I'll break any law to stay alive in the saddle: The skidlid campaign reinforces the idea that cyclists alone are responsible for their safety, argues Christian Wolmar

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The Independent Online
THE CAMPAIGN just launched to encourage cyclists to wear helmets sounds sensible enough. I ride a bike and always wear my banana skidlid, ridiculous as it looks; well aware that death lurks round every corner and roundabout in the form of mad, bad or just incompetent drivers.

Yet I have a nagging doubt about the helmet campaign. Cyclists are rarely killed by falling off their bikes. They are usually bumped off, in both senses, by a motor vehicle. The helmet campaign only reinforces the idea that it is the cyclists who should be responsible for their safety, rather than the motorists who kill them, albeit inadvertently.

Of course, cyclists make mistakes, and they do sometimes pull out of side roads straight in front of 38-ton lorries. But only a quarter of cycling deaths are the cyclist's fault and even that is probably an overestimate, since they are not around to give their side of the story.

My strategy has one objective only - staying alive. And in order to stay alive I break the law, often and deliberately. Shocked, colonel? Well, don't read on, but when did you last break the speed limit or park at a bus stop?

I feel I have to adapt to a hostile and threatening environment by minimising the risk to my life. For example, it is vital for cyclists to be seen at traffic lights. So when a light is red, I weave through the traffic to ensure that I reach the front before the light changes. I also cycle well beyond the white line to ensure that the boy racer in his XR3i is able to see me as he tries to flatten me.

If possible, I avoid roads. In London, with a couple of exceptions, bicycles are banned in the Royal Parks, but these peaceful open spaces offer salvation from the perils of Marylebone Road or the aptly named Kensington Gore. I disregard that ban with impunity. A couple of miles less on the road is a couple of miles in which I will not be killed.

This does not mean that I hare down pavements trying to score points by knocking over old ladies and toddlers, but I do sometimes go on to the kerb in order to get to the front at a traffic light or to dodge a parked car that is too perilous to round in the normal way. I jump red lights, too. For example, in Holloway, north London, there is a one-way main road that splits into two 50 yards after a set of traffic lights. I go through on the pedestrian phase if I can to avoid a race with cars to the division, because they often change lanes without warning.

These revelations will surprise no one who drives in a city, but they are bound to give further ammunition to the anti-cycling lobby. I am often regaled by interminable stories about how a madman on a mountain bike came close to knocking the storyteller over.

The facts, however, tell otherwise: 125 people were killed in 1991 by being knocked down by cars on a pedestrian crossing or central island and, in all, 1,862 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles. Yet only one person was killed by a cyclist.

Of course, I try to be considerate when I am on the pavement or jumping lights. Some cyclists break the law unnecessarily by going through on red just because they are in a hurry, and terrorise old ladies by speeding along the pavements. That sort of behaviour cannot be condoned.

When I am in a park or on a canal towpath, I treat pedestrians with special care, even though some respond to my presence by shaking their fists. But it is important to understand that it is not an equal battle out there. It is a matter of life and death.

The benefits of cycling, both for the environment and for personal health, are indisputable. Yet roads are hostile to cyclists and we are treated as pariahs. Kensington and Chelsea even ripped up its cycle lanes when it took them over from the Greater London Council in 1986 and that attitude still exists among many transport policy makers at local and national level.

The helmets campaign is costing the Government pounds 300,000. The day before the launch, it announced some arcane scheme to allow for variable speed limits on a stretch of the M25. The cost, a staggering pounds 10m for a scheme that seemed to be providing a few red circles indicating speed limits on motorway gantries, would be enough to provide miles of cycle lanes in London. It could also pay for special white lines for cyclists at traffic lights. It would cost virtually nothing to allow cyclists to use parks.

We need a change in attitude and a will to create an urban environment in which drivers and cyclists can be more equal. Then I wouldn't need to break the law. So next time you see me riding through Regent's Park, give me a wave rather than a rude gesture. I'm keeping the road space clear for the cars - and keeping myself alive.