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Knee-jerk reactions are putting lives at risk. It’s time to reform cycling laws based on sound science and not tabloid headlines, argues Simon Oxenham.

Photo: Flickr/ Gordon Chesterman (2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

The government doesn’t have the best track record of crafting policy based on sound science over tabloid headlines. Take our drug laws, a ten-year study found in 2001 that only one in 250 paracetamol deaths made the papers, yet every single ecstasy death got coverage. When the former chief drugs advisor to the government pointed out that an activity as un-headline-worthy as horse riding is far more dangerous than taking ecstasy, and proposed that our laws should reflect this, he was unceremoniously fired.

What’s this got to do with reforming cycling laws? To be most effective, they are going to have to be based on an evidence-based approach  – and make sense of science that might run counter to the prevailing narrative.

The government has ordered an urgent review into cycling laws following the widely reported case of pedestrian Kim Briggs being killed by cyclist Charlie Alliston in 2015. Tabloid coverage of the death might lead one to assume that the number of such deaths is substantial; however, the papers have tended to neglect to mention the number of pedestrian deaths caused by cyclists in the UK in 2015 was two. Meanwhile, over 100 cyclists are killed every year on Britain’s roads. The government will now assess whether new laws should be introduced to increase penalties for dangerous cycling and potentially order cyclists to wear helmets and high-vis clothing.

Such “reforms” would be a step backwards. A cool-headed assessment of the evidence reveals that the benefits of cycling on the nation’s health are so pronounced that anything that discourages cycling is likely to have a negative overall impact on public health.

The risks of cycling are often overestimated by the public and in fact, pale in comparison to the health gains by a factor of 20 to 1 regardless of helmet use. A somewhat tongue in cheek analysis published in 2000 in the British Medical Journal reported that it takes at least 8000 years of average cycling to produce one clinically severe head injury and 22,000 years for one death. The author remarks that while the benefits of wearing a helmet are minimal at best and hotly debated, when Australia became the first country to introduce mandatory helmet laws for adults it saw cycling levels fall by 35%. Pulling no punches, the article concludes “The assault on cycling has vandalised the appeal of the safest, cleanest, most efficient, healthy, and fun means of personal transport that exists—right at the time we most need it. Cyclists don’t need helmets, they need priority.”

Another analysis found that following its mandatory helmet law, Australia saw reductions in child cycling rates up to 15 times greater than the increase in children wearing helmets. The paper concluded “a helmet law whose most notable effect was to reduce cycling, may have generated a net loss of health benefits to the nation”.

We could expect to see a similar effect on cycling rates if high-vis clothing were to become mandatory for cyclists. While there is evidence that high-vis clothing reduces accidents, compelling cyclists to wear it by law could harm public health in the long run if it discourages people from cycling, and contributes to the myth that cycling is substantially more dangerous than driving or walking.

One surprising area that a law change could benefit road users is allowing cyclists to treat certain traffic lights at their own discretion. In 2015, Paris joined Brussels and cities in Germany and the Netherlands to allow cyclists to ride through certain red lights. The rule change is designed to improve traffic flow and encourage cycling. It also reduces accidents caused when cyclists are trapped in vehicle blind spots while waiting at red lights on near-side turns; a problem that is exacerbated by filter lanes that place cyclists directly in the kill zone.

In 2007, a leaked Transport for London report concluded that women cyclists were nearly twice as likely to be killed by HGVs in the capital despite making up a minority of cyclists, because they are more likely to obey red lights.

The rule that could prevent such deaths is often named the Idaho Stop, after the U.S. state where cyclists can treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as give way signs. There are signs the change could happen in the capital with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan supporting the proposal which has also gained the support of the Green Party, according to comments published in 2015 by the party’s transport secretary Caroline Russell in the Independent.

Support for the proposal within the Green party more locally isn’t in full agreement however, transport spokesperson for Bristol Green party, Councillor Charlie Bolton explained his mixed views to the Cable: “Personally, I disapprove, I think it disrespects the rules of the road, so allows motorists to do the same, and also pisses loads of motorists off – it contributes to the ‘lycra clad terrorists’ spiel.

“Having said that, I can see the benefits of legitimising it. I’d say there are two reasons for doing it – one, cycling is partly about momentum. You do use your own energy to cycle, so stop-start-stop-start is not a good way to cycle. Second, I’m told, in some instances it can be safer.  But the key is safety.”

The objectives of the latest government review focusing on pedestrian deaths, demonstrate a fundamental problem with tabloid headline fuelled policy decisions; deaths that make the headlines are naturally rare while routine causes of death simply aren’t deemed newsworthy. If we are serious about safety, it’s essential that experts who argue against knee-jerk reactions and call for sensible reforms are listened to, and don’t receive similar treatment to the government’s fired chief drugs advisor.

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  • Jane Hopkins says:

    I have been cycling for over fifty years and I am sure that many traffic lights in Bristol should be discretionary for cyclists but, to be safe, there would need to be some extensive re-signage to ensure that both motorists and pedestrians were fully aware of the change. Pedestrians are particularly in need of education in respect of cyclists, especially on shared pavements. I am very tired of pedestrians’ reactions to my gentle warning bell: many don’t anything because they’ve blocked their ears with music but others interpret my bell as a “get out of my way” sound rather than the warning that I am approaching them from behind or their blind side. Of course, if they (and motorists) cycled more they would be understanding rather than passive aggressive victims.

  • Steve Roser says:

    In the states you can turn right on a red in a car. However, and it is a big one, there is the presumption that anyone crossing has total priority, and cars slow, and stop without any hassle. As a cyclist I sometimes run reds to turn left (its a lot safer) but only if there is very clear view and no one around. Given the poor attitude of a few cyclists (seen a lot running reds on pelican crossings and just missing pedestrians) and many cars, we just don’t seem to have a general acceptance of the priority we need to give pedestrians if we want this to happen.

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