Monday, 23 January 2012

The minister who made the Invisible Visible Man see red

It was the kind of reasoning you’d expect from someone who has spent so long trying to reconcile competing instincts and priorities that he’d lost all track of common sense. One summer several years ago, over lunch with a junior transport minister in the then UK government, I asked about the future of speed cameras - cameras for catching speeding motorists that his own government’s research showed saved more than a hundred lives every year. Putting on a serious voice and knitting his brows, the minister – who clearly disapproved of the official support for the cameras - told me that motorists were worried about speed cameras’ effectiveness because of the “regression to mean” effect. The effect describes how part of the fall in accidents at a given site after a camera’s installation is probably a statistical quirk, rather than a result of the camera’s presence.

I tried – but didn’t fully succeed – to control my irritation. I told the minister – forcefully – that in my experience far more motorists were simply worried about being caught speeding. They didn’t have intellectual doubts about speed cameras – they just thought they should be allowed to drive whatever speed they damn well pleased. The minister clearly didn’t think it was important to enforce speed limits.

Cyclists on Lower Thames Street, London Skyride 2009.
They're their "own worst enemies",  according to one minister -
yet they seem oblivious to the danger.
The minister’s understanding for rule-breaking motorists did not, however, extend to cyclists. I went on to ask what the government was doing to make roads safer for cyclists. “To be honest,” he replied, “I think cyclists are their own worst enemies”. I had little doubt I had much, much worse enemies on the roads than myself – and I had encountered several even during my short cycle ride to lunch. I nearly – but  didn’t quite – follow the inner urge to get myself out of the presence of someone who thought I wasn’t worth protecting. It would all have been less alarming if he hadn’t been the road safety minister.

The lunch was the moment when I started to realise how completely the thinking about road use of most people – even those who devote their days to deciding on road safety policy – comes from the gut, rather than the higher brain centres. The minister’s gut wanted to drive fast – I later discovered he had a number of convictions for speeding – and disliked cyclists. My gut, clearly, likes cycling and doesn’t care for driving. But I like to think my frontal cortex at least gets to review the gut’s decisions. I recognised – I still recognise – that lots of people need to drive, that motor vehicles are not about to stop being the main means of making most trips in the UK – or most other parts of the world – and that even the keenest cyclist has to find some modus vivendi with the dominant road users. It was depressing to find a government minister relying so thoroughly on the lower reaches of his abdomen that he was holding two utterly contradictory views.

But anyone who’s spent any significant time cycling anywhere where cycling is a fringe activity will know that cyclists scratch out feelings from well below some people's civilised veneers. Some motorists’ determination to get past cyclists just to reach the end of the traffic jam ahead faster; the curious determination of some pedestrians to step in front of cyclists even when they can see the cyclist clearly; the daily battles over precedence in the special boxes for cyclists at traffic lights: these all betoken a gut distaste for cyclists that doesn’t seem based on detailed perusal of road casualty rates.

Nevertheless, it is probably worth laying out clearly how intellectually disreputable the minister’s views were. In 2010, 1,850 people died on the UK’s roads – and only four were killed by cyclists. In each of 2008 and 2009, only a single pedestrian died after being hit by a bicycle. Cyclists – who account for just under 2 per cent of traffic but far more in the urban areas where most accidents occur – consequently were responsible for just 0.22 per cent of 2010’s road user fatalities. The proportion had been still lower the two preceding years. Even among pedestrians – the only group of road users that cyclists seriously threaten – cyclists accounted for fewer than 1 per cent of the 405 killed. Other road users, meanwhile, killed 111 cyclists.

