May 21, 2005

My way or the highway

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,1487422,00.html

I've just sent this off to Guardian weekend. The witch doctors of the nanny state are at it again…..

I'm not surprised cyclists like Zoe Williams "expect one nasty accident a year".

The last time I had a nasty accident was in 1982. Since then I have cycled over 50,000 miles. I don't overtake lorries on their left, I don't ride close to the kerb or parked cars and I use lights in the dark. All vital safety measures for cyclists which apparently Ms. Williams doesn't think important enough to mention.

People are put off cycling because they think motor traffic is too dangerous. It is if you think wearing a plastic hat is a substitute for knowing where the real dangers lie and taking steps to counter them


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  1. Chris May

    I think you're misjudging the article. Clearly, you can never get everyone's pet safety measures into 1000 words, and Zoe never actually advised against any of those points you mentioned, as far as I could see.

    She was writing an article for a newspaper lifestyle magizine, not a road safetly pamphlet, so she's required to entertain as much as she is to inform (of course, you may not find her writing amusing, but I smiled at a few of the jokes)

    Moreover, I thought she did an excellent job of promoting the idea that cycling is not just for middle-aged excentric male types with tweeds and bicycle clips, that it can be (at least a little bit) cool, and the sort of thing that you might actually want to do, rather than just do because you feel you ought to.

    Finally, whilst I agree that the line about '1 accident a year' was poorly thought out from a propaganda point of view, I think there may well be a difference in accidents between people who cycle a lot in the rush hour in a city and people who cycle a lot in the countryside at the weekend. I think also that the definition of 'a lot' is tricksy – a lot by commuter standards, or a lot by courier standards? There's a world of difference

    21 May 2005, 20:13

  2. Hello Chris,

    Ok perhaps I don't really understand the mindset of Guardian Weekend – one of those Guardian supplements which are even sillier than the main bit. And Zoe Williams is a great improvement on Jeremy Clarkson.

    She does attack councils' laughable apologies for cycle facilities, based as they usually are on the crazy notion of treating cyclists as pedestrians with wheels. But she hasn't bothered to research where the real dangers for cyclists lie.

    A quarter of cyclist fatalities in London are due to lorries turning left into the path of cyclists.

    Look at link for a realistic assessment of the dangers in urban cycling.

    By the way I might be at risk of being served with an ASBO in an attempt to curb my persistent and irredeemable uncoolness, but I'm not a weekends only cyclist. Not having a car I use my bicycles a lot. So I've covered about 30,000 miles on urban roads since my last and only serious accident in 1982 (and that was just an overnight hospital stay).

    22 May 2005, 09:52

  3. Chris May

    for a realistic assessment of the dangers in urban cycling.

    Hrmm. It's certainly informative, and I can't find anything to disagree with, but it's interest level (for me, anyway) illustrates nicely the difference in focus between a lifestyle article and public-information one. It's a shame, though, that the Guardian online can't do links to resources like that for those who want to find out more.

    my last and only serious accident in 1982 (and that was just an overnight hospital stay)

    hrmm… that might explain another disparity – In my book a 'serious accident' is anything that draws blood – 'an overight hospital stay' qualifies for more than a 'just'! Of course, Zoe's acquaintance is just as likely to be using your definition as mine, though.

    I was actually thinking at least in part of myself with the 'countryside' comment – although I ride every day, only the last mile or so down Gibbet Hill could qualify as 'urban' in any sense of the word. But I used to know a couple of guys who worked as couriers in Edinburgh, and their accident rate seemed broadly consistent with '1 per year that kept them off the bike for a day or more'

    23 May 2005, 15:45

  4. While being knocked unconscious for a few minutes, staying overnight in hospital for observation but suffering no further problems is a "nasty" accident as far as I'm concerned, I expect the Department of Transport would classify the injury as minor.

    If drawing blood were a criterion for a "nasty" accident, shaving would be classed as dangerous!

    So how bad an accident has to be to become nasty is a very subjective issue. Add that to what people are thinking of when the word cycling comes up and all sorts of conclusions can be drawn. There's a big difference between pottering around town or even regular commuting, where I think you can expect decades to pass between hospital visits and what happens to couriers.

    Then there's cycling as a sport. People pushing themselves can expect sports injuries and those who ride off-road can expect bruises if not the occasional breakage. I fell off a horse a couple of weeks ago, but it was nothing compared to what happened when I fell off a camel a couple of years earlier. But that's sport, even more dangerous than DIY with ladders?

