We should listen to what Boris has to say about cycling with headphones

It would have been a preposterous thing for Boris to have cited headphones as a primary cause of London’s recent tragedies. But he didn’t.

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As a London cyclist – or just as a human being – I have been appalled and greatly saddened by the deaths of no fewer than six bike riders in the capital in just a fortnight.

I was therefore intrigued, and not a little frustrated, to hear that Boris Johnson’s latest response to this carnage was to suggest that cyclists should stop wearing headphones – something I used to do myself - as if they would no longer die if they ceased clandestinely listening to Take That’s greatest hits on the way to work.

Yet it turns out that’s not what he said. Not being a listener to Vanessa Feltz’s BBC Radio London show, on which Boris made his remarks, I first heard about them via the storm of outrage they generated. But having actually listened to the Mayor and Ms Feltz in all their downloadable glory a day after the show aired, I have to wonder whether all of those expressing their anger have done the same.

It would, of course, have been a preposterous thing for Boris to have raised headphones as a primary cause of London’s recent tragedies. But he didn’t. He was asked about them by a caller, almost half an hour into an interview in which he defended cyclists’ right to be on the road, rejected the suggestion of compulsory helmets and made some sense on measures such as HGV signalling and mirrors.

When they were raised, he then described wearing headphones on a bike as “absolutely nuts” and said he wouldn’t object to a ban. And while I think that he didn’t go nearly far enough on the need for more prosecutions and tougher penalties for those who endanger cyclists through aggressive, dangerous driving, or on the need for investment in more robust protective measures than “blue paint” cycle superhighways, I actually think that on headphones Boris is right.

They are, as he said, “a scourge”, and like him, it terrifies me to see riders weaving in and out of dense traffic or even pedalling along a side road, unable to hear properly the vehicles around them. It is all the more scary because I used to do it - until I realised with a fright that I was not only unable to hear everything I needed to but at times dangerously distracted. I'm now a reformed rider, and believe that along with those who cycle in the dark without lights, those who opt for no helmet and those who plough through red lights in the trendier parts of east London in high heels on a fixie bike covered in satin flowers with a cupcake stand in the basket, those who wear headphones while riding on London’s roads do the rest of us a disservice.

That is not the same as saying that any of the cyclists who have been killed or injured of late have brought it on themselves, or indeed were doing any of the aforementioned things. They were, from what I have read, experienced cyclists doing absolutely nothing wrong, and all but one were killed by lorries, coaches and buses. If Mr Johnson really wants to make London the greatest cycling city in the world, he should give serious consideration to Chris Boardman’s suggestion of restricting lorry access to the city centre during rush hour a la Paris.

Yet despite the livid response of some within the cycling community, we do need to talk about the behaviour of some of our bike-riding brethren. They are making it more dangerous for everyone, and I don’t understand why good cyclists aren’t as outraged by bad cycling as many motorists are.

As someone who drives as well as rides, I can tell you that far from feeling invincible in my killing machine when behind the wheel, I feel stressed and vulnerable when I have cyclists weaving around me, helmetless, over-laden or obviously clueless about road rules as I attempt to navigate the traffic without getting myself or someone else killed. Bad cyclists can make me swerve, and they can certainly make me more stressed and therefore less safe to be around.

And while this doesn’t apply to most riders, a functional relationship of mutual trust and confidence between drivers and cyclists relies on everyone respecting certain norms of behaviour. There are many drivers, I’m sure, who could safely drive at 35mph, or manage their vehicle while taking a phone call, but society has decided that nobody doing this is a better idea. Similarly, an experienced cyclist might think that they can safely jump a red light, for example, but their unpredictability will make the driver who saw it less confident about what the next rider will do, and thus perhaps less able to make the necessary allowances.

What’s more, the message it sends – as with headphone wearing – is that the cyclist is unwilling to compromise. As long as they can handle wearing headphones, jumping lights or ducking in and out of lanes, it implies, who cares about the example set to less experienced riders, or the frustration it generates among the majority of motorists who obey what are in their case legally-enforceable rules?

The relationship between cyclists and motorists in London is becoming ever-more hostile. This is partly because the number of riders has rocketed without cycling infrastructure keeping pace, and that needs to change. But the more vitriolic elements of both camps also need to dial down the antagonism.

Those in control of machines with the power to kill bear the responsibility for that power, and drivers who are lazy, aggressive or reckless are contemptible and deserve harsh punishment. But just as most cyclists are not wilfully dangerous on the roads, most motorists – including bus and lorry drivers – are trying to navigate over-crowded, often old and narrow roads built to serve a fraction of the numbers that use them. A refusal by a few cyclists to play ball with other road users by riding selfishly undermines support among motorists for the investment in safety that might stop any more tragedies.

While we continue to campaign for that investment, drivers need to drive safely and cyclists need to ride the London roads as they are, not as they wish them to be. That means accepting that they are busy, dirty and dangerous, and adapting behaviour accordingly. For someone with no driving experience, I’d say that means a cycling proficiency course and some education about road rules so that you know how traffic is likely to behave. For everyone, it means not seeing fellow road users as the enemy. For me, it now means no headphones. 

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