Why Bradley Wiggins is so wrong: Part Two: “Road safety” ideology and the culture of cyclist subservience

Bradley Wiggins has (partly) backtracked on his comments made on August 1st. However, there is no fundamental change in the key ideological elements which were present in his original statement. They tell us a lot about the cultural barriers to achieving safety for cyclists and other road users.

The context: role model/spokesman?

At the Press Conference on Wednesday 1st August Wiggins finished with: “I’m probably the last person who should be put on a soapbox to talk about these things”. His retracting tweet includes:”.. was asked what I thought my opinion doesn’t count for much“. Our previous post considers the issue of Wiggins (and Cavendish) as role models, or at least people who are considered to have some authority in matters such as cyclist safety.

Plainly Wiggins is either uncomfortable and/or ambivalent about being what has been called a “statesman” for cycling. But, as the media storm of the last two days has indicated, his words do carry some sort of weight.

The context: the collision

What has caused considerable distress among cyclists is the nature of the incident which occurred that night.  The cyclist killed was crushed under the wheels of a bus – suffering injuries
which no helmet could have protected him from. It also occurred at a location which the London Cycling campaign had been highlighting as particularly hazardous for cyclists.
On the same day the excellent Cycling Lawyer  reports the sentencing of a visually impaired lorry driver who had killed a cyclist and went on to kill an elderly pedestrian. Someone with Wiggins high profile could have highlighted a range of issues about danger on the road and the need to take steps to reduce it.

What he said:

Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue … You can get killed if you don’t have a helmet on. You shouldn’t be riding along with iPods and phones and things on. You have lights on. Once there are laws passed for cyclists then you are protected and you can say “Well, I have done everything to be safe” .
There are lots of things to be addressed with cycling at the moment on the roads. Things can’t continue the way that they are, everybody knows that. It’s dangerous and London is a busy city and a lot of traffic.
1 . Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue. Pretty monstrous victim-blaming here. If you are knocked down and hurt and suffer injuries which are nothing to with wearing a helmet (either
because the helmet would not significantly mitigate them, or because they are not head injuries) then it is your fault.

2. You can get killed if you don’t have a helmet on. Or if you do. Or you may even be more likely to get into a collision when wearing a helmet because of your and/or other road users’ behaviour adapting to it.

3. You shouldn’t be riding along with iPods and phones and things on. You have lights on. No evidence exists about the negative effects of “things on” (in terms of being associated with collisions) exists. In London contributory causes involving absence of required lighting points to a very small minority of collisions involving cyclists.

4. Once there are laws passed for cyclists then you are protected…Now we are getting to it. There are actually laws which regulate cycling. They aren’t enforced very much – neither are the laws which are what Wiggins would presumably refer to as “passed for motorists”. The point is that cyclists are not properly protected by having laws restricting them. We now get to the main theme:

Cyclists constitute an excluded, marginalised, or simply discriminated against, group. I know that plenty of cyclists are also motorists – I’m talking about people as cyclists, principally in terms of the relative advantages in financial support for the competing modes of transport, or the lack of control of danger towards cyclists. I don’t want a victim status for cyclists – my view is that there are plenty of good reasons for cycling in many parts of the UK presently. It’s just that there is a structure of power in road transport with cyclists – possibly above, possibly below – pedestrians and with the motorised at the top. It is a  structure that is backed up by the institutions that manage road transport, and a culture that in turn is produced by those institutions and backs them up. “Road safety” culture is a key part of this.

A key feature of such groups – sometimes called “out groups” – is that their members will, without the support of a belief system which can articulate their status to their advantage, often blame
themselves for their predicament. It is basically our fault.

Psychologically, this is very attractive. It means there is an easy explanation for why, a society which you want to be part of, may put your life in. It may be too difficult to challenge work colleagues or friends if they are abusive towards people like you. Self-blame gives an illusion of control. By pointing the finger at other cyclists you are doing something. Maybe you will, at last, fit in.

(An aside: the segregationists. Blaming cyclists and the desire to restrict cycling is not just what we see in Wiggins’ statement. The segregationist David Arditti says : “the excessive freedom that UK cyclists “enjoy” is actually part of the problem… UK cycling organisations have always been too conservative in their outlook and fearful of a loss of existing “rights” … the best
thing that could be done by the UK government for cycling would be for them to ban it on the roads…
(my emphasis)The idea – as I understand it – is that if cyclists accept legal restrictions such as  being banned on roads, then Government will build off-road cycle tracks and junctions in return. Essentially the problem lies with cyclists, or at least the people representing them).

Will it work?

Self-blame can give a sense of comforting self-righteousness. But will it actually work in terms of reducing danger on the roads for cyclists and others? Will it address the fundamental injustices
in our current transport system? Unfortunately, like all other forms of self-blame: no, it won’t. And this includes fulfilling the real responsibilities of road users.

