Although the image below is a bit difficult to make out (the original is here), we reproduce it and take some time to examine its message as delivered by the “South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership” (SYSRP) . It is typical of why official “road safety” – as opposed to the real road safety of road danger reduction – is part of the problem of danger on the roads and discrimination against cycling and sustainable transport.
The classic cheery official way to address cycling: apparently friendly, but actually starting off from the premise that there is something unusual and problematic about it. Would any advice to motorists start in the same tone? (“Driving can make you feel like a real man or an independent woman…”*). Let’s briefly look at some of the attributes of cycling selected:
• “Quick”. Well, it can be, but not as much as it should be if you live in the car-centred communities of South Yorkshire, built up by??? the local Highway Authorities and the Highways Agency – who sit on the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership”.
• “Inexpensive”. Cycling in London – one of the few places where it has increased significantly in the last decade – is largely the preserve of the middle class, partly because of its cost, while the cost of motoring remains low
• “…helping to keep you fit”. The health benefits of cycling are one of its best features, but not as a sports activity or a desire to “keep fit” – the health benefits of cycling happen in societies with mass cycling. And these societies are, above all, ones where cycling is a normal everyday activity, carried out by ordinary people wearing their normal clothes, looking like this:
And not like the helmeted hi-viz chap in the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership poster:
In a society where cycling is taken seriously as a form of transport, starting off any serious publicity campaign with the patronising assumption that cycling is doing something remarkable or unusual would just not happen. It is wrong from the start.
Of course, you could say some things about cycling if you actually wanted to support it. You could say that cycling, instead of using motorised transport:
Is less dangerous to other road users, emits less noise pollution, reduces noxious emissions and greenhouse gas emissions, and is part of promoting local sustainable communities. But my guess is that the Councils of South Yorkshire are not really into that sort of thing. And saying that cycling is less dangerous to others than driving might direct attention to the source of danger, where we think it belongs. But do South Yorkshire Police and others on SYSRP?
So let’s look at the “road safety tips”:
1. “Wear a fluorescent reflective jacket to make yourself more visible”. If you want to consider the evidence and context for this classic theme in “road safety”, look here: More recently campaigns have been commented on here and here . According to their representative at the last meeting I attended with him, even the Department for Transport can’t come up with any evidence on hi-viz reducing casualty rates among cyclists.
If you want to be visible, you can cycle in a more prominent position on the road (which might well annoy uneducated motorists), but otherwise work for a society where the responsibility for seeing goes back to where it should always have been – with the person looking, not the person being seen. This is exactly what all the “road safety” lobby, with its pushing for hi-viz, works against.
2. “…always wear a correctly fitted cycle helmet”. If you want to see why there is no evidence for cycle helmet wearing reducing chances of being hurt or killed, look here . But you probably don’t. Particularly if you are a member of the “road safety” community.
3. “Always use lights at night”. Er, yes, but why do you have to make this point? Most cycling in South Yorkshire right now will not be at night. Bicycle light use doesn’t seem to have much relationship to whether you get hurt or killed on a bike . This is just another example of one of the numerous things which cyclists should be doing (all road users have numerous things they shoudl be doing), so you just chuck it into the list without evidence of its importance as a real factor in a significant proportion of incidents leading to cyclist casualties. Which is what “road safety” does all too often.
4. “Jumping red lights is illegal and puts you in danger”. Illegal you say? Are South Yorkshire Police going to be enforcing the law on speeding apart from at some well publicised sites where the right number of casualties have been reported? And isn’t the real problem that pedestrians might be put in danger? No, that means looking at the danger you pose to others, and you would have to go after drivers.
5. “Use cycle lanes and bus lanes where possible”.
(a) Cycle lanes. Now, there’s a bit of history with “cycle lanes”: not least the victory for the CTC in defending a cyclist who correctly refused to use one when ti was not to his safety advantage Hopefully any such lanes we find in South Yorkshire will be to the highest standard of design and implementation – in which case cyclists are going to use them anyway. What is interesting is that when the cyclist rides in the way taught in National Standards (“Bikeability”) training, as the one in the illustration appears to be doing, he will be riding close to the edge of the Advisory Cycle Lane. Unfortunately, the evidence is that many drivers seem to feel that it is all right to drive right up to the edge of such lanes.…
(b) Bus lanes. If there is a bus lane you’re highly unlikely not to use it. Unless you have been terrified by what we might euphemistically call “inappropriate” behaviour by bus drivers. (See examples of this at the end of this post). Or unless you’re going right and the bus lane is by the nearside kerb – in which case using the bus lane is the most dangerous thing you can do. (This applies even more to kerbside cycle lanes).
But most of all, we need to note the reason for inclusion of this “road safety tip”. It seems to be based on the patronising assumption that the Highway Authority has “done something” for this deviant group of people, and that they need to repay the special favour supposedly done for them. This attitude definitely exists and is hardly likely to help people view cycling as a normal activity. We think it needs serious critical examination, (a brief example is here)
6. “Undertaking long vehicles is dangerous. They may not see you if they are turning left”. RDRF has been involved in cycle training programmes which get this message across for 15 years, but it might still be worth pointing out that:
(a) However well trained you are, we all make mistakes – after all, “road safety” highway and vehicle engineering is based on the idea that drivers are going to get things wrong as a matter of course. Hence the “forgiving” environments of cars (seat belts, roll bars, collapsible steering wheels etc.) and roads (felled roadside trees, crash barriers, anti-skid etc.) to accommodate the careless and rule-breaking driver. How about some engineering of lorries and the highway environment to accommodate cyclists who may not always be doing the right thing?
(b) Er, it’s not the object; it’s the person in charge of it that “may not see you”.
(c) Actually, it appears that a large proportion – if not the majority – of incidents where HGVs end up crushing cyclists involve the cyclist being hit from behind or by an overtaking lorry. What are SYRSP doing about this?
(d) And a properly equipped HGV should have the tools (such as infra-red sensors) to make it easier for the lorry driver to see the cyclist in the first place. Are SYRSP doing anything on this?
The nice lady in the SYRSP facebook page, or other members of the SYRSP, may not understand what I am talking about. They may well mean well: But most of the people who endanger others on the road are not necessarily bad people, they just happen to do bad things.
And that’s what I think SYRSP are doing – bad things. I actually got the point about the introductory comment wrong*, as SYRSP do have “advice” for drivers, prefaced by:” We all enjoy the freedom of driving and being able to travel in our vehicles, but we must also take responsibility for our actions and follow the laws of the road”. But actually, drivers DON’T have to take responsibility; otherwise there wouldn’t be the mass law- and rule-breaking which make the roads more hazardous for other road users – including other motor vehicle occupants – than they should be.
None of this means that cyclists have no responsibilities – although anything which might empower cyclists with good quality confidence training doesn’t get highlighted by SYRSP. What it means is that, whatever pedestrians and cyclists do, they will be at the mercy of road danger coming from the motorised, while the converse is not true. It is a simple matter of natural justice, equity and civilised values, to emphasise that the priority for real road safety is to reduce road danger at source by making those responsible for it – be they highway engineers, vehicle engineers, police officers or drivers themselves – accountable.
That is not happening in South Yorkshire, and people who want a civilised approach to safety on the road will point out what’s wrong with the road safety lobby until it does.