I was late into the office one day earlier this week. Riding to work through the centre of London, I came across a prostrate man who had been knocked from his bike by a lorry and was lying in agony in the middle of the carriageway. Someone else had called an ambulance but I wanted to help – all I could think to do was to put my rucksack under his head while we waited for the paramedics.
In the middle of the rush hour, plenty of people had seen the accident happen. Many of the witnesses were upset – several of them in tears. But none of the cyclists who stopped at the scene seemed to share the sense of shock. It was grim, for sure, but by no means unexpected. Everyone who cycles regularly in the capital has a horror story to tell – we all know the risks that see barely a day go by without another headline detailing the death or serious injury of a rider. I'm reminded of those stories every day just now – my own department is a man down, with one of our colleagues still recovering in hospital from an awful accident two months ago.
Don't get me wrong. All the statistics show that cycling is far safer than is commonly perceived. It's just that when cyclists do collide with cars, buses, vans and lorries, they tend to come off badly.
It is the knowledge of that vulnerability that leaves cyclists mystified about why they are so disliked. Four years ago, in this newspaper, the actor Nigel Havers was asked to name one thing he would like people to take more notice of. His answer: not world peace, not climate change, nor even his own faltering career. The issue Havers chose to highlight was "cyclists who jump red lights and ride on pavements because they're all bastards". He's not alone.
The one thing that has increased more rapidly than cyclists taking to the roads in our towns and cities in recent years has been the opprobrium to which they are subjected. A couple of years ago, after getting knocked off my bike, I wrote about the frustrations of being in a wheelchair. The first 10 comments on our website ignored that topic, preferring to focus on whether the accident had been my fault.
In theory, I don't mind the hostility. We cyclists are generally a hardy bunch, impervious to the contempt of others (how else would we leave home dressed like that). In practice, I think the antagonism people feel about cyclists is dangerous – it has encouraged a climate in which people think we deserve what we get and don't need protecting.
At the scene of my own accident, the policeman who attended hopped into the back of the ambulance to tell me that the driver had admitted to him on the spot that he had been at fault. Six weeks later, I received a perfunctory letter from the Metropolitan Police informing me that since there was no evidence of fault, no action would be taken against the driver. When I made a fuss, they sent him on a driving improvement course. I lost the use of my legs for six weeks and now have permanent scarring on my back. He was forced to give up a couple of hours of his time.
The solicitor I consulted, who came recommended by the London Cycling Campaign, tells me this experience is typical. But if the police don't bother to look out for the interests of cyclists, what hope is there for the rest of the public? If drivers know they can mow down riders with impunity, why should they bother to check their mirrors before turning left?
Asked why he felt so angry about cyclists, Havers complained that we do not make a contribution to the upkeep of the roads whose regulations we flout. "Pay some tax" is the sort of thing I hear from drivers pretty often (the less foul-mouthed ones in any case). It's a myth. Most of us have cars and pay road tax. Even those who don't, pay other types of tax – and it's not as if road tax revenues all go towards the roads.
None of us are blameless. Cyclists, just like drivers, do idiotic things from time to time. Some are arrogant, smug and self-righteous. But when we ride like fools, 99 times out of 100, no one gets hurt. When drivers don't pay attention, people get killed. Let's call a truce and start thinking a bit more carefully about everyone with whom we share the roads – before more people lose their lives.