Safety, cycling and sharing the road: qualitative research with cyclists and other road users

This is a very long post (rant), it might be worth making yourself a drink before you settle in to read this.

This is the latest output on the issue from the Department for Transport, which I discovered thanks to both @Spinneyhead and Crap Waltham Forest.  The report is interesting in the fact that it acknowledges the failure of the policy of road sharing in the UK.  Whilst I am happy enough cycling on the roads as they are (not that I don’t feel a lot needs to be done to improve things), the vast majority of people (~98% based on cycling’s 2% average modal share in the UK) are not.  To get the average person onto a bike we need to either massively restrict the use of private automobiles or provide Dutch-style segregated infrastructure.  What we actually have is excessively busy roads populated by many lawless motorists, excessively high speed limits in urban areas, confusing, useless or dangerous existing cycling infrastructure and a focus on “education” for potential victims in the form of, “Stay out of the way of the big dangerous things which might kill you.”

I skimmed the full report to pull out some interesting quotes.  The adult groups interviewed for the report were generally non-cycling motorists and cyclists who also drive.  They chose to omit non-driving cyclists, which is the group I would fall into.  Read into this what you will.

A stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among ORUs [Other Road Users]. 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.

Interestingly, I would probably describe a significant number of motorists in these terms. There appeared to be a view amongst the motorists that cyclists were an anomaly on the road, and as a lot of people have little sympathy for people they see as different for themselves (see racism, sexism, homophobia and many more), this is perhaps the root of the aggression and lack of care which will be so familiar to so many cyclists.

This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle).

I am quite impressed that this made it into the report.  One of the easiest ways the government could make the lives of people on bikes easier is to finally put the myth of road tax to rest (I think the Winston Churchill quote could help with that).

There is evidence of a deeper failure in the culture of road sharing on English roads, which may have important implications for different road-users’ interpretations of, and responses to, each other’s behaviour and, hence, for road safety:
• Whatever the law may say on the matter, the norms of road sharing, on roads with lane widths and speeds designed around cars, mean that cyclists are treated as anomalies.
• There is a lack of consensus, even among cyclists, about whether and how cycling should be accommodated on the roads.
Some ORUs question whether cyclists belong on the roads at all.

This is another major problem with the policy of road sharing, the widely held belief amongst motorists that roads are for cars, and bikes should get out of the way. 

From the perspective of ORUs, the principle benefit of cycling lanes is that they get cyclists out of their way. When cycle lanes are provided, then there is an expectation that cyclists should not be on the road.

This belief, the government does little to help dispel, with cycling infrastructure largely focussed on getting bikes “out of the way” of motorised traffic, rather than infrastructure designed to make cycling safer or more convenient.

There is concern among some ORUs about cycle facilities which make life harder for ORUs, for example by ‘taking away’ some of their space, or allowing cyclists already passed to get back in front again.

Interesting lack of quotes around the phrase, “Their space.”  Its almost as if the roads really are for the exclusive use of the private motorcar.

From the cyclist’s perspective, inadequate cycle facilities can diminish the legitimacy of bicycles on the road even further without actually providing a viable alternative.
Cycling facilities can also make the road-sharing problem worse if they create additional confusion about where cyclists and drivers are meant to go. The key issues are:
• Infrastructure that is too complex and needs to be decoded by the user;
• A failure to communicate to people how to use innovative infrastructure; and
• A lack of consistency from one place to the next.

Also noted are the failures of infrastructure, including having to dismount and having to give way at every side road.

There was widespread agreement that cyclists should do more to make themselves visible on the road – though this may not be reflected in actual behaviour.

High-visibility clothing was seen as important by many cyclists, though very few actually wore it. 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.

This is quite worrying reading, the cyclist group appear largely convinced that it is their responsibility to ensure they are so excessively conspicuous that even the dullest, most inattentive operator of a fast-moving tonne+ of metal will notice them even as they hurtle down the urban streets at 50 mph, texting and changing the radio station.  There was a disturbing lack of awareness of victim blaming culture and the safety treadmill effect, whereby the most cautious riders make another defensive move (such as helmets, high visibility clothing, reflective strips etc) which becomes mainstream.  Once this has happened, its effect is lessened as it eventually allows motorists to become more numb to their surroundings, forcing some new ridiculous, “Safety,” intervention (I predict sirens next).

