“The Times” instructs cyclists to break the rules: what’s going on?

This post may seem a little late, based as it is on an Editorial in The Times from August 25th. Nevertheless, as with other comments arising from the Alliston case (here and here)  its subject tells us some very revealing things about the way road user behaviour is either accepted or stigmatised by the society we live in. Any serious attempts to reduce danger on the road involve a proper conversation about what we should or shouldn’t tolerate in the road environment. So let’s take a look at The Times instruction.

That Editorial

(click on image to enlarge)

The Editorial is described by the astute commentator Mark Treasure on Twitter as “ludicrous, inflammatory…. Tabloid rubbish of the worst kind.” It had evidence-free assertions “that ‘enthusiastic advocates’ are ‘blind’ to people breaking laws”. We won’t analyse the text itself, except insofar as it clarifies the instruction in the heading:

Rogue cyclists must learn to respect the rules of the road like everyone else”.

While the instruction is aimed specifically at those who are specified as “rogue” cyclists, a “militant minority” and “certain cyclists” – all of these groups being ill-defined – the implication is that the “rules of the road” apply to all cyclists. Indeed, they not only apply, but must be “respect(ed)”. However, at the same time, this obedience and respect must be like that of and by “everyone else”.

As will be shown below, this is a monumental self-contradiction. The point is to examine what people think “the rules of the road” are, and whether they should or should not, be respected and/or obeyed.

What are “the rules of the road”?

Generally speaking, people refer to the laws as specified in various Acts and Regulations, mainly Road Traffic and Highway Acts. They also refer to the Highway Code  which:

“…applies to England, Scotland and Wales and is essential reading for every road user. Applies to pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders as well as drivers. Many of the rules of the Code are legal requirements and you may be fined, given points on your licence or disqualified if you don’t obey them. In serious cases you could also be sent to prison.”

Although discussion of the law can also refer to civil law, and laws relating to standards of highway and vehicle engineering, the above paragraph is basically what might be meant by “rules of the road”.

There is, of course, the matter that while some rules in the Highway Code have MUST or MUST NOT prescribed due to a specific law, many do not. Let’s take the example of the endangering behaviour of close passing of cyclists, where we have been involved in supporting and promoting the work pioneered by West Midlands Police. Until this pioneering work it was often stated by police that, while there was a clear instruction (Rule 163) in the Highway Code on how to overtake cyclists properly, there was no clear specification in law. Drivers have now been charged successfully under Section 3 of the 1988 Road Traffic Act for obvious infringements of this rule.

So (while it is currently very unlikely that any driver will actually be stopped for overtaking a cyclist too closely) in principle many of the rules could be backed up by law enforcement. I suggest that – at present – is also extremely unlikely.


Who obeys the “rules of the road”?

A feature of work as a transport or road safety practitioner is a glance at regular surveys in the media on rule breaking, normally produced by motor insurance companies or the motoring organisations. We’ll use a sample of some recent ones – I suggest you collect your own from time to time. Let’s start off with the more unambiguous rule infractions, where laws are broken.

1. Speeding.

Breaking this law involves having less time to make correct manoeuvres, and being responsible for more severe crashes when they occur, as kinetic energy dispersed on impact increases as the square of velocity (excuse the language of physics).
The RAC Report on Motoring 2016 reports that:
• The percentage of motorists who admit to speeding on country roads – which are where the majority of fatal accidents occur – has risen from 38% to 48% over the last five years.
• The proportion who say they have broken the speed limit on 20mph roads has risen from 38% in 2011 to 46%.
70% frequently or occasionally break the speed limits on motorways, with 44% claiming to do so on 30mph urban roads.
In other surveys:
63% of the drivers surveyed admitted to speeding. (OCV Ltd. October 2017)                                   .63% of drivers admit to driving at over 35mph in 30mph limits (including 76% of “at-work” drivers). (Direct Line Insurance survey September 2013 & January 2013)                                                  .83% of drivers admit to being regular speeders. (RAC Report on Motoring in 2012)

(I mention this last finding because in the same survey 92% say they are law-abiding.)

