When cycling reaches newspaper front pages it’s usually the sporting kind. The last couple of weeks have been an exception, with blanket coverage of the trial of Charlie Alliston, convicted last week over the death of Kim Briggs after he struck her on his bike.
This piece isn’t about the facts of this very tragic case. It’s about the aftermath, more specifically the repeated call in some part of the media for something to be done about what these articles believe is a particular problem of reckless and law-flouting cyclists.
Much of this is perhaps predictable – I’ve written previously on the particular way cycling and cyclists are often dealt with in the media and public debate – but it’s worth pointing out the peculiarly one-sided and fact-avoidant tone of much of the recent discussion.
It’s also worth countering some of the myths again propagated about cycling, because it’s not just pundits who have been making themselves look silly; a few politicians who should have known much better have also got involved.
Two points before I begin. First – and this cannot be stressed enough – I am not seeking to excuse or mitigate Alliston’s actions, or those of other riders who behave in a potentially reckless manner. I have utter sympathy for the loved ones of Kim Briggs.
This piece is only intended to provide context as to where the problem on danger on the roads really lies.
Also: when I refer to a cyclist, I mean someone who happens to be riding a bike at that moment. They are not different, or apart, or special. The great majority of regular adult cyclists in the UK also drive cars. Like me, they’re also very likely to use trains, buses, planes, all the rest of it. This is a debate about modes of transport, not tribes.
The anti-cycling backlash is disproportionate and ill-informed
As an experiment I looked through the news feeds of all UK police forces for the fortnight following the first day of the Alliston trial, and compiled details of the serious road incidents they cited.
It found that over the period, eight pedestrians had been killed after being hit by car drivers, and 27 were seriously injured, in five of these cases the motorist fleeing the scene. Two cyclists were killed (one in a hit and run) and four badly hurt, two again by drivers who did not stop.
Three motorcyclists died after colliding with cars, and 26 people in motor vehicles died in various other collisions (I excluded single-vehicle crashes).
Other incidents included a 12-year-old girl pushed off her bike by a man, after which she was almost hit and killed by a car, and a six-year-old boy run over and trapped under a mobility scooter, the driver of which then left the scene (at a presumably sedate pace).
Beyond the horrible crash on the M1 which killed eight people, none of these, that I saw, made the front pages – or any pages – of the national newspapers.
To me, this shows that the supposed “problem” of dangerous cyclists, as identified by such disparate sources as the Times leader column, Adam Boulton and Tony Blackburn, is less serious than billed.
To stress again: this is not to excuse or mitigate what Alliston did. It is simply to place it in the wider context of the everyday, normalised and largely ignored daily carnage on our roads.
There is not an epidemic of dangerous cycling on the roads
Even some of the more sensible post-trial commenters felt obliged to note, with a weary sigh, that cyclists can be a particularly lawless bunch overall. My esteemed and wise colleague, David Shariatmadari, contrasted the anarchic world of bikes with the “rigorously tested and policed” arena of driving.
There’s a flaw with this argument: there’s no evidence it’s true. Yes, a percentage of cyclists ride like idiots, and their actions can cause injury and, more often, intimidation or alarm.
But the same can be said for just about every form of transport. As I’ve written before, I strongly suspect cyclists who rush through red lights are likely to drive a car equally stupidly. It’s about idiots, not the mode of travel that happen to be using at the time.
And there is a lot of stupidity in cars. Speeding and phone use at the wheel is less visible than a cyclist sailing across a red, but (for reasons of physics rather than morals) is much, much more likely to kill or maim someone else.
Those who think licensing cars and testing drivers curbs lawlessness should follow the Twitter feed of the joint Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire roads policing unit, an endless daily list of uninsured, illegally-modified or otherwise dangerous vehicles.
For more context, consider this. Earlier this month Essex police had a single day of action in Clacton – a town of about 20,000 people – connected to poor driving. It found 116 speeding offences, 12 drivers with no insurance, 18 with no MOT, seven using phones, and 11 cars seized for faults or illegal modifications.
Rushed laws are bad laws
As any politician will tell you, the classic example of this was the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, a rushed and confused measure introduced following a series of high-profile attacks by a handful of breeds.
This has not stopped several commentators, including a Times editorial, demanding a change to the admittedly ancient and arcane laws which saw Alliston convicted under an 1861 measure barring “wanton and furious” driving.
It’s worth noting that Briggs’ widower, Matt, has also suggested a law change, and that it is clear why he might think this.
I’d make just two points. First, there is a reason there has never been a specific law targeting cyclists who kill – it happens very occasionally, usually between zero and two times a year in Britain (as against 300 or so killed by motor vehicles), and prosecutions resulting from these are still rarer.
Second, there is a much better argument for a wholesale revamp of road laws to better protect all vulnerable road users, whether pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists.
A BBC study found that fewer than half of driver convicted of offences in which a cyclist died went to jail. Other research has found large numbers of drivers keep their licences even after being repeatedly convicted of law-breaking. In 2015 a van driver, Christopher Gard, killed a cyclist as he sent a text at the wheel. It emerged in court Gard had six previous convictions for using a phone as he drove.
If you want to use law to make the roads safer, this might seem a better place to begin.
There is no powerful cycling lobby, or even many cyclists
This is one of the more curious arguments from the cycle sceptics, and again it’s nonsense. Cycling UK (formerly the CTC), named by the usually sensible Boulton as “a well-resourced lobbying organisation”, has an annual income of about £5m, precisely 10% that of the powerful Cats Protection League.
One of the reasons there is so much media misinformation about cycling is that virtually no one cares about the subject, and even politicians make regular howlers about it.
The usually reasonable Labour MP Wes Streeting used the Alliston case as a reason to tweet that there was need for “better enforcement of brakes, lights and helmets”, somehow not noticing helmets are not a legal requirement to be enforced.
But more than that, the idea that the UK is menaced by an advancing tide of reckless cyclists ignores the fact that cycling levels across the country have stayed largely static for years, and remain pitifully low, at about 1% or so or all trips.
Yes, there are more cyclists now in London, where most of the commentators live. But if you live in, say, Burnley where, the 2011 census shows, precisely 397 of the town’s 63,000 commuters cycle to work, the whole argument probably seems like an odd irrelevance.
It’s missing the point on an industrial scale
Last week, figures from Public Health England showed 6 million middle-aged people in England are currently getting more or less no exercise, at massive risk to their health.
If you talk to just about any public health expert they will tell you two things. First, the pandemic of avoidable ill-health caused by sedentary lifestyles will, if unchecked, pretty soon bankrupt the NHS and social care systems.
They will also tell you that the best way to get people active is exercise which forms part of their everyday life, such as active travel, and that cycling is ideal for this.
About 85,000 people in England and Wales die each year from illness connected to inactive living. Obsessing about the supposed dangers caused by cycling, rather than the many, provable benefits it brings, strikes me as extremely odd.