A key trope in this culture is the worry that certain kinds of behaviour by cyclists will “give us a bad name”. Essentially the idea here is that cyclists – as a group of social misfits who presumably have no real right to exist on the roads – have to seek permission or approval. Cyclists will be “given a name” by the dominant culture, and they should hope it will be a good one.

A key current xample is that given by World Champion Mark Cavendish

A key current example is that given by World Champion Mark Cavendish .  Of all the problems to be confronted by someone concerned with cycling in London, the one he chooses is not just one where cyclists are at fault (jumping red lights), but chosen not because of hiting other road users. It is chosen as a problem “it gives cyclists a bad name” Does Cav suggest that motorists ever give each other “ a bad name”?

To continue with the textual analysis:

5. …and you can say “Well, I have done everything to be safe”. This piece of self-delusion is fascinating. What it includes is the ideas that

Certain items of “safety wear” have a talismanic status – despite the fact that faith in them is probably more likely to less care being taken and an absence of real evidence as to their benefits.

Doing “everything” to be safe is literally impossible.  Thinking that you have to have “done everything” before you can claim your right not to have your life threatened puts you on a hiding to nothing. Interestingly, the many things that you can do when cycling tend to get missed out by focusing on the supposed signs of “cyclist safety”, but more  importantly:

This doesn’t seem to be the case with motorised road users. The main response of the “road safety” authorities to over a hundred years of motor danger has been to accommodate it:
to build highway and vehicle environments which collude and connive with the illegal or rule-breaking behaviour by motorised road who are either incapable of or unwilling to obey the regulations. Idiot proofing has supported, if not produced, the idiocy.

There may well be a quid pro quo whereby cyclists (and pedestrians) have to fulfil some obligations as a part of a civilised society’s requirements. But the principal requirement will
be not endangering others. It is simply ridiculous to engage in this discussion when the motorised have never been held to account.

6. There are lots of things to be addressed with cycling at the moment on the roads. Things can’t continue the way that they are, everybody knows that. Since Bridget
was killed 116 years ago by a motorist – the Coroner said “he hoped such a thing would never happen again” – there have been claims   made by all and sundry to demand “that things
can’t continue the way that they are”.
It all depends what you want. The “road safety” industry has made it easy for people to align themselves with things not continuing the way they are
and presenting themselves as humanitarian life savers when they can support danger on the road. After all, a key lesson from the last century has been pedestrians and cyclists getting out of what the motorised may regard as “their way” to reduce their chances of being hurt or killed. Supporting  “safety campaigns” such as The Times campaign for cyclist safety has come easily to, for example, the boss of Addison Lee


. “It’s dangerous and London is a busy city and a lot of traffic.

(a)   By “it” I presume a reference to motorised traffic. “it” can make a human constructed scenario appear to be a natural state of affairs.

(b)   Actually inner London is one of the safest places for people in the UK to cycle – it is precisely the busy-ness of it which makes road users watch out more.

(c)   Sorry to be pedantic – it’s what I’m here for – but there is cycle traffic and pedestrian traffic. If you mean “motor traffic”, say so.

8       I got knocked off several times..

(a) See previous comments about the far greater tendency of racing cyclists to hit the deck – I trained as a (far worse) racing cyclist living not far away from Wiggo – I didn’t get knocked off “several times”.

Yet again we have a “dangerising” of cycling. The view of most RDRF supporters is that a part of reducing danger to cyclists – not all by any means – is encouraging cyclists to ride in certain current conditions. Given the right support taking up cycling in many urban areas not only increases the chances of longer life but leads to the safety in Numbers effect and a “critical mass” affecting the behaviour of other road users. “Dangerising” works against this.

9       “But at the end of the day, we’ve all got to co-exist on the roads”. That’s my view. The point is that any co-existence has to be based on relative propensities to hurt or kill other people. Safety is not the only issue: there are other factors like environmental destruction, public health etc. All point to regulation and controls lacking for the motorised.

10    Cyclists are not ever going to go away, as much as drivers moan, and as much as cyclists maybe moan about certain drivers, they are never going to go away, so there’s got to be a bit of give and take. Right on the first part.

(a)   Interesting that it is only “certain” drivers. Most problems for most other road users involve, well, most drivers. Obviously some are worse than others, or do things that are particularly bad. But all drivers are implicated.

(b)   Reciprocity is just fine, but what exactly is the “give and take”? Yet again we have omission of the central fact of the power differential between the motorised and cyclists. This is not surprising. “Road safety” culture is based on cooling out and neutralising awareness of the difference between being endangered and endangering others. “Who kills/hurts/endangers others?” is the question which is not to be asked.

But we ask it.