Don’t forget that these survey responses are based on what drivers say about themselves – if anything they will tend to minimise the extent of rule and law breaking. National figures are collected by the Department for Transport by automatic counters . You can also often see speed figures gathered and used by your local Highway Authority. On compliance, we see that in 2016:
46% of cars exceeded the speed limit on motorways
8% of cars exceeded the speed limit on national single carriageways
53% of cars exceeded the speed limit on 30mph roads
81% of cars exceeded the speed limit on 20mph roads
Naturally there are degrees of speeding, and it varies by location and road type and vehicle type. But clearly a large minority, or a majority, of motorists break the law on speed as a matter of course.

2. Mobile phone use.

Mobile phone use while driving, often including hands-free and texting, has been a target for the road safety industry for a while. It is supposed to significantly increase the chances of being in a crash. (There are other forms of electronic device incorporated into new cars which don’t seem to have attracted such attention.) Again using the RAC’s report for 2017, we find that:
• the number of motorists who say they make or receive calls illegally at the wheel is 9.2 million (based on extrapolating from 23% in the survey)
In their 2012 report the RAC found that:
23% of drivers admitted to texting at the wheel (this proportion may have declined since then. Hopefully)
11% drivers admitted to accessing e-mail or social media while driving.

So the majority don’t (claim to) use mobile phones, but a substantial minority does.

3. Miscellaneous unsafe behaviours.

These are ones which most drivers will admit are behaviours which break “the rules of the road”. For example, OSV Ltd.  this year found:
45% said that they ran red traffic lights at roadworks
37% parked on double yellow lines
28% confessed to forgetting to indicate
22% admitted to performing illegal U-Turns
17% reversed onto a main road
10% had driven the wrong way down a one-way street
7% said that they had illegally over- or undertaken someone
One in three (34%) drivers admitted to doing something illegal on the road in the last 14 days, while two out of three (64%) confessed to committing as many as five illegal acts in their vehicle a month.

Direct Line surveys in July 2013, April 2013, March 2012, August 2011, April 2015 (with Brake) found:
35% of drivers admit to continuing to drive when feeling sleepy.
• A group of drivers “failed to see22% of cyclists and 15% of motorcyclists who were “in clear view
53% of drivers admit to driving within two seconds of the vehicle in front on motorways
14% of drivers jump a red light at least twice a month
49% of drivers admit to flouting road laws, of whom “half did so deliberately because they thought they could get away with it, or did not agree with the laws”.

4. Crashing

This is the most obvious indicator of “rules of the road” not having been obeyed. The best way of assessing the number of these is through insurance claims. In 2013  the claims rate was 13.6% – just under 1 in 7 drivers made a claim for damage suffered in a crash which someone – almost always a driver – caused . In 2016  £28.6 million was paid by the insurance industry to motorists for repairing or replacing vehicles and in personal injury claims every day.

The process of claiming depends on the other driver being insured. While I don’t see having 3rd party insurance as an unqualified good (drivers are to some extent insuring themselves against their own errors) it is a legal obligation. A survey last year by Churchill estimated 216,000 cars out of 3.9 million in London were uninsured, with a national estimate of 1 million uninsured. Since claims can’t easily be made against the uninsured (although efforts can be made through the Motor Insurers Bureau ) and some crash damage may be too minor for the effort to be thought worthwhile, the number of crashes is likely to be higher.

The crucial point to remember is that a crash is highly unlikely to result from each infraction of the “rules of the road”. There are likely to be numerous rule infractions before the occurrence of a crash which is due partly or wholly to breaking the rules.

5. Not knowing the rules

OSV Ltd.  this year found:
67% of those questioned admitting that they don’t know all of the Highway Code.
Accident Advice Helpline came in slightly higher with:
Three quarters of drivers do not know the meanings of all the road signs in the Highway Code
Only 25% of drivers look at The Highway Code after passing the test
• This year Leicester University researchers found that more than 17,000 cases (12%) of injury-involving collisions in 2015 involved a hit and run (failing to stop/report) driver. Many defendants found and charged did not know they were legally required to stop. “Interestingly, there seems to be a public perception that motoring offences are not ‘real crimes’, and therefore there is a tendency for drivers to justify their behaviour,” said the lead researcher.
Slater and Gordon in 2015 found that
44% admitted that they were unlikely to pass a theory test if asked to take one now.
55% said that they wouldn’t know how to tell if they were driving on a road with a 30mph limit.

