It was the kind of reasoning you’d expect from someone who has spent so long trying to reconcile competing instincts and priorities that he’d lost all track of common sense. One summer several years ago, over lunch with a junior transport minister in the then UK government, I asked about the future of speed cameras - cameras for catching speeding motorists that his own government’s research showed saved more than a hundred lives every year. Putting on a serious voice and knitting his brows, the minister – who clearly disapproved of the official support for the cameras - told me that motorists were worried about speed cameras’ effectiveness because of the “regression to mean” effect. The effect describes how part of the fall in accidents at a given site after a camera’s installation is probably a statistical quirk, rather than a result of the camera’s presence.
I tried – but didn’t fully succeed – to control my irritation. I told the minister – forcefully – that in my experience far more motorists were simply worried about being caught speeding. They didn’t have intellectual doubts about speed cameras – they just thought they should be allowed to drive whatever speed they damn well pleased. The minister clearly didn’t think it was important to enforce speed limits.
|Cyclists on Lower Thames Street, London Skyride 2009.|
They're their "own worst enemies", according to one minister -
yet they seem oblivious to the danger.
The lunch was the moment when I started to realise how completely the thinking about road use of most people – even those who devote their days to deciding on road safety policy – comes from the gut, rather than the higher brain centres. The minister’s gut wanted to drive fast – I later discovered he had a number of convictions for speeding – and disliked cyclists. My gut, clearly, likes cycling and doesn’t care for driving. But I like to think my frontal cortex at least gets to review the gut’s decisions. I recognised – I still recognise – that lots of people need to drive, that motor vehicles are not about to stop being the main means of making most trips in the UK – or most other parts of the world – and that even the keenest cyclist has to find some modus vivendi with the dominant road users. It was depressing to find a government minister relying so thoroughly on the lower reaches of his abdomen that he was holding two utterly contradictory views.
But anyone who’s spent any significant time cycling anywhere where cycling is a fringe activity will know that cyclists scratch out feelings from well below some people's civilised veneers. Some motorists’ determination to get past cyclists just to reach the end of the traffic jam ahead faster; the curious determination of some pedestrians to step in front of cyclists even when they can see the cyclist clearly; the daily battles over precedence in the special boxes for cyclists at traffic lights: these all betoken a gut distaste for cyclists that doesn’t seem based on detailed perusal of road casualty rates.
Nevertheless, it is probably worth laying out clearly how intellectually disreputable the minister’s views were. In 2010, 1,850 people died on the UK’s roads – and only four were killed by cyclists. In each of 2008 and 2009, only a single pedestrian died after being hit by a bicycle. Cyclists – who account for just under 2 per cent of traffic but far more in the urban areas where most accidents occur – consequently were responsible for just 0.22 per cent of 2010’s road user fatalities. The proportion had been still lower the two preceding years. Even among pedestrians – the only group of road users that cyclists seriously threaten – cyclists accounted for fewer than 1 per cent of the 405 killed. Other road users, meanwhile, killed 111 cyclists.
|Me in cycling gear: a sight, one reporter says,|
that ought to terrify pedestrians. Note to motorist
readers: since you won't be able to see me, I'm near
the picture's middle, wearing high-visibility clothing
Politicians who want to make life safer for pedestrians and other road users should consequently be encouraging cycling, even if cyclists continue to run red lights (which I think they shouldn’t) or mount the occasional pavement. We cyclists represent far less of a danger to other road users than any other form of wheeled transport.
Yet, when I spoke to Lord Adonis, the then newly-appointed transport secretary, in mid-2009 along with another transport correspondent, the other reporter turned beetroot red when I asked about enhancing safety for cyclists. He interrupted before the minister could answer. “What are you going to do about aggressive cyclists?” he demanded. “What aggressive cyclists?” I retorted, pointing out that people perched on metal frames and two wheels were in a weak position to be truly, dangerously aggressive. My theories about what drives such anger will have to wait, however, for another post. It will take some space to explain why some people hate others simply for their choice of transport mode…