Bloody cyclists

This is a note prompted by recent anti-cyclist propaganda in the press. Although the cause of the ranting was, in this case, the presumably intentional misreporting of the EU's proposed Fifth Motor Insurance Directive, this is not the first time that journalists have chosen to pick on cyclists. Increasingly drivers seem to believe that the road belongs to them and anybody who strays onto it is asking for trouble. But it doesn't belong to them, it belongs to all of us, and the cause of road fatalities is not vulnerable road users straying into the motorised lions' den, it's careless, thoughtless, aggressive drivers.

The "usual suspects" of these rants are: cyclists don't pay road tax, cyclists don't have insurance, cyclists don't have to pass a test, cyclists jump red lights and ride on the pavement and cyclists should be on the cycle paths. I'm not the only one to tackle this question, CTC have a similar page.

A key finding which should be noted was that, when commenting on the scenarios it was usually the behaviour of the cyclist that was criticised – no matter how small the misdemeanour. Few links were made between the cyclist’s behaviour and any external influences that could be affecting their choice of behaviour; i.e. the respondents’ comments indicated that they thought the cyclist’s actions were inherent and dispositional behaviours. In contrast, the motorists’ misdemeanours were excused or justified in terms of the situational influences. As this tendency seemed to continue across the groups and the individual depth interviews and was unprompted, it is unlikely that group dynamics had any significant effect on this finding. [...] This aligns with the psychological prediction of targeting of members of an ‘out group’..
Transport Research Laboratory research report 549, 2003

Woman hits cyclist, cyclist falls off and is killed. Woman goes to court, pleads that points will mean an automatic ban (she has already been convicted of several offences), and that means she would have to walk two miles to school. Intolerable! So she walks away with her license and a £250 fine. That, my friend, is the reality of motorists' accountability, brought to you by registration plates, excise duty, compulsory testing and insurance. Now read on...

Cyclists don't pay road tax

First and foremost, vehicle excise duty is not a "road tax" and hasn't been since the Road Fund was wound up in the Finance Act of 1936. Back then, road building was funded mostly from general taxation and only partially from the Road Fund. The more astute among you will realise from this that the road network is a public estate, and even if motoring taxes were to meet or exceed the costs of private motiring to the economy (which it is generally agreed they do not), it would be necessary for them to repay the value of this public estate before they could truly justify any claim to ownership. A rented house remains the property of the landlord even if the landlord makes profit from the rent, after all.

Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) replaced "road tax" years ago; it is a crudely designed tax, although it is being refined in ways which make its purpose more evident: it is an instrument designed to try to influence transportation choices (hence lower rates for smaller cleaner cars). It is not hypothecated any more than tobacco or alcohol duty are hypothecated; why do motorists not complain that alcohol duty should be spent on better pubs? It would arguably be more sensible to have a system where all duty was on fuel, and insurers issued an annual disc to indicate cover (and only after seeing evidence of an MoT and - in an ideal world, current sight test). This would make it harder to evade the duty (remember that up to ten percent of cars in some areas are untaxed).

But of course all this misses the point: most cyclists do pay VED. I own a car. I pay VED on the car, but I choose to commute by bicycle. Do I get a rebate because bicycles are not subject to VED? No. I pay council tax, part of which goes to support community centres for ethnic minorities. Do I get a rebate because I am white? No. I pay National Insurance but I ride my bicycle daily and don't smoke, so I am dramatically less likely to cost the NHS large sums of money. Do I get a rebate? No (although my life insurance is a lot cheaper!).

Out with the club on Sunday, exactly one rider did not own a car - a German exchange student. Two regulars on the Wednesday rides don't have a car, both are under 16. All the rest of us do: we have cars, we pay excise duty, and we leave the cars on the drive much of the time.

And there's more: every journey I do on my bike actually saves the taxpayer money. Every journey I do on my bike reduces the congestion, pollution and poor air quality problems in Reading, and reduces my risk of heart disease, various cancers, stroke, and of course various obesity related disorders. People are getting less and less active: more and more journeys under two miles (and even under one mile) are being done by car - and then we blame the government for congestion and gridlock. Heard the one about the man who wrote to the paper to complain that congestion was now so bad it would be quicker to walk the half mile to the paper shop to get his paper? It really happened.

There is also a large body of published research which indicates that, even with fuel duty and vehicle excise duty taken into account, car transport is still effectively subsidised from general taxation. This is based on consideration of externalities like additional health costs, as well as a full accounting for road maintenance costs, and allows for the public good of easily available long-distance transportation.

