bikebritain Says August 18, 2012

Cycling and Collective Responsibility

The Olympic Games closed last weekend and by and large the event was an unprecedented success. Apart from the pre-allocated seating entitlements that resulted in empty places in some of the stadia, the Games have gripped the nation. It is a wonderful advert for GB, we are demonstrating to the rest of the world literally the 'Best of Britain'. The iconic landmarks being used as the background for the Games are inspirational, let alone the genuinely outstanding and often moving individual and team performances we've witnessed. I defy anyone not be be caught up in the moment where Team GB wins six, (yes six) Gold medals during one day. My Twitter account, @bikebritain, ran dangerously low on superlatives to use. All of this was wonderfully positive and uplifting. However, there was one event that cast a shadow over the daily celebrations of personal endeavour. It occurred on Wednesday night during the first week.

Firstly, my condolences to the victims family. 

I do not the full details, but regrettably I do know the outcome. A cyclist was killed by an Olympic bus that was carrying officials from the Games. Whilst any death is tragic, I aalso ppreciate this was also not the first cyclist to die in London as a result of a road traffic accident. The following day the member of the public who found the poor soul underneath the bus wrote a vivd account of what they'd experienced. It sounded horrific and was shocking to read. I take riding my bikes for granted, as I'm sure that poor person did. Their last moments on is planet were spent in a truly awful way, thankfully not alone but comforted by a stranger. That account has now been taken down as a note of respect for the victims family. It was the right thing to do; nevertheless, that description of events will stay with me forever. I've been thinking hard about that accident since. 

The accident sparked a immediate reaction on Twitter. All the comments I read expressed sympathy for the cyclist and the debate regarding safety, helmets and road use quickly followed. It was the day of the time-trial and someone asked (Gold medal winning) Bradley Wiggins what he thought about cycling helmets. He said something broadly along the lines that the wearing of helmets should be compulsory. This stoked the debate still further. Was this a good idea or was it infact an infringement on personal liberty? I traded views with someone who clearly believed it was, and we agreed to disagree. So where does this leave us?

I think that the wearing of a helmet should be a personal choice. That said, it's a personal choice I exercise and strongly advocate others do too. I realise that if I am hit by any vehicle that it might not afford me sufficient protection from injury. However I'm working on the basis that wearing one offers me some chance of protection whereas not wearing one to start with does not. I appreciate an ill-fitting device is no help to anyone and I gather there's also the 'Superman' argument to acknowledge. This school of thought argues that by wearing a helmet it gives the rider a feeling of invincibility and therefore more risks are taken using one, than otherwise. Actually I can't remember what it's like not to wear a helmet; I've been doing so since 1996. The closest I get to being Superman is dressing in my skinsuit. I do not believe that wearing a helmet influences the way I ride my bike. I already know the protection offered by lycra is minimal and to me these things are related. If I come off, I'm going to hurt myself. I'm not sure why the argument that since a helmet cannot protect you from all types of accidents it has no purpose is considered a valid one. Isn't wearing a helmet better than not wearing one, similar to driving a car that has airbags verses one that does not? I suppose you could argue where does it end? If it's acceptable to legislate the wearing of a helmet then does that mean protective clothing is next? It is possible, but I suppose a line has to be drawn somewhere. For me, the bottom line is this; if I come off my bike I've taken some personal responsibility to avoid getting a head injury. It won't stop it happening, but it might help. 

The debate then shifted to a question of transport infrastructure and shared vehicle access. Even at the 'safest' level, it would seem shared access rights are fraught with danger. Take Brighton seafront, where the cycle path is shared with pedestrians. It's a receipe for disaster as pedestrians wonder onto the cycle route without a care in the world. Cyclists charge up and down the lane, probably going to fast, weaving in and out of the errant wanderers. Not ideal. The reason it's not ideal is because it's an example of implementing just half an idea; where a pavement once existed it has been converted into a shared transport route to give the illusion of sustainable, individual mobility. It's just not fit for purpose. And herein lies the issue. Our towns and cities have by and large not been planned with bikes in mind - so any attempt to create specific cycle lanes is typically at the expense of other modes of transport. The same goes for the shared bus, taxi and cycle lanes. On paper this should be an improvement, but at best it's only a risk reducer. INevertheless, it's a shared highway and due diligence is still required by the vulnerable cyclist. The bottom line is wherever you are cycling you need to exercise caution at all times - whether you're on a 'normal' road or anywhere else. It boils down to personal responsibility again. However, sadly, that alone does not guarantee a safe cycling experience.

There are probably structural things (such as better town planning) that we can do to make the act of cycling safer, but I wonder if something more fundamental that's required. It needs the buy in from all road users, cyclists and drivers of all vehicles, large and small. I fear without a change of attitude to people when we are driving, those who cycle will always be the most vulnerable. Cyclists have just as much right to use the highways as any other road user. Maybe prior to passing your driving test you should be made to ride a bike so everyone has a better understanding of what cycling is and why consideration needs to be offered to everyone on the highway? I am not certain what the answer is, but what I do know is that if we don't decide to change our behaviour, change will just not happen. It's as simple as that. 

Cyclists need to play their part. I was originally going to write a piece on those (increasing number of) cyclists that choose to ride wearing headphones. To me this is complete madness. I did it once. Never again. The amount of awareness you forgo, so as to have music played into your head is unbelievable. I can see how it would motivate you to have a more productive ride, but I couldn't hear a thing. It was a useful exercise to show me how much you rely on your hearing to provide peripheral 'vision'; being aware of the dangers behind you in particular. It's about as stupid as wearing black at night and not having lights on your bike. Give other road users as well as yourselves a chance. And I don't care how much you like music, you can probably live without it whilst you're cycling. 

To conclude; we are all responsible for each others safety when we use the roads, regardless of how we're travelling. Cyclists should do what they can to reasonably manage the risk of using highways. A helmet might not assist in an accident, but wearing headphones, not having lights, wearing dark clothing..........all needlessly endanger you as well as others. Presumably, the peloton wear helmets for a reason.........

Ride as safely as you can. 

Again, my condolences to those involved. 

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