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Cyclists vs motorists: A phoney war between two tribes who should be on the same side

A spate of fatalities prompted an important debate that quickly went downhill. And Boris’s intervention didn’t help

A total of 118 cyclists died in Britain last year, the highest total since 2007. In London alone, six have died in 13 appalling days. Thousands are seriously injured every year. And Lord James of Blackheath knows exactly who is to blame.

On his regular drive along the A3, he explained to the House of Lords on Wednesday, he had three times been confronted with the spectacle of cyclists with an obvious death wish. His nemeses, he explained darkly, “stand in the middle of the road with a camera and defy you to run them down while they photograph you doing it”. To be thus run down, he went on, “is what they are longing for”.

Lord James, who advanced his views in a speech in which he also grumbled about children mooning at drivers, is not alone in thinking that cyclists are at fault. Speaking last week about the series of deaths on London’s roads, Boris Johnson, after explaining that he wasn’t going to point any fingers, lifted his arm and extended a mayoral digit. “You can see that people have taken decisions that really did put their lives in danger,” he said, before he added, confusingly: “You cannot blame the victim.” He also offered his idea for making them safer: a ban on headphones.

Similar views arise in tweets and comments on press articles, most of them taking a world view neatly summarised by Emma Way, a driver who has just been found guilty of failing to stop after a collision and failing to report an accident, in her notorious tweet soon after it happened: “Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier,” she wrote cheerily. “I have right of way – he doesn’t even pay road tax!”

Possibly my observations are biased, being the owner of a bicycle and not a car, but it does feel a bit like cyclists have been getting a hard time of late. At a busy junction in Camden, north London, yesterday, I’m almost certain none of them were aiming to get clobbered. All the same, you can see why people find them (us) a bit irritating. During an hour’s observation, the chances of those on two wheels stopping at the lights seemed about 50-50; I saw one guy sail blithely out into the intersection and then raise his hand indignantly towards a blameless motorist who happened to be in his way.

As we find ourselves in another heated debate about the risks and responsibilities of both groups of road users, it is worth remembering that nobody is perfect. Sadly, the likes of Lord James don’t do much good for our chances of a reasoned discussion about the best way to keep people safe. That isn’t really what the argument’s about any more: instead, it’s become one of those tiresome culture wars, a battle between Top Gear and fixed gear, and a challenge to pick your side.

The curious thing is that, when you talk to cyclists, this sense of two tribes doesn’t seem to much correspond to their experience. “It’s always a mixed bag, isn’t it?” says Louise Keller, who rides to work every day. “You always hear that cyclists take all these crazy risks and you see some that do, definitely, but most are really careful, I think. So I do get a bit sick of that. It’s the same with drivers – some good, some not so good.” Last week, she says, a motorist was gesturing at her in what she initially took as a sign of aggression – before realising that he was pointing at her basket, which was coming loose. “And then he gave me the thumbs up,” she says. “To be honest I felt like a bit of a idiot.”

This utopian scenario may not be the whole picture, but neither are those statistics I quoted. The long-term trends suggest that cycling deaths are in a consistent decline, and extremely rare. There were 14 deaths from 180 million trips in London last year. Likewise, while that spate of deaths has made the last couple of weeks a sombre time to take to the capital’s roads, the count so far is also 14 for 2013. That a high proportion  came in a short space of time makes the problem seem worse.

Think, too, of Boris’s suggestion that a significant part of the solution would be for cyclists to stop listening to music. There is no substantive evidence that this makes any difference, and a cyclist with an iPod is no less able to hear traffic than drivers with their windows up and radio on. So, the headphones point must be based on something else: the satisfying, blame-transferring image of the cyclist as irresponsible hipster, the sort who would rather keep up with their podcasts than protect themselves. And this, above all, is what riles those on bikes. “It’s such nonsense,” says Paul Lowdon, 62, who has ridden regularly for more than 20 years without a major prang. He points at his right trouser leg, carefully tucked into his sock. “Look at me! Am I a boy racer? I’m just trying to get from A to B without being killed.”

Harry Dryden, a 20-something on his way for a bit of triathlon training, says he sometimes rides with earphones, to hear GPS directions. “A lot of motorists are cyclists too. I don’t think the attitude that we’re different is going to get us anywhere closer to safer cycling.” He has a point. The great, overarching irony of the whole overwrought debate is that 80 per cent of cyclists have a driving licence; 20 per cent of drivers cycle at least once a month.

There is another way to proceed. In Bristol, in recent weeks, police have begun an operation aimed at improving behaviour on both sides of the arbitrary line. Cyclists running red lights are being fined, but so are drivers who pull up in the cycle box. Cyclists fined for riding without lights can have the penalty commuted if they prove they have bought some; drivers who go on a safety course will get the same mercy. The approach has been well received, and in a week it has dealt with at least 100 people. And, best of all, there has as yet been no indignant outcry from either “group” about the injustice of it all.

In a deeply phoney culture war, it is a relief to see somebody calling for peace talks.