So a lot of drivers don’t actually know the “rules of the road” (which they are supposedly respecting) in the first place.
There is a lot I have not included here. I have left out the more egregious examples, such as driving when visually impaired  or drunk/drugged, although these behaviours are widespread, even if carried out on a minority of driving journeys. I have also not addressed the specific problems of commercial vehicle use. I leave pedestrians disobeying the “rules of the road” until later.

In particular, I have not discussed what happens after collisions involving casualties, and the absence or lenience of punishment for those found responsible. That is a subject which requires a post of its own. Suffice it to say that even when the “rules of the road” are broken to the extent that others are hurt or killed, the breaking of those rules is rarely seen as worthy of punishment of any real severity.

The point I have been making is that drivers do NOT obey the “rules of the road”. Law breaking is carried out as a matter of course by significant minorities, if not a majority, of drivers. If a wider definition of “rules of the road” is used which is based on the Highway Code, that proportion increases. It’s worthwhile reading the Highway Code to see how widespread rule breaking actually is.

To take one simple metric, the average cost of 3rd party private driver insurance in the UK is £440,  which, even allowing for profit and tax, implies that a driver will be expected to be responsible for about 30 times more damage than a typical cyclist (About £15 per annum is the cost of 3rd party insurance to members of organisations like Cycling UK or British Cycling).
So, if we take the instruction literally, if cyclists (rogue or otherwise) are to respect the “rules of the road” like everyone else, they will have to behave far more dangerously to others than they do currently. They will then certainly NOT be respecting or obeying the “rules of the road”.

The Times instruction is therefore an instruction to disrespect the rules of the road.

An Aside: Should pedestrians respect the “rules of the road”?

“Everyone else” may well include pedestrians. Indeed the Highway Code has specific rules  for pedestrians, although walking is not subject to the criminal law as cycling and driving are. If we are going to be focussed on the damage that cyclists can cause through rule infraction, it may be necessary to include the misbehaviour of pedestrians. Anybody who uses two wheels in urban areas can testify to the danger posed to them, even when they are scrupulously adhering to the Highway Code, by careless and inconsiderate walkers.

This message is indeed stressed continually in “road safety” industry publicity. Our view is to oppose the victim-blaming and lack of evidence base for such initiatives.

We are certainly against attempts to bring in “jay-walking” types of law as developed in the USA as part of its surrender to motor domination in the early decades of the 20th century. Such a move would set the two most benign forms of transport against each other at a time when both are threatened by the push for “Autonomous Vehicles”. Nevertheless, as Japan and Germany show, there can be intense social disapproval of rule-breaking walking in otherwise relatively pro-pedestrian societies.

The point is, again, that pedestrians often do NOT “respect the rules of the road”. You can simply read the rules in the Highway Code and check pedestrian traffic. Or, if you’re honest, your own behaviour.

So what’s going on?

I’m not trying to be clever about what The Times instruction says. I am trying to get to grips with what is thought to be the appropriate way to behave in the highway environment. What we see is that rule and law breaking by people with the potential to hurt and kill their fellow citizens is not only endemic, but that it has become so normalised that it is not seen as being “real” rule and law breaking at all. Furthermore, this denial of the reality of rule and law breaking is so uncontested that the heading of a leader in The Times of London, no less, can be formed in a way which is so manifestly self-contradictory.

I don’t think this is just sloppiness, although the casual lack of serious analysis is a key part of the problem. It is revealing of a dominant culture in which typical rule and law breaking is seen as acceptable by most (although not all) of the motoring public because it is normal for them. They may well know that they break the rules, but they don’t feel that they do. Some forms of rule and law breaking will be seen as unacceptable, but only because most drivers don’t engage in them, or at least not most of the time.

