8 Nov 2012

Bradley Wiggins: there but for the grace of God go all cyclists

Let me say now what you are about to read is an unabashed defence of the humble bike. In fact not just the bike, but cyclists too.

National treasure Bradley Wiggins and his coach mown down by cars within the space of the same few hours. Both of them hospitalised – one escapes with broken ribs, the other is more seriously injured, with bleeding on the brain. How much worse could it have been?

I write this because, over the last year, the number of cyclists on British roads has barely changed, while the number getting injured has soared by 16 per cent.

There but for the grace of god go any of us who ever take to two wheels to get around.

I have been riding a bike ever since I could walk. I had a BMX when I was a kid. I still have a mountain bike, although it seldom now gets used. I’ve gone down the lycra path too – every now and then get a couple hours to myself and attempt to recreate my very own Tour de France in the hills outside London.

But pretty much every day for the last two decades I have ridden to work on a very dull granddad bike with mudguards and a pannier rack and incredibly unfashionable, but very wide and stable, handlebars. This bike is about as safe as a bike could possibly get.

I wanted it like this because I have to ride along some of the most congested and dangerous commuter roads in the country. The Old Kent Road during rush hour – the main artery from central London to the motorways that link to continental Europe – is not for the fainthearted.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Car, van, and lorry drivers are much more accommodating of us cyclists than they used to be. These days they are much more likely to give bikes space, or not bother trying to recklessly overtake on narrow roads. But there are still idiots who think that bikes have no right to take up a whole lane. And there are still far too many drivers who simply “don’t see bikes”.

Which is apparently precisely what the woman who knocked into Bradley Wiggins said: “I just didn’t see him.”

This kind of excuse just isn’t good enough. The fact is cyclists are unique amongst road users in having a broader perspective. Why? Well, many of us drive cars too. And all of us at some point or other are pedestrians as well. We understand road use from many angles.

Do cyclists ride often ride aggressively? Yes, of course we do. But that’s for a reason – we have to – because we have to make sure we are seen. And sticking in the middle of the road and getting out first as lights go green is the only way to make sure you are the first thing other road users see. Statistics suggest those most likely to be hit are the tentative, who sit politely in the midst of traffic waiting for the lights to change. Cyclists who disappear in the midst of the throng, who just aren’t seen.

This is why we need to go further than the demands made by British cycling today. They are right in demanding government has to stop pussyfooting around, and put cycling at the heart of our transport policy.

Now government has spent millions on cycle lanes and mirrors and the rest of it – but we need more than that. We need to change the very culture of British roads. Drivers who injure or kill cyclists need to stop being treated with kid gloves, and let off the hook with charges of “careless driving”. They need to be labelled “dangerous drivers”, and taken off the roads.

And we need to start assuming that whenever a bike is in an accident, it is the larger vehicle that is at fault. That goes both ways – if a bike hits a pedestrian, we need to assume it is the bike that caused the smash.

Only then will every road user start to automatically think first about the safety of smaller users. Cars look out for bikes, bikes look out for people.

This, given that most cyclists are all three, is something we instinctively do already.

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