Let's get rid of "the vulnerable road user"

By which I mean, of course, the term “vulnerable road user”…


“Men are always trying to protect me, I wonder what they are trying to protect me from…”. Mae West

A lot of colleagues think that it is helpful to refer to pedestrians (particularly children and elderly people) and cyclists as “vulnerable road users”. I disagree: seeing people who just happen to be outside metal boxes as being special easily morphs into seeing us AS A PROBLEM.  It is often connected to what has been referred to as the “Fear of Cycling”. It misses out on the elephant in the room – or what the excellent Mikael Coville-Anderson of Copenahgenize.com refers to as “The Bull in the China Shop”.

In fact , it does what so much of “road safety” ideology does – it inverts reality into seeing cycling and walking as the DANGEROUS MODES.

So – what do you say when you are asked – or told – that cycling is “dangerous”?

1. It’s the transitive meaning we’re interested in. Or to put it more simply, WHO DOES WHAT TO WHOM. When you look at this way, cyclists (per mile, per journey or any other way you want) don’t kill or hurt others as much as the motorised do. Cyclists are on about a par with pedestrians for being legally responsible for hurting others. As for the near misses (“I have been nearly killed by a cyclist so many times”) the same applies – it’s the motorised, stupid.

So just tell your questioner that you do kill a few people every now and again, but only when they ask you stupid questions. And then you tell them to wear bright clothing and a helmet, and you always say: “Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You” when you’ve knocked them down. ( I’m kidding. And do try to not knock over pedestrians).

2. Cycling isn’t that hazardous.  For a typical urban area in the UK, and particularly London, you have a very small chance of being hurt or killed.

3. The health benefits of regular cycling far outweigh the chances of being hurt or killed. You are more likely to die from not cycling than cycling.

None of which means that the chances of being hurt shouldn’t be reduced – quite the contrary. It means we should reduce danger at source. Yes, of course the so-called “vulnerable road users”, or to be better and more precise, the Non-Motorised Users should try to behave appropriately, but this will probably be most effective when it impacts on the behaviour of the motorised by creating a “critical mass” of NMUs who make the motorised more aware of the presence of NMUs – the “Safety in Numbers” effect.

The point is that reducing your chances of being hurt or killed by another road user means looking at which forms of transport are dangerous – which brings us back to point Number 1.  It means talking about the “Dangerous Road Users” – those more dangerous to others, and not seeing those outside cars as some kind of problem.