Cyclists can be a nuisance, running red lights, riding on the pavement but are they dangerous, and if not, is it
a problem if they break the Peter Wallker, Guardian journalist and author of Bike Nation: How Cycling Can
Save the World, explores our fixation on cycling behaviour and whether it’s distracting us from solving the real
causes of death on our roads
Full text of speech,
Cyclists, they can be a bit irritating, can’t they? I mean it’s not just the funny clothes or the bike lanes, it’s the way they seem to think they’re above the law. Riding on pavements, scattering pedestrians in their wake. Sorry! Fuck you, mate! Sorry. And don’t even get me started on jumping red lights. I mean, it’s really dangerous, isn’t it? Well, lots of people certainly think that way. Come here, come here, look at the fucking lights! And the media definitely believe it. Cyclists routinely flout traffic rules. Mounting the pavement and no helmet, talking on a mobile phone. So you’ve got cyclists who are uninsured, they could crash into your car, they could crash into you … I’ve noticed cyclists have got more and more aggressive over the years, right? They are completely unaccountable. Do cyclists really think they’re above the law? And does it even matter? Let’s start with the basics. When we talk about cyclists, what do we mean? Do we mean this? Or this? Or even this? I mean, sure, some people do look like the stereotype but there’s really no such thing as a cyclist. There’s just people who ride a bike. Being seen as a cyclist is part of the problematic stereotype of people cycling. You’re not seen as a busist or a trainist but there’s this stereotype stigma of being a cyclist even though of course most people who cycle are also using other modes of transport. So cyclists are really no different to anyone else and while statistics are limited, there’s no evidence people break the law more often when they’re on the bike than they do at any other time. There are some studies on cyclist lawbreaking. One survey of five major London junctions found 16% of cyclists jumped or at least partly anticipated the red. But there is more to it. A lot of the cyclists said they’ve done so, in part for safety. The people that do jump red lights sometimes it’s because of the fear they have of something that’s perhaps happened to them previously, they might have had a close call with a vehicle they’re trying to get away from, they might well be on a pavement for that reason as well. But so most of the time it’s a safety and it’s a self-preservation thing. So yes, some cyclists do break the law. But even when they do, is it especially dangerous? The effects of that behaviour that people are moaning about is negligible. If you look at the statistics, you look at the actual threat of harm, and you think cyclists aren’t posing a risk to anybody. In the UK, about 1,700 people a year are killed on the roads. And how many of those are hit by bikes? Usually between zero and two. They are not self-harmers as a group, cyclists. Because of the inherent sense of vulnerability you have on a push bike, they take a great deal of care even when they’re offending. Which is a complete opposite to what you get people in cars because people feel so secure in cars with seatbelts, airbags, a big steel cage around them They tend to offend with, you know, almost gay abandon. Some police forces have actually taken a strategic decision to pay less attention to cyclist law-breaking and instead, focus resources on the sort of offences more likely to kill or main people. I’ve been a traffic officer for 13 years in the West Midlands. I think I’ve given out three tickets for red light jumping for cyclists. And one of those wouldn’t have got one, for the fact that he made off, he was caught eventually. So, does this all mean that breaking the law on a bike is fine? I’d say no. It can not only be annoying, it can also be intimidating but they’re extremely unlikely to be a serious danger to others. And given it is so relatively harmless, why does everyone go on and on about dangerous cycling? It could just be because people on bikes breaking the law are just a bit more obvious. But you won’t necessarily notice a driver doing 30 in a 20 zone or looking at their phone at the wheel. Yup, you knew this bit was coming. What about drivers? Who, let’s remember, can also be cyclists. When they’re in cars, they also break the law. And if they do, can it be dangerous? Today five people will die on our roads and 63 will suffer life-changing injuries … it is, in the majority of cases, drivers that are causing these collisions and the offending that causes these collisions. You have your typical distraction offence, mobile phone, which probably is responsible for a vast amount of all collisions now. The other things that we look at, excess speed. The speed limit is not just a limit, they see it as a target to get to. The other behaviour is of course drink and drug driving and unfortunately, you know, drink and drug driving is on the rise. When you crash a car at 30 miles an hour it’s got the same energy and same destructive power as a small explosive device and so we’ve got to make an effort as a society to instill into people when you’re driving that car, you’ve really got to take care. So consider this. In 2016, 448 pedestrians were killed on UK roads. Of these pedestrian deaths, just two involved cyclists. But one of the cases attracted so much media attention, the government quickly pushed through a new law making it easier to prosecute cyclists. Charlie Alliston shook his head as judge Wendy Joseph repeatedly criticised his attitude while on his bicycle. I think the media does have a huge role to play because if we hear of an incident where it’s the fault of the cyclist which is a very, very, very rare occurrence, it’s a massive headline it’s all over the newspapers, it’s all over the news, it’s on the radio and everybody knows that a cyclist has done something wrong and it’s a tragedy when that happens but unfortunately every single day on our roads multiple people die because of the actions and lack of care of a person behind the wheel of a vehicle and those just don’t get reported on, there are so many of them. In the last decade or so, the number of people killed or seriously injured on British roads has almost halved. But the bulk of this safety benefit has been felt by people in cars. Cyclists, they’ve nearly as much danger. So, if we really want to make our roads safer, then we need to move our discussion and media focus away from cycling and on to driving and it’s not because drivers are the big baddies, it’s just because perceptions, which include myths and falsehoods, really help to shape political will and public policy. I think we have to talk in human terms a little bit more and recognise other people and we need to perhaps take a step back across our whole lives and realise that for the vast majority, it’s just people getting around and we need to have a little bit more courtesy towards each other. Thanks for watching. Please like and subscribe, leave your comments below and if you like what we’re doing, click here to support the Guardian.