For example, the CTC initially lobbied against compulsory lights for cyclists, citing that it would be a license for motorists to become less attentive when driving at night.  Their preferred solution at the time was for motorists to drive more slowly and with increased caution at night.  It may sound ridiculous now, but in the end we all got lights, and those without them are viewed as idiots.  Even I use lights at night, party to see by, partly to be seen.  Sadly it did end up giving motorists a license to not pay as much attention as they should, so we have got to the stage where it is not unusual to see a pedestrian walking on the pavement after dark, wearing a high-visibility vest, or even flashing LEDs to avoid being hit by a motorist.  If someone is killed by a motorist on a zebra crossing in the evening and they were wearing dark clothing, they are regarded as at least partially to blame.  The non-motorist has made so many concessions to the motorist over the years that pedestrians are now allowed to be blamed for being hit whilst using a zebra crossing.  Sadly, almost no-one is even aware of the subtle erosion of the duty of care a motorist should have when operating a vehicle.

The DfT report acknowledges the failure of the policy of road sharing, but there is not the political will needed to improve the situation markedly.  A few options I would suggest to politicians which would not also be political suicide are:

  • Dispel the myth of “Road Tax,” and the concept of motorists owning the road.
  • Dispel the myth of the motorist being in some way hard-done by.
  • Make cycling a compulsory part of the process of learning to drive.

The last idea I think would be politically doable, although in principle I am against age discriminatory legislation, sometimes you have to be pragmatic; increase the driving age to ~25.  The reason I suggest this is because 18-25 year olds are perhaps the least likely of all age groups to vote, meaning it would be politically doable.  The shit-munchers would definitely be onboard, because all young people are awful people, and all young people are awful drivers.  It could be passed into law because it wouldn’t affect anyone who is already old enough to vote, and people don’t usually care about things which don’t affect them.  More practically, younger people are less likely to have dependents, are usually healthier and usually more generally adaptable.  The increase in the numbers of non-driving working-age people would hopefully fuel an increase in public transport, walking and cycling investment.  In the long term, a generation of adults who spent the first 7 years of their adult lives not being able to use a car would hopefully remain more open to the idea of continuing to use whatever means of transport they used before turning 25.  As I said, discriminatory legislation is wrong, but being cynical and pragmatic, it could also work.


10 thoughts on “Safety, cycling and sharing the road: qualitative research with cyclists and other road users

  1. Interesting post Meestar Cee.* Cyclists being seen as an anomoly. Indeed we are. If I had a quid for everytime somebody had asked me 'why?' I'd be getting the beers in every round. Sometimes in my experience, people even appear to have a problem, which is totally bizarre. I reckon it's loosely linked to a suspicion that they may have to do the same, or definitely a feeling 'threatened' anyway.Ever seen the film Easy-Rider?There is a scene within where the two bikers were discussing the sentiment 'Land of the Free' set against the hassle they had received on their roadtrip, by people who had an issue with their long hair & motorcycles…because they were different.Anyway, so we have the terms Racist & Sexist – Cycl…no it just wouldn't work ;>D* The Road Tax issue – whilst you say the report lists cyclists not paying the mythical 'road tax' as a reason motorists dislike them, does the report mention that road tax doesn't exist? It should really, because a lot of influential groups will be reading it!* CTC campaigning against compulsory lights – yes it does seem daft now, but then motorists should drive slower with more caution if visibility is poor, so in that sense the campaign made a lot of sense in them highlighting that a problem existed with poor driving. Rather like the report that came out this week acknowledging that the Police had effectively accommodated crime over the last 30 years instead of tackling it, by reducing the visible deterrent & right person in the right place – the community bobby – by making cyclists use lights, essentially shifting responsibility away from the driver, they had accommodated bad driving.* Motorists hard done by? Either there are a lot of seriously well off people knocking about, or motorists really aren't hard done by. I filled my car up with petrol coming home from work this evening (once every five weeks – better than a few years ago) and had to wait over 5 minutes to get to a pump – the station has 10 pumps, and how many 4x4s & luxury cars do you see knocking about? Motorists hard done by? No, when looking around, I don't see it either :>/

  2. A big plus of what infrastructure they seem to have in the Netherlands, from a personal point of view is that it looks much better for kids & families to use for getting around on.Over here on the other hand, mobilising a family by bicycle just isn't that simple – a state of affairs that doesn't do much to foster a generation on cyclists.