All in all I have yet to see a single convincing argument for taking a healthy activity which reduces congestion and wear on the roads, and lengthens life, and pricing it out of the market through taxation. The effects would be: a reduction in the already pitiful amount of exercise people already take; widespread evasion, especially amongst the worst riders (youths); revenue which is unlikely to exceed the cost of collection and associated bureaucracy, unless the duty is pitched at a completely disproportionate level. Add to that the difficulty of defining what is a child's bicycle (by the age of 11 most keen young cyclists will be on 26" wheel bikes, which is a small adult bike), and the game is not worth the candle.

Don't just take my word for it, have a look here. Which is why successive governments have never proposed taxing cycling.

Cyclists don't have insurance

I can see some justification for requiring insurance for cyclists, but we already have a situation where large numbers of cyclists, and almost all frequent cyclists, are insured anyway through clubs or household policies, so compulsory insurance would impact mainly on the occasional or leisure rider - precisely the group who, from a public health standpoint, we as a country can least afford to discourage.

When riding on the road, there is a wealth of evidence that cyclists who are injured are most often the victims rather than the cause of accidents. To cite one study, in Oxford, the rider was to blame in just 17% of cases.

Of this small group a proportion will not have caused significant damage to property, and a further proportion will be insured anyway (students, club members, those with some kinds of household policies). The remainder who cause some damage and are both uninsured and unable to pay is likely to be small. This may explain why this, too, has never been viewed as an issue by government, especially in a context where five percent of drivers are apparently uninsured.

On the other hand, negligent pedestrians can and do cause accidents - and are far more likely to be at fault. So logically it is hard to defend requiring cyclists to insure, and not pedestrians. Since the total number of people who neither ride a bicycle nor walk is very small indeed, you might just as easily argue that this cover should come out of general taxation.

Overall the scale and cost of damage caused by negligent cyclists is insignificant in comparison with, say, the risk from the one and a half million cars on Britain's roads which are uninsured.

Cyclists don't have to pass a test

I can see plenty of justification for increasing rider skills, but there would be significantly greater benefit from improving pedestrian skills (pedestrians are to blame much more often than cyclists in injury accidents involving them), and improving driver skills (90% of all injury accidents directly attributable to driver error).

Most pedestrians have no formal training. They amble along, stop suddenly, cut across streams of other pedestrians, drive buggies without thought, step off the pavement without looking - they are a complete rabble, as anyone who has ever tried to make brisk progress through London's shopping streets will readily testify.

Cyclists, on the other hand, will probably have received at least some formal training: the National Cycling Proficiency scheme is widespread, and councils run courses as well. Councils have access to free safety and skills literature for schools, and all education authorities (and all schools) must have sustainable transport policies, which generally include cycle training. Although, to be fair, the current generation of parents is probably the first since the nineteenth century to have no widespread experience of cycling as a form of transport, rather than a leisure pursuit.

And large numbers of adult cyclists also hold at least a motorcycle driving licence. While this is not in itself evidence of the ability to control a bicycle, it does require that you demonstrate a knowledge of highway rules and laws, and an ability to control a vehicle at speeds greatly in excess of those achieved by the average cyclist.

The worst examples of crass behaviour are exhibited by youths - the same people who throw up outside nightclubs, wander the streets in gangs and throw stones at street lights. The bikes are not the problem, their attitude is the problem. I refuse to acknowledge comments about dithering old fogeys, because some of the fittest and most indomitable cyclists I know are retired, and I know plenty of blokes in their seventies and eighties who can outride men half their age with ease. Age tends to increase the differences between individuals - you are far more likely to die as a result of some old fart in a hat driving the wrong way on the M1 than as a result of some poor old dear on a bike with a basket.

Cyclists jump red lights and ride on the pavement

Apparently in London you often see cyclists jumping red lights: this is sufficient justification for death threats in the press these days. These cyclists should be nicked, no question. Unless the lights have sensors which don't detect bikes, in which case they are arguably within the law[1], but that's uncommon. And maybe they ride on the pavement. Hardly a surprise, since the roads are frequently choked with traffic, the bus lanes are full of BMWs, and in any case misguided councils are forever painting little white bikes on the pavement and telling you that it's OK to ride on the footway here. Mixed messages. Just one more reason why shared use paths are a disaster.

And, yes, many cyclists ride at night without lights, wearing dark clothing. Now I'm a cyclist and I know from bitter personal experience that even with lights you are likely to find drivers who "just didn't see you" - two bikes have been destroyed by these nyctalopic wonders, one managed not to see a four inch square halogen rear light mounted on the top of my rack, another didn't see me despite my wearing a light coloured jacket, reflective belt and using lights, on a roundabout which was well lit in any case. When I ride at night I am lit up like a Christmas tree, because riding at night without lights is about as safe as playing Russian roulette with five chambers loaded. As is jumping red lights. Remember, though, the risk falls almost exclusively on the cyclist: car drivers are rarely injured in these accidents. Quite why people do this is beyond me, but there you go.

