Friday, June 29, 2012

The tragedy of lack of road safety

Thursday, 28th June 2012: I started of this sentence with “as a cyclist”, but that pigeonholes me, I have been toddling since about two, cycling since about four and driving and motorcycling since about seventeen, I still regularly use trains and buses. Over the last few of those years I have felt an increasing sense of unease when using the roads. That unease has been fuelled by the lack of common sense and courtesy shown on the roads.

I often see motorists holding and using their phones when driving, I see vehicles and cyclists jumping red lights, I see tailgating I see speeding, lane-jumping, vehicles using bus lanes – the list is endless. Fortunately I rarely see accidents and indeed, for some time the message has been a that there is focus on improving road safety and the data has supported that here in the UK.

My feeling is that the improvement in road safety has been focused on the making motor vehicles safer in the event of a crash – safety belts, ABS, better energy absorption in the event of a crash. There has also been notable success in terms of controlling the speeds at which motor vehicles travel through detection (speed cameras) and punishment (speed awareness courses, fines, points).

Two things have worried me, one is the resistance to improving road safety measures by labelling it as a “war on the motorist” or a “tax on the motorist”. The second is a systematic failure to recognise that the potential for harm in 1,000 to 3,000Kg of glass, metal and rubber far outweighs the protective abilities of a thin bit of expanded polystyrene on the head and a yellow jacket.

Why have we been so protective of the right to drive motor vehicles badly? – I don’t know. Why have we been so willing to accept that accidents happen because of excuses reasons like “the sun was in my eyes” or “I didn’t seem them/him./her”. Or “I didn’t notice any warning signs of bollards” just before crashing into one in Emmanuel Road, Cambridge.

This might all be the fanciful imaginings of a raving cyclist – except the data shows “Road death toll rises for the first time in a decade with worrying increase in cyclist and pedestrian fatalities”. I am pleased to see that the Motoring Groups say “figures should be a ‘wake-up call’”. Slightly worrying is the quote from Robert Gifford, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS)

“Pedestrian and cyclist casualty figures were particularly worrying, pointing to the rise of the ‘born again cyclist’”

Which implies (Boris-Johnson-like) that the roads are fine for hardy-cyclists, but what is the difference between born-again and young cyclists. The message seems to be that the roads are dangerous and we don’t want new cyclists on the road because that increases out statistics. We are not statistics we are people.

Does the Government recognise this – well we have fine words – but “fine words butter no parsnips”. But hey the Transport Minister Norman Baker said this week that “£15 million would be made available to local authorities outside London to fix cycle injury blackspots”. But motorists were thrown a £500m bone with the “freeze on fuel duty until the end of the year”. What sort of message?

I feel that the motor vehicle has become such a “national institution” that our whole system seems to have a blindspot about the  failings of motor transport and we systemically excuse those failings. I am not saying no cars, or stop driving – just let’s level the playing field, I want to be able to carry on driving safely as well as cycling in safety.

I do urge you to read this Press Release (on Martin Porter, The Cycling Silk’s Blog) from Kate Cairns whose sister, Eilidh Cairns, was run over and killed on the 5th February 2009 by a lorry driver. He went on to cause the death of another person, running over Nora Guttman at a pedestrian crossing – June 2011.

No more systemic excuses please. Make the roads safer for all of us recognising where the harm comes from – don’t just talk about it.



  1. You know recently, I've had this similar sense of danger on the roads. I've commuted for years but just recently I've felt I don't want to do it anymore. Maybe I feel as a father there is a lot I could loose out on now, but I think drivers and the amount of traffic just means the odds against us are getting worse.

    Cities may be getting a great deal of attention right now but urban riding is just as dangerous!

    1. I agree - it feels as though, despite all the attention cycling is getting, the odds are getting worse. Maybe not much worse but the switch from shrinking to growing is noticeable.

      A few years ago when I was knocked off my bicycle in Histon. I was in high-vis, it was a pleasant bright February afternoon and a car just turned across me. It was a SMIDSY - the guy was mortified, but although I am not small his left hand windscreen pillar had hidden me from his glance. It would seem that increasing his safety through stronger pillars came at the expense of my safety (and me a vulnerable road user).

      Mind you having said all that I won't stop cycling, whereas I have stopped motorcycling. (The argument used "against me" was along the lines of now we have kids...)

      I also catch the train more. Or maybe I'm just getting old ;-)