  3. Ian,I can imagine it must be a massive pain. I feel totally at home on the road now, but I didn't always, and I worry when I am with friends who are less adapted to the status quo. I can't imagine what it would be like with children.The report didn't specifically mention the non-existence of road tax which was pretty upsetting considering its "officialness."I was trying to come up with some sort of special word for transport discrimination, the best I have so for is heterotransportophobia, the fear or hatred of those using a different means of conveyance to oneself.I haven't seen easy rider yet, but I do occasionally think about how the USA is even more car-sick than we are, which still doesn't really make me feel better.

  4. Riding with my kids in the toddler seat, or in the case of the eldest – on the tandem, I feel okay riding on the road as when solo.However, now Emm' has started to ride her own bike, it's hitting home just how inconvenient it is if I want to ride somewhere with her, as obviously taking what is often the most direct route, involves her using the pavement – an obstacle course in itself :>XHeterotransportophobia it is then. Bit of a mouthful though LOL

  5. Hi chaps,A friend pointed me in the direction of this post in the hope that I could come up with a better word than 'heterotransportophobia', but I can't. I did find the discussion thought-provoking, though!Like Mr C, I don't drive (I don't have a licence), so I rely completely on cycling for city-hopping and railways for everything else. I live in York, so this is actually quite a cheap and practical way to get around.The DfT report is interesting. I didn't find it as aggravating as some. I think one thing to bear in mind is that it sets out to describe people's perceptions, not to discuss whether these perceptions are accurate. So for instance, while I agree it might have been helpful to take the opportunity to bash the road-tax myth, really the report was only passing on what it calls the "stereotype". Admittedly a more careful use of the word "fact" would have been beneficial!I agree with a lot of what you say, but I don't buy the argument about defensiveness. I'm not aware of any evidence indicating that adding safety measures (lights, hi-vis clothing, LEDs) increases carelessness or "numbness" from other road users. (By making _cars_ safer over the past 30 years, with seatbelts and crumple zones and airbags, I don't think we've made drivers any less attentive, and we have certainly reduced casualties.) A cycle simply _is_ harder to spot than a car, simply by virtue of its being smaller, and while that is not the fault of a careful cyclist, it is not the fault of a careful lorry driver either. Of course motorists have a responsibility to be attentive and drive safely around cyclists, but equally, cyclists have a responsibility to be pragmatic about their own safety.The reported comments from motorists that cyclists tend to disregard the rules of the road don't surprise me. I hear them too, and actually I see a lot of it on the roads around York. But that's all anecdotal, and everyone gets indignant when they obey the rules and see others breaking them. I'd love to see some hard stats about the number of cyclists vs motorists who skip red lights or turn illegally, for instance.Saying all that, I probably have an unhealthily rosy view of the cyclist's situation. Here in York we're fairly well catered for in terms of infrastructure. Also, my impression is that motorists are generally polite and accommodating to cyclists in the city, I guess because there are so many of us. I haven't cycled extensively elsewhere, so I can't compare from personal experience.

