Thursday, 19 May 2011

Bicycle Safety: Arms Race, or Disarmament?

I've been thinking about the "war on the motorist" and the terrorising of our residential streets by motor vehicles, coupled with a media interest in cycle "helmets" and the dangers of cycling in the UK. What are we doing? I think there are two different ways of approaching the problem.

Increased Safety for Cyclists

A large amount of effort is being focussed on increasing safety for cyclists, without making any changes to motorists at all. We see strong campaigns for cyclists to always wear "helmets", high-visibility clothing, and to take BikeAbility training courses to learn how to deal with motor traffic. The emphasis is entirely on getting cyclists to make changes.

Here is a cause-and-effect diagram I created to show how this creates an "arms race" between the danger caused by the motor vehicles, and the safety measures required by cyclists:

Here, we get perhaps some benefit from giving cyclists more protection, but we don't actually get very many new people cycling. In fact the safety equipment and training we're encouraging makes it clear to non-cyclists that their fears about the dangers of cycling are completely justified.

The reduction in danger possible by wearing polystyrene hats, or flourescent clothing, is minimal. These won't protect you if a distracted car driver drives into you. The benefits of training are also, I think, overstated. Even experienced cyclists are being killed on our roads, not just novices.

The diagram shows several vicious circles, that keep the cycle going:

  • Perceived danger → More calls for safety equipment → Increased perceived danger.
  • Real danger → Fewer people cycling →More cars →Increased real danger.
  • Calls for safety equipment → Perceived danger → Fewer people cycling →More cars →Increased real danger → Increased deaths and injuries → More calls for safety equipment.

The main benefit of this approach is that it's very cheap. Cyclists actually pay for their own protection, and keeping children indoors doesn't cost anything.

This is an arms race, just like those between warring nations, and like our "war on terror" where every action prompts a bigger reaction. There is no way this can lead to more people cycling as a normal mode of transport. It results in people's freedoms being restricted, and much pain and suffering.

Reduced Road Danger

The opposite way of approaching the problem is to focus on the causes of the danger, rather on the safety of the victims.

Here is a similar cause-and-effect diagram:

Here we have fewer circles, and they're no longer vicious ones. In fact, the whole effect is remarkably more pleasant.

The only problem with this approach is that it's more expensive and time-consuming than getting cyclists to protect themselves. However the Dutch and Danish have shown what can be done with the right political will and a decade or two of time. Cycle facilities are orders of magnitude cheaper than motorways, and 20's Plenty for Us is extremely cost-effective.

This is disarmament: everyone lays down their weapons, the two sides talk to each other, and peace prevails. What's more, there are no vicious circles: once we've removed the danger we can relax and enjoy life!

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Brake, RoadPeace, and Cycle "Helmets"

Norman Baker, Minister for Cycling, has had to defend his decision to ride a bicycle without a "helmet", as he doesn't think that these polystyrene hats are of any use to him.

Oddly, rather than congratulate him on cycling, rather than driving around inside a dangerous tonne-and-a-bit of metal, "road safety charity" Brake said that they were "frustrated" about his lack of polystyrene hat. Their arguments are based on discredited and old research and they ignore other evidence - even the statements made by helmet manufacturers themselves. To their credit they do give advice about how to wear a helmet, something that really needs a lot more publicity given the number of people riding with loose-fitting and tilted back ones.

In comparison, the "national charity for road crash victims" RoadPeace, has a well-informed and fact-based policy on cycle helmets. They have clearly read the evidence for and against, and have decided that their policy should follow logic, and the policy of the CTC and the European Cyclists' Federation: cyclists can wear "helmets" if they like, but they should be aware that they provide only limited protection.

Cycle "Helmets" are in fact a dangerously misleading red-herring, perpetuated by mis-informed safety people and by the industry that makes a fortune from selling these cheap-to-make polystyrene hats at highly inflated prices. The real cause of danger to cyclists isn't cycling itself, it is sharing the roads heavy fast-moving motor vehicles.

Some people think that training cyclists to ride "defensively", to wear bright clothing, and to wear polystyrene hats will stop the deaths and injuries we see. But sadly this is wrong: even experienced cyclists wearing hats and high-viz are being killed and seriously injured on our roads. In fact training might make things worse, as experienced cyclists are more likely to ride on busy roads than novices are. No amount of cycle training and polystyrene will help if a car driver on a mobile phone fails to avoid you.

I've tried to appeal to Brake to look at all the evidence, including the actual tests that "helmets" have to survive to be certified. But sadly they continue to peddle their misleading advice, which can only lead to fewer cyclists, more motorists, and more deaths and injuries on the UK's roads.

I think the difference is this:

  • Brake want to increase safety


  • RoadPeace want to reduce danger.

I know which I prefer.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Lovely peaceful morning

Today was a lovely morning: we woke to the sunshine, and after the seemingly endless days of windy damp days it's lovely and still.

The daily bike ride to school was almost perfect: a little chilly but no wind and lovely sunshine. People all seemed happy and enjoying the first hints of spring.

But then the grumpy, angry, pushy, annoyed car drivers start to appear, like vastly-oversized steel wasps on a pleasant summertime picnic. Engines roar, wheels spin, and there's an overall smell of burnt fossil fuels in the still air. The normally-invisible exhaust fumes are visible as steamy clouds that hang pungently in the air.

But we're not in a car, so the cars don't bother us. Life is good, and before long the cars will be extinct.