Me in cycling gear: a sight, one reporter says,
that ought to terrify pedestrians. Note to motorist
readers: since you won't be able to see me, I'm near
the picture's middle, wearing high-visibility clothing
These figures, of course, are rather as simple Newtonian physics would suggest. The energy released when a single cyclist hits a pedestrian at, say, 15mph and when a car, van or lorry hits a pedestrian at 30mph are many orders of magnitude different. I can testify to this point particularly congently after unwillingly conducting my own experiment in early 2009. On February 4, I was knocked off by a glancing blow from a minivan crossing my path on Brixton Road, south London. On March 13 the same year, I was hit squarely by a cyclist running a red light near Elephant & Castle. The minivan incident left me sore for a year – the collision with the cyclist only a few days. Cyclists running red lights, going the wrong way up one-way streets and mounting pavements are an irritation – but little more. Motorists who speed, talk on their telephones, fail to see red lights or deliberately drive dangerously regularly prove a lethal danger.

Politicians who want to make life safer for pedestrians and other road users should consequently be encouraging cycling, even if cyclists continue to run red lights (which I think they shouldn’t) or mount the occasional pavement. We cyclists represent far less of a danger to other road users than any other form of wheeled transport.

Yet, when I spoke to Lord Adonis, the then newly-appointed transport secretary, in mid-2009 along with another transport correspondent, the other reporter turned beetroot red when I asked about enhancing safety for cyclists. He interrupted before the minister could answer. “What are you going to do about aggressive cyclists?” he demanded. “What aggressive cyclists?” I retorted, pointing out that people perched on metal frames and two wheels were in a weak position to be truly, dangerously aggressive. My theories about what drives such anger will have to wait, however, for another post. It will take some space to explain why some people hate others simply for their choice of transport mode…


  1. My sentiments entirely. Thanks for posting, and I look forward to reading your future thoughts. Happy cycling.

  2. good start to a blog, i shall enjoy reading it in future. My favourite (probably wrong word) type of motorist is the Bus driver, the way they cut you up when pulling over at a stop forcing me out into high speed traffic (or abruptly slamming on the brakes and waiting), always tickles me. I helpfully suggest that by slowing down just a touch they could easily still get there, but alas it seems the 3 seconds they will lose is more important than my well being/life.
    I do find however that motorists in general will be really good late at night or without other traffic around, perhaps its a herd mentality

  3. Hi, fellow london cyclist (and Vehicle Tax payer) here. Just stumbled on this Blog. Very interesting, keep it up

  4. good story and a nice perspective. Matt C - don't let the bus driver get around you to cut you up. Come out from the kerb and force him/her to wait behind you. Cyclists need to realise that we can **control** the traffic around us by riding assertively and communicating. Most bad drivers don't even know they do the stuff they do - by, say, moving out at a narrowing and "taking the lane" you won't get passed dangerously. Turn around, say "thanks chief!" and let them pass when it is safe and they'll think they've done you a great favour rather having been **controlled**!!

  5. 100% agree.
    Well written and a great perspective.
    Plus, somewhat incredibly, FACTS!
    You should have words with the cretinous Andrea Leadsom. She is utterly pathetic too.

    The most important point you have is that, "It was depressing to find a government minister relying so thoroughly on the lower reaches of his abdomen that he was holding two utterly contradictory views."
    That contradiction is pretty much the case for 100% of drivers.
    They regularly speed or chat on the phone but go absolutely MAD if a cyclist so much as crosses the white line at a red light.

    (I am not advocating RLJing - I abhor it - but merely pointing to the irrational attitude of drivers.)

  6. Nick, Thank you for your kind words and your sensible points. As for Andrea Leadsom, I'm already cross just thinking about her. I don't think we'd get on...

  7. Cracking write up mate! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Just seen this linked from the front of RoadCC and I've got to say I completely agree. I just hope other riders bear this in mind come this Thursday...

  9. A quick google search returns a fairly unsurprising number: around 1 billion cars on the roads of the world today.

    "I recognised – I still recognise – that lots of people need to drive, that motor vehicles are not about to stop being the main means of making most trips in the UK – or most other parts of the world"

    7 billion people, 1 billion cars. Still convinced most trips in most parts of the world are made by car?


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