Cyclists, the law and subjective safety

Cyclist using a mobile: a major threat to public safety or a minor irritant easily avoided?I think it was Dr. Robert Davis, author of Death on the Streets, that said the following:

Complaining about cyclists jumping red lights is like complaining about queue-jumping in a bank whilst an armed robbery is taking place.

If it was someone else, my apologies for misattributing it, but it does sound like something Bob would say.

Disclaimer: I am actually a pretty law-abiding road-user these days, probably as law-abiding as anyone,  in any class of vehicle, on the road.  I used to be a bicycle courier (or messenger if you prefer), and if I obeyed the law, I lost money in earnings because I was slower than the other riders I was competing against for work who did not obey the law some or most of the time.

I guess my attitude now is that I really can’t be bothered to break the law if no-one is paying me to do it, but when I was a courier, it didn’t make sense to obey the law, everything else being equal.  I did try to be careful to respect the safety of other road users, particularly vulnerable ones.  Balanced against the economic imperative not to stop was the economic imperative not to get injured.  Nearly all couriers are classified as self-employed sub-contractors, and so do not receive pay when off work due to injury (or sickness).  In other words, if you rode like a crazy person, and crashed all the time, you wouldn’t make any money, because you would be on your back instead of on your bike.

I noted in this article that a courier had been stopped and ticketed by the Met for red light jumping (RLJing), and told that the police were cracking down on RLJing because a cyclist had recently been run over by a lorry.  This despite the fact that cyclists involved in collisions with lorries (HGVs) are almost always in compliance with the law at the time of the collision.  Another courier was stopped by the police, and given the option of attending a safety course instead of a fine.  The safety course was this week. It was a session in a lorry, observing the blind-spots.  The courier’s offence? Riding on the pavement.

As I said, I totally get that the police get more complaints about misbehaviour by cyclists than any thing else (including violent crime etc), so they need to be seen to do something; I also get that if you break the law, you should be prepared to accept the consequences, but I do find the association between anti-social behaviour and critical injury to cyclists by lorries really quite offensive.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘subjective safety’, notably by the kerb nerds, but also by cycling advocacy groups generally.  Subjective safety is what stops more people from riding, according to the surveys.  Subjective safety probably explains why a female friend found cycling in London too daunting, and now rides a motor scooter, despite the scooter being objectively more dangerous as a mode of transport than the bicycle.

Subjective safety explains why cyclists are far more concerned about being crashed into from behind whilst moving along in a straight line along a straight road, when in fact they are much more at risk when stationary, or moving off from stationary, at a junction.  Subjective safety explains why the public view cyclists as a major threat to public safety, when in fact cyclists are, almost without execption, an irritant, and that pedestrians are far more likely, by a factor of several hundred, to be killed whilst walking on the pavement (sidewalk for any N Americans) by a motor vehicle.

Subjective safety explains why, at the conclusion of a lengthy twitter debate about patronising advice given to female cyclists, someone tweeted:

Please – & I think it is more women doing it TAKE OUT THOSE F* EARPHONES. Too many die for music.

If you’re relying on hearing danger, as opposed to having a good look around you, I would suggest that you are likely to come a cropper whether you’re listening to bird-song or the latest offering from Motorhead.  Most headphones are totally inadequate in a competition with road-traffic noise, and some motor-vehicles are virtually silent, as are cyclists & pedestrians.  Cycling with head-phones does look dangerous, but objectively, it’s probably not any more dangerous than cycling without a hi-vis vest.

The RLJ debate comes up again and again and again, I have heard it raised by serious policy-makers at serious policy conferences, as if it were a proper threat to public order and health on the order of something like obesity, or alcohol abuse, when in fact, it is of little more concern than illegal parking.  So I welcomed these two items from the internet, the first a letter to the Montreal Gazzette, which I’ll reprint in full:

Re: “Cyclists must be made to obey rules” (Letter of the Day, May 6)

Elazar Gabay says “bicyclists have the same rights and duties as other drivers” then just a few sentences later complains that “at times they (bicyclists) occupy the entire lane …”.

Well, if they have the same rights, and motorists have the right to use the full lane, then shouldn’t bicyclists, too?

In fact, it doesn’t make sense that the exact same rules should apply to motorists and cyclists (and indeed it’s not the case). The difference in speed, mass and size means that sometimes they should be treated differently.

Everyone breaks whatever rules they think they can safely get away with. Motorists speed all the time; cyclists can’t because their vehicle can’t. Cyclists go against one-ways all the time; motorists can’t because their vehicle is too wide.

Where motorists think they see cyclists breaking so many rules, they are only seeing different rules being broken, due to physical differences between vehicle types. Motorists have long since internalized their own rule breaking as socially acceptable.

Cyclists are no more scofflaw than motorists.

Sean McBride

Montreal

The correspondent correctly, in my view, identifies that it is subjective safety that is the issue here.  Motorists do dangerous things in their vehicles, but this behaviour (speeding etc) has been normalised and is socially accepted, the way drink-driving was 30 years ago, whereas cyclists’ behaviour is unusual and doesn’t fall into social norms and so looks dangerous.

The second article is much longer and appears in Atlantic Cities, with the delightful title  Why We Should Never Fine Cyclists. It’s quite long, but worth a read.  The author goes much further than me, and to use Anna’s paraphrase, proposes that traffic lights are for traffic, not cyclists. A brief excerpt will give the flavour:

On balance, cyclists’ illegal behavior—like that of pedestrians—adds much, much more convenience to life than danger. Aggressive enforcement of traffic laws could upend the fragile system of incentives that leads thousands of people to undertake a long and sweaty commute each day.

Why should people riding 20-pound bicycles obey laws designed to regulate the conduct of 4,000-pound cars, to say nothing of accepting the same penalties? In terms of the damage we can cause and sustain in an accident, cyclists have more in common with pedestrians than cars and should be treated accordingly.

I know that there is a discourse about respect, recently advanced by a cycling writer that I respect, Ned Boulting, who got a bit backward when I pulled him up on it, more or less running that if we want to be taken seriously, we need to behave seriously, i.e. if we don’t stop running red lights and riding on the pavement, we won’t deserve to have decent provision.  This is total pony, and the argument doesn’t stand up to any examination.  Objectively a majority of motorists break the law relating to speed.

Since when did anyone get up and say ‘well, until the motorists stop speeding, we’re not going to build that new motorway, because they’ll only use it drive even faster than they are doing now’?

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2 comments
  1. Gerhard Weiss said:

    Thanks for the post. The pressure on bike messengers is indeed a problem, but mostly for the rider chasing around to make a living. For society the same kind of pressure on delivery and cab drivers, not to mention HGV drivers is a much bigger problem. It’s about time to organise traffic (the economy?) in a way that doesn’t reward speeding financially or push those who drive carefully out of a job. I was always amazed how a mini cab journey of about 10 min (=15-20min including driving empty) could cost £5. Take away running cost, office fee and dead time, how could you live on it unless you race through the streets for far too many hours per day?

    Like

  2. rdrf said:

    I dunno if I said what you said I said. But if I didn’t, i should have done!
    best

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum

    Like

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