“Get Britain Cycling”


We have posted on the “Get Britain Cycling”  enquiry  before – and although regrettably we were not called to give evidence, some good contributions have been made to the enquiry. In this post – after asking you support EDM 679 directly or through the CTC  – we give a view on two talking points that have arisen: The revelation for some MPs that the police do not enforce road traffic law, specifically 20 mph limits (who knew?) and the AA president gratifying some cyclists by saying that drivers shouldn’t threaten to kill them (which we’re supposed to be impressed by?)

 Law enforcement

The big shock for some MPs was the news that the police (through ACPO) didn’t feel that they wanted to enforce 20 mph speed limits, followed by some restatement of their position by the police, with a discussion about the different ways of achieving speeds below 30 mph. (A useful account is here ). Now, it can be worthwhile to rehearse the arguments for different kinds of speed control in the context of highway engineers aspiring for what they would consider good quality traffic management ( a good summary is here ). But actually the main arguments – the merits of 20 mph limit areas defined by signing as opposed to 20 mph zones defined by physical measures like road humps – have been known to transport professionals for some time.

We held a seminar in March 2011 summarising the debate. 20s Plenty For Us  persistently push the case for 20 mph areas: there is nothing new here. But our surprise at the MPs surprise is that anybody with any knowledge of compliance and driving should have known anyway that road traffic law is not enforced. What did these MPs really think? Never mind 20 mph, just consider the 30 mph limit – which has existed since 1935 and is broken by about a third to a half the drivers who can do so. Have they never sat in a car and looked at the speedometer to realise that the driver and/or those passing are breaking the speed limit?

But, as we are often reminded, speed is only one area of rule and law breaking. The main offences anybody concerned with a civilised road environment would come under those which could be prosecuted as careless or dangerous driving. In fact the chances of prosecution for these offences are extremely low, and then generally only after collisions – and then normally only when someone is reported as injured.

So, in one sense it is nice to have a shocked reaction from the MPs. But in another, it is not so welcome to see just how naïve they are.


The “One Tribe” Myth

We are seeing a constantly repeated theme: Motorists are the same people as cyclists, and vice versa. This is actually not always true, with most motorists not being regular cyclists and plenty of cyclists not being regular drivers, but that is not the point. The point is that this frequently repeated theme (or trope, for those who like academic words) has a firm and clear message: Do not refer to the very real differences between what can happen to others as a consequence of driving compared to cycling.

This message comes out in the Mayor of London’s Vision for Cycling . It was raised by Edmund King of the AA in November 2012 after producing the AA-Populus survey of its members, and repeated at the “Get Britain Cycling” enquiry. The latest public airing is from no less than the editor of Pistonheads.com (motto: “Speed Matters”)

It was presented in a DfT campaign last year:


(Identical twins: geddit?)

I think we need to look at this theme in some detail:

If asked to put a label on my views, I would say that I am integrationist rather than segregationist. Cyclists will be in proximity to motorised road users on most of the roads and streets they cycle on, certainly for the time being and probably forever. Sharing the road is necessary and courtesy is desirable. We are indeed mainly (although many of us are of course not motorists) multi-modal travelers. So shouldn’t it make sense to emphasise the similarities between cyclists and motorists?

No, it shouldn’t. This tendency to suggest that we are “all in it together”, that we are basically all the same, and that we all just need to be nice to each other, is dangerous, stupid and wrong.

There is a strong ideological push, and indeed always has been since the “road safety” lobby was founded, to deny the fundamental differences between the motorised and other road users in terms of their actual and potential adverse effects on others. Indeed, the attempt to neutralise the fundamental difference in the potential lethality of cycling or walking as compared to driving is one of the key dangerous features of “road safety” ideology.

For the brutal fact is that one of the “…groups of road users”, namely the motorised, is indeed “set against” other road users in general, and those outside motor vehicles in particular. No, this is not because when driving one becomes part of a “tribe” of bad people. It just means that when you drive inappropriately you pose a particularly high potential threat to other people’s safety compared to when you walk or cycle. That’s why the third party insurance cycling organisations have for their members is so much lower than the third party insurance a motorist has ( about £15 per annum – some 20, 30, 40, 50 times lower?), to take just one measure indicating the scale of difference of potential threat.