    23 May 2005, 19:12

  5. Eloise

    Zoe probably sees laddering her tights as a nasty accident.
    What are the bike routes like around Cov? I didn't have a bike there so i don't know. The only person i know who had an accident caught his wheel in the Canley level crossing and went over the handlebars. (lucky there wasn't a train coming) My pet hate in Notts is that the bike lanes are also bus lanes, also that cars go in them anyway, and they also get used as unofficial delivery bays because the shops in my area don't seem to have their own parking. So if there's a delivery happening you have to pull out into the main bit of road, and car drivers do their damndest not to let you in then they have their headlights up your arse for the rest of the journey. And don't get me started on tram lines…

    24 May 2005, 12:54

  6. I try not to use the concept of Bike Routes. People in Local Authorities use it to justify not worrying about making the rest of the road network even more cycle-hostile than it already is.

    Overall, having been warned of the danger of many types of "Cycle Facilities" (often a Orwellain phrase for things which make cycling more difficult) from other parts of the country, I've helped resist the introduction of the sillier types by Coventry council. I think the battle on this issue has been won in Coventry. But see link & silly give way (you miserable cyclist to the almighty motorist) markings on Library Road near Ramphal building.

    With a few exceptions (e.g. putting a cycle track parallel to the Leamington – Kenilworth road) I'm not enthusiastic about pursuing civil engineering changes. I tend to think local authorities should focus on "soft" measures such as training and promotion. The same applies to the University – although better long term storage, covers for existing parking, a track between main campus & Kenilworth and (possibly) more showers would be useful, I think the best use of resources is in information and promotion.

    24 May 2005, 21:13

  7. Chris

    I think you've missed the positive aspects of this article. Yes, it's dealt with some of the issues faced by cyclists in a (perhaps overly) humerous way…but it's also drawn attention these dangers. Things like how bad "friction" is as a way to stop a bike when it's wazzing down.

    Elois – I'm in Notitngham now (ex-student) and make the regular journey down the ringroad on my bike (about 5 miles of it). Cycle provisions along that road are great – sadly though so full of broken tree branches, grit…schoolkids smoking rollies…that I choose not to use them and cycle on the road instead (much to the annoyance of many a motorist who doesn't understand my wish to use a whole lane!). There have been quite a few people in QMC (Hospital in Nottingham) with broken bones as a result of tram line related accidents on bikes…but I'm fortunately not one of them, although I did slide a car on one on a damp night stopping at a red light near Noel street! Bus and bike lanes are genius…what easier way to kill cyclists and get rid of a group of people who obviously hold up the trafffic than to plant them in a lane with dirty smelly buses!

    26 May 2005, 14:32

  8. There's not too many bus lanes in Coventry, yet. Would you say that turning a general traffic lane into a bus & cycle lane is worse than leaving it as it was?

    Are some bus + cycle lanes better than others? What are the characteristics of the most cyclist-hostile?

    26 May 2005, 16:35

  9. meriel

    I like Williams but was disappointed in the clasiic cycle (or parent)-phobic comment re. cycling with kids attached. For me it's been the most liberating thing a singe, non-driving mum in London could do. So many people tell me I'm insane for doing it and yet i couldn't afford to get round anyother way. If people are so worried about us parents cyclist why don't they help us out and get the roads sorted?

    02 Jun 2005, 12:52

  10. I agree. Cycle child seats are a lot safer than they used to be. Apparently back in the 1950's they were perched on the top tube. Some of the old timer cyclists I know told me of an incident they witnessed where a seat slipped sideways which resulted in a fairly serious stay in hospital.

    Overall I won't criticise cyclists for:-

    • Cycling on any road
    • Cycling without a helmet (they are of little use and most people who use them don't even wear hem correctly)
    • Child seats
    • Riding two abreast (mostly)
    • Cycling responsibly on footways & pavements

    I would criticise cyclists for

    • Not looking where they are going
    • Not knowing the highway code
    • Cycling too close to parked cars or pavement
    • Giving in to bullying motorists
    • Cycling recklessly on footways & pavements
    • Claiming that helmets are necessary
    • Claiming that cycling is dangerous

    I wouldn't argue against any criticisism of cyclists for:-

    • Jumping red lights (unless the lights discriminate against cyclists)
    • Being invisible esp at night

    02 Jun 2005, 17:58

  11. George,

    I worry that in spending such energy taking journos like Williams to task you actually do more damage than good – Williams is advocating cycling after all.

    Following your posts on this subject makes me wonder if such an evangelical tone is likely to encourage many people to follow your lead – I suspect that lifestyle articles in the style of Zoe Williams will convince many more people to take up the bike then any number of carefully thought out, academically serious and well researched features.

    Remember that before all the health traffic and environmental issues, if people are going to start cycling in large numbers the biggest motivator is that they enjoy it and find it fun. Be careful of knocking the messangers who get that across in the most effective way.

    23 Jan 2006, 09:46

  12. Well people used to say "All publicity is good publicity" then along came Big Brother…..

    If damaging stuff is being put out, you have to try to stop it. Claiming that cycling helmets make more sense than walking helmets is damaging.

    Please don't take anything personally, Tom.

    24 Jan 2006, 14:54


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