Nor is this unwillingness to admit to everyday rule breaking by typical motorists confined to the conservative media: a columnist for The Guardian joined in the chorus of attacks on cyclists saying: “Drivers are rigorously tested and policed, precisely because it’s clear how dangerous cars are.”

We need desperately to explain to such – no doubt otherwise intelligent – people just how false such a statement is. Indeed, how much of an inversion of reality it is. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves how such a person could get things so dramatically wrong.


So how do we engage with the public on this?

Firstly, we can have the kind of discussion of which this article is a part. There needs to be a persistent reminder to drivers that their ordinary behaviour (as assessed, for example, by insurance premium-setting actuaries) poses more – rule-breaking – danger than they think. One way of doing this is by simply pointing out how much they are getting away with it. Take this comment, again from the OSV Ltd. Survey

“Despite all these misdemeanours going on around us, apparently only 7% of drivers have been caught breaking the law. Perhaps this is why so many of them continue to flout the rules (my emphasis) – not knowing the rules is really no excuse.”

Secondly, we can remind them of the activities of the “road safety” industry with regard to their endemic rule and law breaking. While there is a regular stream of finger wagging at the usual suspects of drink-driving, phone use etc., most of the “road safety” industry’s expenditure goes into highway and motor vehicle engineering.

As practitioners and other readers of http://www.rdrf.org.uk know only too well, the road environment has been engineered for decades to accommodate rule and law breaking by errant drivers: crash barriers, anti-skid “treatments”, felling of roadside trees, longer sightlines etc. have been installed at the cost of billions. So too has the vehicle environment: anti-burst door locks, seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, Side Impact Protection Systems, collapsible steering wheels etc., etc. We have spent considerable time showing how these measures have not merely colluded with rule and law breaking, but that this accommodation has actually exacerbated bad driving.

But that is not the point here: the point is to explain that drivers see themselves as so dangerous that they need all this “safety” engineering. If they need it, then their rule and law breaking really must be endemic.

These are the themes to be brought out in any discussion of “the rules of the road”. We think they are essential if we are to have a proper discussion about what is acceptable in the highway environment and what needs to be stigmatised, with priority being given to tackling behaviours that endanger others. Pointing out that instructions such as that of The Times are self-contradictory will be a part of that.

3 thoughts on ““The Times” instructs cyclists to break the rules: what’s going on?

  1. Alexander Baines-Buffery

    As someone with a biology background I can’t help wonder about ‘maximum sustainable yield’ ?

    Usually that would mean, how many fish can we let fishermen catch before they start depleting the fish population.

    Given the rate of speeding, it would imply that we aren’t spending enough on enforcement.

    I wonder why this is? If we imagine for a moment that speed enforcement is really nothing to do with safety but rather a clever way of Taxing the stupid and the impulsive, then you might expect your fishermen (police) to only remove a modest number of the speeding population. This would maximise the revenue. Certainly if its about revenue, you wouldn’t want to ban drivers for life, as them most impulsive would give you most of your profit.

    It seems odd to me that cars can break the speed limit at all. There must be a technical fix for this by now.

    Its seems odd to me to employ lots of traffic cops to remove speeders slowly, at high cost and with little effect, when a law which effects the manufacture of cars would have a much bigger impact at almost no cost to the government.

    Do you know if anyone has done this analysis? It should be possible to see if the speed enforcement is optomise for revenue generation, or safety by looking at it statistically.

    1. rdrf Post author

      The issue is not technical but political: if there was commitment towards removing speeding this could be done by on-board automatic speed governors set by roadside beacons. This doesn’t happen because of social/political unwillingness to address what many motorists see as a fundamental right/freedom.

  2. Russell Dobbins

    Would roadside beacons be needed? You would need an awful lot of them. Wouldn’t it be much simpler and cheaper for the car’s ECM to ‘talk’ to the existing GPS network and govern speed through the fuel injection? But, as you say, this isn’t a technical issue but rather a lack of political will, being seen as a major vote loser. Cheers.


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