It really is that simple. And that is without the vastly greater environmental threat posed by driving compared to cycling. A civilised approach in any vision of future transport arrangements would gladly accept this, rather than try to cover it up.


Edmund King and “One Tribe”

There is a long history of the AA defending motorists’ lawlessness, referred to here   and generally here  : Bike Biz refer to their less pleasant aspects here in response to a well-known cycling blogger urging motoring cyclists to join the AA. I don’t think it is far-fetched to suggest that the AA are on a charm offensive which may capture some motorists who also cycle. But the important issue is to analyse the features of this “One Tribe” theme.

The “minority” issue

The AA-Populus survey indicated that a minority of drivers, particularly those aged 18-24, displayed a dangerous disdain for cyclists. For King:  “If you have got a minority of drivers and a minority of cyclists who hate each other they will take dangerous risks on the road and that can lead to more conflict and more accidents (sic)”. :

At Get Britain Cycling he said: “There are drivers who hate cyclists and vice versa, but in each case they are minorities”.

What is interesting here is the opportunity to repeat the central tenet of the myth, namely that there is actually no difference between a cyclist misbehaving and a motorist misbehaving. For us, the difference in the potential effects on the health and safety of other road users (never mind adverse environmental effects) is massive, and understanding this is crucial to any civilised discussion of safety on the road.

But on top of this is the notion that only a minority of drivers is involved in the rule and law-breaking that endangers others. It is not. Indeed, focusing on minorities – even ones where there should be additional concerns – is a traditional way in which defenders of motorists’ “right” to break rules and laws divert attention away from those who cause most of the problems – who come from the majority of drivers.

As an experienced traffic police officer once said to me: “Most of the problems come from ordinary motorists. They are not bad people; it’s just that they can do bad things”. That’s the point. I have known many cycling motorists who simply do not accept that they could do anything which endangered cyclists. They minimise the danger they pose – a common feature of normal psychology – because they are also cyclists. And that’s, well, dangerous.


So what is the AA going to do about it?

The important issue is what we actually do to reduce danger at source. It may well be that – providing the problems emanating from the behaviour of the majority of drivers are not forgotten – that we should spend some time addressing the particular dangers coming from the ones who express specific contempt for cyclists. And what does King suggest?

I may have missed something, but I can’t see anything – apart from yet another advertising campaign politely requesting people to not hurt others if they can be bothered to try to do so. Apart from saying that road users with an already high potential for lethality should not manifest contempt for their possible victims, he isn’t actually proposing anything. In fact, he is actually denying that specific potential lethality by conflating the behaviours of drivers and cyclists.

On top of this, although King supposedly wears a “I pay Road Tax” cycking top when cycling, he is keen to deny that motorists are not paying the external costs of their driving . When a key area of motorist prejudice against cycling is “I Pay a Tax” mythology, it could be helpful to point out the case for motorists paying more to reflect the additional costs they inflict on society and the environment.


Everybody should be nice to each other

There is nothing wrong with being courteous to others; indeed, it should be part of the relationship between road users in the world we should strive for. The problem with it is not just that there is no prospect of this happening, and that the relevant rules and laws are broken by the motorised literally billions of time annually in the UK (while their potential and actual victims are told that they are “in it together” with them). It is that the motoring organisations like the AA, and indeed the “road safety” lobby, operate on precisely the basis that they think the motorised are going to do just that – break the rules and regulations as a matter of course. That’s why they have transformed the highway and car environments with “safety” features to accommodate the rule and law breakers – colluding with their carelessness, and danger.

And why should emphasizing the similarities between different types of road user do any good? The RAC in the 1930s argued that it could not be anti-pedestrian – at time when thousands of pedestrians were being killed in collisions with the small motoring community of the time – because its members also walked. And why should a cyclist have to present themselves as a motorist for drivers to feel that they should really have a try at behaving properly.

One final note from the Get Britain Cycling enquiry: speaking alongside the AA, I noted the Freight Transport Association representative say: “Some vehicles are not more dangerous than others”. But that’s the point. With human beings in charge of them in a car-centred society,  “more dangerous” is exactly what we get


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s