Tuesday 21 September 2010

‘Cycling, Safety and Sharing the Road’: new DfT report

Cyclists and drivers ‘Sharing the road’ in London (A503, Walthamstow) and ‘cyclists not sharing the road’ (Netherlands, pic: Judy Hembrow).

A new report published by the Department for Transport examines the views of cyclists and drivers about each others’ behaviour and considers them in the context of ‘road safety’:

Qualitative research was carried out with cyclists, other road users and the parents of young cyclists to explore views on the positives and negatives of cycling, accounts of stress and risk on the road, views on the potential problems in interactions between cyclists and other vehicles, as well as strategies for dealing with and managing risk - including the use of safety gear.

It’s a seriously flawed but nevertheless interesting report. The interpretation put upon it by the Daily Telegraph is:

Cyclists and motorists do not want to share road, report finds

Attempts to make cyclists and motorists share the road are doomed to failure, Government research has found.

An embarrassing conclusion both for the Department for Transport, which has no interest in promoting successful, segregated cycling on the Dutch model, but also for the Cyclists’ Touring Club, which remains wedded to vehicular cycling.

The report’s authors assert

our focus throughout the design, delivery and reporting of the research has been on issues of road safety

But some very large ‘issues’ are evaded, not least that ‘road safety’ is an ideological construction invented by the motor lobby to resist effective action against their weapons of mass destruction. The ‘road safety’ industry is institutionally designed to avoid engagement with the core issues of high speed vehicle manufacture, lawless driving, inadequate road traffic law enforcement, and inadequate penalties for criminal behaviour. Instead ‘road safety’ focuses on education and telling pedestrians, and cyclists to adjust their behaviour to the risks posed by the behaviour of reckless drivers. For the definitive hatchet job on the road safety industry, see Robert Davies’s book Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety (1993).

This new DfT report is itself contaminated by this ideology. It ignores exposure to risk on the part of cyclists, just as it ignores risk compensation on the part of drivers (make a bad driver safe from the consequences of recklessness by supplying air bags etc and they will be reckless). Instead it limits itself to conclusions drawn from road injury figures, which are both notoriously unreliable and provide no adequate index of exposure to danger.

This report introduces the topic of cycle helmets and concludes:

Opportunities may exist to: encourage inconsistent wearers to extend existing habits into new settings; and tackling the image of the helmet as something for children only.

This assumes that cycle helmets are a good thing. This assumption is not tested within the report; it simply emerges as road safety ‘common sense’.


There was widespread agreement that cyclists should do more to make themselves visible on the road

Oh really? In what way do the laws of optics not apply to cyclists? The toxic sub-text of that sentence is ‘because many drivers are not concentrating on controlling a ton of machinery in motion – they are chatting on the phone, reading a text message, changing a CD, finding a new radio station, looking at their SatNav etc – cyclists have a special obligation to draw attention to themselves in order not to be run down.’

That toxic logic even applies to pedestrians. It is now acceptable for a driver to execute a pedestrian on a zebra crossing if the pedestrian was wearing ‘dark clothing’. Road safety is a victim-blaming ideology and the conspicuity red herring is one of its most striking achievements. Indeed

High-visibility clothing was seen as important by many cyclists

(Yes, even sheep can sometimes be persuaded that the wolf is their friend)

though very few actually wore it.

Well, yes. Why should they?

The report asserts that

Better sharing of the road by cyclists and other road users (ORUs) remains… a fundamental issue for road safety.

In a vehicular cycling society there is a sense in which that is true. But what the report reveals are the levels of hostility and aggression felt towards cyclists by ‘Other Road Users’. The report notes that

no stereotype of car drivers in general exists… By contrast, a stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among ORUs. This stereotype is characterised by:
serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more specific lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road

It’s worth asking where this stereotype comes from, and the answer is the mass media – another relevant aspect which is excluded from consideration by this report.

Britain’s national and local newspapers depend heavily on car advertising, and are often owned by corporations which also publish motoring magazines. The mass media invented the term ‘war on the motorist’ and established the stereotype of drivers as victims, bled dry by the state and mercilessly persecuted by traffic calming, parking wardens and speed cameras. This is the same mass media which excludes daily road carnage from its news pages. Needless to say there is no balancing perspective to show that bad behaviour by cyclists is (i) not greater than that by drivers (ii) has only a fraction of the serious consequences which results from bad behaviour by drivers (iii) occurs as an adaptation to roads designed to benefit the flow and parking of motor vehicles, not the convenience and safety of cyclists or pedestrians, and as a response to the failure to enforce laws protecting such vehicular cycling infrastructure as exists.

But if some drivers feel hostile to cyclists on the basis of a stereotype (cyclists are lawless spongers), the report shows that cyclists are hostile to drivers, and intimidated by motor traffic:

the most important barriers to road cycling are related to ORUs:
• the behaviour of ORUs; and
• the volume and speed of traffic.

This chimes with the reason why most people in Britain have no interest in cycling. Every survey ever taken demonstrates that non-cyclists cite road danger as the number one reason why they won’t get on a bike. The response of the CTC to this situation is to cite statistics supposed to show that cycling is safe, and to attempt to get people to dispel their fears through cycle training. This has never worked as a strategy and it will never work. What is interesting about this report is that it now shows that even among vehicular cyclists there is significant hostility to vehicular cycling, based on personal experience:

Over and above any specific bad behaviours, it was clear that most, if not all, participants experience increased levels of stress when the volume and speed of traffic increased.

Interestingly, Section 7 of the report references Amsterdam as a successful city for road sharing. The authors appear wholly ignorant of what Dutch cycling infrastructure consists of, and why Amsterdam, though infinitely better for cycling than anywhere in the UK, ought not to be the template. The report rhetorically asks if it is necessary to change the infrastructure, then flinches from the Dutch option by blathering that ‘the scale of what can be done in practice is constrained by the space of most urban roads’. That, of course, is garbage, and it is interesting that the transport professionals involved in producing this report are astonishingly ignorant of Dutch practice.

Having backed-off from the one thing that will bring about mass cycling in Britain, the authors then bluster about conspicuity as a solution:

Promoting better visibility would be easier than promoting helmets. Moreover, it could be incorporated into a wider programme to promote better road sharing, since making yourself visible was widely conceived, by cyclists and ORUs, as something that cyclists can do for ORUs.

To which my reply would be that I am not remotely interested in ‘winning respect’ from drivers by dressing up in a manner which would please petrolheads.

Amazingly, even the narrow and limiting possibility of improving the vehicular cycling infrastructure is abandoned:

Infrastructure has a role to play in improving the culture of road sharing. The scale of what can be done in practice is constrained; and any serious attempt to change the culture of road sharing would require a range of coordinated interventions, such as marketing, education, legislation and enforcement.

Ah, yes, marketing and education, those old chestnuts which can be rolled out as a substitute for action. As for more legislation… When the laws which are supposed to protect cyclists and pedestrians are already cynically ignored by Britain’s sleazy car supremacist cops, the last thing we need is more laws.

What we need is not what this report proposes. What we need is safe, segregated cycling on the Dutch model. Everything else is a worthless substitute which will guarantee the continuing stagnation of cycling in Britain. But then if this report has one value, it is that it demonstrates that perhaps the biggest obstacles of all to mass cycling in Britain are that diseased limb of the state known as the Department for Transport and the culture of car-centric transport professionals which it nourishes.

Access the full report here.


The report was released last Thursday with little attendant publicity indeed road.cc understands that a draft copy was prepared over a year ago, perhaps the DfT's reticence on the matter is because the report does paint such a depressing picture of the interface between cyclists and what it terms other road users (ORUs).