over to help my bike and I up off the floor and rang an ambulance.

At first, I was calm as I inspected myself to see if my limbs were all in the places they should be; then the shock set in of what just happened. Meanwhile, I received a tirade of abuse from the kid’s family and a group of people on the prom, who did not see the accident but decided to divulge all of their hatred towards cyclists towards me.

According to them: I did it on purpose, I should know better because they are children. Cyclists are stupid. Cyclists shouldn’t be on the cycle path. I’m delusional. I was going too fast, and I deserve to have died because I purposely rode into the children.

Shaking and furious with emotions running high, I turned the abuse back on them and almost started a fight to stand up for myself. I couldn’t believe they had just said I deserve to have died in that incident, and in-case they didn’t notice, I came out worse than the children with my arm beginning to swell and a broken bike–while the kids escaped with little more than a bump on the head and some grazes. Two women came over to offer some help, and told me to ignore the idiots who just launched a fireball of verbal abuse towards me, because they did not see what just happened, and automatically took the attitude it was the cyclists fault. They gave me their details and said they would act as a witness to prove it was not my fault if anything ever came of it.

As I explained to the mother, of course I didn’t hit them on bloody purpose, as soon as I saw them running I swerved to try and miss them and shouted “woah watch out!” Also, after looking at my ride data afterwards up until the point of the collision, there is no proof I was riding “too fast” as my speed on that particular segment was low.

The ambulance crew arrived, and called for back-up to assist me. After being checked over they took me to hospital for an X-ray on my arm; and after things calmed down they discussed with the family that I had every right to be riding on the path. As kids will be kids and not look where they are going, it was an accident, nothing more.

The paramedic crew were exceptional, and of course understood the whole situation. An accident is an accident whether it is a pedestrian or a bus or a car, and nobody can ever say straight away it was the cyclists fault without looking at the whole incident first.

I don’t endeavour to defend all cyclists. I could name a collection of times when people have been cycling drunk, and veered into the path of a fast moving car, or hit a lamp post, tree, and other non-moving objects while under the influence.

I can even name the times when cyclists have gone through red lights, not stopped at crossings, or descending down windy roads dangerously. There are times when cyclists are the cause of the incident; in the same way drivers using their phones cause incidents, or driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. As well as pedestrians not looking where they are going–again the list goes on and neither party is exempt from blame.

But what has been proved is that cyclists make better motorists, because we are weary of what is going on around us, as well as the correct distance for overtaking: which is another cars width.

My point here is that despite the legacies created by the Olympics, the Tour de France (in Yorkshire), and British Cycling’s success, it has not altered the negative attitude towards the people on two wheels.

Cyclists are seen as the villains, but actually we are the vulnerable ones. We are only protected by a thin piece of stretchy clothing and a polystyrene and plastic helmet which absorbs shock if your head hits the floor, it does not prevent deaths or serious brain injuries. Unlike drivers we are not protected by a huge metal box around us, we are not wrapped in bubble wrap and we do not bounce when we hit the ground.

Cities in the UK are designed for cars only. The cycling revolution was an afterthought poorly implemented with a section of the already small roads taken away and covered with coloured tarmac to indicate a cycle lane. That does not stop people driving in the cycle lane through city centres, and it does not encourage them to look in the mirrors and check their blind spot before turning or manoeuvring.

Cycle tracks were a good investment, but they are limited as many come from disused railway lines, and of course you can’t have a cycle track leading in every direction. In addition to this, a separate war has broken out between pedestrians and cyclists on cycle paths more recently; as both tend to stray from the designated pedestrian-cyclist lane, or take up the whole of the path.

What will it take for the general public’s attitude to change towards cyclists? The bus drivers discussed above had to redo their driving course for their attitude to change. When I learned to drive four years ago, courses were only then being adapted to include cycle safety. All of these adults who have been driving for years haven’t adapted to drive in areas with an increased amount of cyclists.

According to a 2014 figure by Cycling UK only 18 percent of registered AA drivers are cyclists. Which means many don’t understand what it is like to be passed by a car so close you can feel it brush past your skin, or accelerate so quickly to overtake you that it is unsafe for all other drivers on the road let alone the cyclist in question. But also, they have no idea what it is like to be involved in an accident and hit the ground so hard and so fast you injure yourself and you don’t understand what just happened.

All of my cyclist friends have been involved in an incident at any one time. And every time the driver has said the rider was “going too fast”. It is a poor excuse used when firstly, the driver hasn’t taken any responsibility for their actions. Secondly, most of the time it is a 30mph zone and the rider is doing around 20mph. And finally: how did they possibly measure the cyclists speed? The police and paramedics question how can somebody on a bike be going “too fast” compared to somebody in a car?

Thankfully, most of them came out with little more than a battered and bruised body. But some of them recall waking up in an ambulance not knowing how they got there. One friend, despite wearing a helmet, suffered a serious brain injury which he will have for the rest of his life as a result of the collision.

The sporting legacies from our cycling success has encouraged a new wave of people to get on a bike which is a positive result. But what it hasn’t done is changed the view of cyclists from a motorists point of view. It also has not adapted our roads, and cities to be cycling friendly, and it takes a sharp increase in cyclist deaths for something to change.

In 2013 the Department for Transport reported that there are an average of two cycling related deaths every week and 60 serious injuries. That is a worrying increase of 40 percent in the last five years.

Yet, what these figures don’t encourage is more funding and better implementation of cycling in the UK. Many other countries, and most affluent countries in Europe have less incidents with cyclists, because their motorists have different attitudes. This is due to the roads being wider, less potholes, less congested roads, and most importantly more rules in EU law which allow every party involved to take road collisions seriously.

Until roads and city centres in the UK are properly adapted, the attitude towards cyclists will never change.