Cyclists need more than wheels of fortune

Claudia Pritchard
Saturday 17 August 2013 18:26
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A friend has just upbraided me in the gentlest way. "I thought I saw you on your bike," she said. "Then I knew it couldn't be you because this cyclist was wearing earphones." Well, of course it was me. And she knew it. But that's classy diplomacy.

It's true I had some Bach in one ear: it makes me pedal faster and helps to blot out the abuse of van drivers. But I can still hear that more than well enough, and I can also hear the lorry behind me and the yelp of the pedestrian whose knee gives way just before they drop in front of me. And I wondered whether my friend, in her weather-sealed car with music coming from all four corners, could say the same. I know she is worried for me but it takes others to keep me safe, too. "I didn't see her," is the common cry of the lorry driver who crushes a cyclist.

So the new on-the-spot fines for drivers who enter cycle boxes at junctions, one of several "minor" motoring offences that may prompt a retraining course as well, sound fair to me and, like most sensible measures, are about protecting the benign majority from the folly of the few. Roads are for cyclists as much as for drivers, and a person on a bike shouldn't have to think of herself as a potential victim any more than someone walking home late at night. The alternative is that we feed a culture of vulnerability.

This government nibbles at the notion of a safer street, but is mightily confused. Three weeks ago, Eric Pickles wanted householders to turn their drives into public car parks; last week, Health minister Anna Soubry backed local authority schemes to close residential roads for children's outdoor play. It was not clear whether the drives-for-hire and the outdoor play were to be in the same streets.

Also last week David Cameron earmarked £77m to encourage cycling in cities and rural areas. But a price index showed that a car is one of the few household purchases that costs less than five years ago, and rail fare rises were announced of up to 9 per cent, none of which makes roads emptier and safer for pedestrians, cyclists or drivers.

Not for the first time, this country is being left behind. In Los Angeles, the car capital of the world, there are good cycle lanes and regular warnings to drivers to give cyclists room. In car-loving Italy, coastal cycle paths take riders around roundabouts, instead of dumping them at junctions.

So forgive our British cyclists when they are a little bullish: if they trickle along in the gutter they are hard to see and have nowhere to go in an emergency. Indeed, cyclists are urged to occupy the centre, not the edge, of a lane. It stops them being decked by the opening doors of stationary cars.

Yes, cyclists could pledge not to jump the lights – and police are now hot on that, too. But they can't promise not to listen to the odd cantata; they may even sing. What they are unlikely to do is smoke, argue with a passenger, consult a map, send a text, read an email, change a CD, eat a sandwich, break the speed limit, pollute the air or take 1,750 lives a year. Drivers have those things covered already.

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