A survey by the RAC found that, yes, a lot of cyclists run red lights. It also found that one in ten drivers in Manchester and London crossed traffic lights more than three seconds after the lights turned red, and one in five bus drivers ran red lights. There are ten thousand traffic light camera prosecutions annually in London alone, a small part of the 1.5 million prosecutions annually based on camera evidence (I don't know what proportion are speed versus red lights), in turn the tip of the iceberg of twelve million prosecutions and cautions for motoring offences by UK police forces in 2002.

Lawbreaking, then, is not restricted to bikes. Motorists break the law in vast numbers. Speeding, in particular , is rife, and despite the evidence that the faster you go the more likely you are to kill or be killed if you crash, when speed cameras are erected we don't laugh at the idiots who get caught, we rail against the "stealth tax" on motorists. Gatsos are a stealth tax on motorists in the same way that city centre video cameras are a stealth tax on muggers and DNA testing is a stealth tax on rapists. People will brake to 20mph when they see a Gatso in a 60 limit, because they haven't a clue what the limit is - they simply don't care enough to know. I drive a car, and I drive within the speed limit, which means for a start knowing what the limit is. I haven't always, and I've driven when too tired, and while talking on the phone, but I don't do that stuff any more because it's too bloody dangerous. When you wake up as you hit the rumble strips on the M3 at 135mph at 3am after a 44 hour shift you realise that life's too short for that kind of stupidity. The plain and obvious fact is that, however illegal the cyclists' behaviour may be, the likely consequences are trivial compared with the daily consequences of illegal behaviour we claim as a right as drivers.

Drivers also park illegally, causing danger and inconvenience. And they fail to observe box junctions (many drivers haven't a clue what these are anyway), they overtake on the inside, they hog the middle lane on motorways, they drive on the pavement and damage it, they use fog lights when it's not foggy or raining, they drive while drunk or stoned or smoking or talking on the phone, they drive with the stereo turned up too loud, they drive looking over their shoulders at screaming children, and they kill and injure over a quarter of a million people a year. And they seem to think that an annual payment of a hundred and fifty quid gives them a right to do this.

So on the matter of cyclists and illegal behaviour, I quote the well known words of John 8:7 - let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Cyclists should be on the cycle paths

This attitude is so wrong that there is simply no path to right from where it is. Cyclists, like pedestrians and horse riders, use the roads by right of way. Drivers use it under licence. Drivers bring almost all the danger to the situation, yet it is the cyclists who should apparently take the long way round on a path with a loose surface littered with broken glass and dog excrement. Excuse me if I don't show the proper gratitude for this provision. I ride fifteen miles a day, at an average of as close to 20mph as I can manage. I am better off with other vehicular traffic than mixed in with pedestrians. Even if there was a bike path going my way, which there isn't, the roads were there first and are perfectly satisfactory. Apart from the potholes, obviously.

I pay council tax and high-rate income tax, but almost never use the bike paths the council provides from that money - they are mostly shared use, and a bike moving at the kind of speeds I do has no place on the pavement. Shared use paths are also three times more dangerous than riding on the road. The additional cost of decent bike provision over and above the necessary provision for cars and pedestrians (including leisure paths) is, in any case, small, especially if done at the time of construction. And it's funded out of council tax, which of course I pay, as do most adult cyclists.

Most cycle provision is actually there not for the benefit of cyclists, but for the benefit of drivers: to spare them the trifling inconvenience of having to watch out for cyclists when driving their cars. And the more cyclists are tempted onto these paths the more dangerous the roads become for everyone else, because cycles are no longer expected so people no longer know how to react to them. If you've never ridden a bike and never been taught how to overtake a bike, how are you supposed to know that twelve inches is not a safe distance for passing a cyclist? Yes, it's in the Highway Code, but who reads that? But I read the papers and Usenet and I know that several cyclists have been killed in recent times simply by drivers passing far too close, causing the rider to lose control and crash. And even if I hadn't seen the papers I would be aware of this behaviour from my own experience. This is not an argument for getting cyclists off the road, though: it's an argument for getting more of us on it! And one way to do that would be to take away the licence of anyone who kills or injures someone through negligent driving. Not for ever, just for long enough that they learn what it's like for the people outside cars. And until they pass an extended retest.

Footnotey things

  1. 176: You MUST NOT move forward over the white line when the red light is showing. Only go forward when the traffic lights are green if there is room for you to clear the junction safely or you are taking up a position to turn right. If the traffic lights are not working, treat the situation as you would an unmarked junction and proceed with great care. [Laws RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD regs 10 & 36]