  6. Hi Toby, thanks for the comment. I agree about the comments regarding the anecdotal observation of cyclists flouting the rules of the road; if you ask any cyclist about motorists you will likely hear the same thing about them. Motorists and cyclists commit the "Red-light jump" (RLJ) differently; a cyclist RLJer will generally approach as if they are coming to a "give way" sign; slow down, check for other vehicles and proceed if they feel it is safe to do so. I don't approve of it, but generally it is a minor annoyance which generally endangers the offender only. A motorist RLJ is usually performed when the light has been red for 1-3 seconds only, and they have usually accelerated to try and "squeeze" through. This is remarkably common but largely tolerated. I find this more of a problem because of the relative speed and mass of the vehicle compared to a cyclist jumping red, it is substantially more dangerous for others (whether they be in a car, on foot or on a bike). The former type of RLJ is very commonly brought up by non-cyclists in conversation, the latter type of RLJ is rarely mentioned, despite posing a significantly higher risk to others. I can't help but think this is because most people are drivers but most people are not cyclists, and people tend to sympathise more easily with those they see as being the same as them. Some serious research on this would be welcomed.As for the numbing effect of safety measures, it has been studied (although not to the level I would like), it is usually referred to as Risk Compensation:Seat Belt laws and risk compensation: Munich Taxicab Experiment: helmets and risk compensation: of the safety improvements made to cars over the past few decades have made their occupants safer, but people soon adapt and it is those on the outside of the car who suffer. Most (if not all) of the pro-helmet studies out there neglect to take the effect of risk compensation into account.York is supposed to be one of the most cycle friendly cities in the UK and it sounds like you have had a pretty good experience cycling there so far.

  7. Thanks very much for the links on risk compensation — I'll check them out!Also, I haven't thought about it in much detail but I'm sure you're quite right about the 'RLJ' thing. As a non-driver cyclist, I would add one more negative consequence of the cyclist-style RLJ to the list: it gives motorists a legitimate excuse to complain about cyclists in general, which therefore reflects badly on the rest of us.I worked in politics for a bit when I was younger, and one of the perennial issues about which the public wrote to us was cycle helmet safety. There was a very wide and strongly-held spectrum of opinion from those who felt helmets should be compulsory, to optional, to discouraged, to outright illegal. The problem, I think, is that it's a very complicated situation, with all kinds of interacting variables to take into account: comparative journey time and length, health benefits vs injury risks, the positive and negative effects of making something compulsory, other safety features, risk compensation (as you mention), and of course the old question of how you decide which two things to compare! By ignoring one or two of these factors, you can easily make the statistics look whichever way you like, and that's annoying.

  8. @Toby,I agree with you on the problem of RLJ cyclists providing ammunition for those who are already prejudiced against cyclists in general. All I have to do is mention something vaguely bike-related in certain company and I will hear a story about a RLJing cyclist, but generally those motorists who indignantly splutter about RLJing are often the very same who will proudly tell you about the time they avoided a speeding fine on a technicality whilst ignoring the implication that they were originally going to be fines for doing something wrong.Helmets are a tricky issue, I think the situation as it is at present is probably a bit too pro-helmet, people are encouraged to wear helmets and never really question their effectiveness or the whole issue of victim blaming which plagues this kind of issue. Whilst I am anti-helmet I think people should have the choice to use them or not, but it would be nice if the government didn't push the idea as strongly as they presently do

  9. Interesting discussion.I'd have to disagree with the RLJ cyclist issue in part.A cyclist barging through a red light causing a problem with the traffic that has right of way, or worse still putting a pedestrian in danger is in a completely different league to another cyclist giving way to pedestrians & treating the red as a give way.As for providing ammunition, the latter cyclist is basically a source of jealousy for someone stuck in queue. That the queue is populated by large dangerous vehicles with one occupant, held up by a red traffic light installed because of problems caused by motorists is good enough reason for me to occasionally keep flowing when out on a bicycle.An article appeared in the (cough cough) Daily Mail today on the effectiveness of borough wide 20mph speed limits.Quote: The Portsmouth speed limit is not enforced by speed humps or cameras, instead relying on motorists obeying the law. As a driver as well as a cyclist & pedestrian, that drivers in Portsmouth have killed & injured more people this year whilst 'getting away with it' doesn't surprise me in the least. To be able to drive with little regard for others is almost seen as a human-right these days, and it's really sad as the annual accident figures show.P.S:- Here's the link to Dr Ian Walkers study on drivers overtaking cyclists with/without helmet.

  10. Peugeot are advertising their 207 in the Daily Express 31st August 2011. True to form, they mention Road Tax.Complaint to ASA lodged.Perhaps others might do likewise.

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