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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26 reader comments

  1. Steve Lord says:

    I have just started cycling, and I cannot believe how nervous I am at EVERY T- junction. I just expect the worst every time. But by embracing the sport my attention as a driver, at EVERY T-junction, had increased hugely. Think bike!!!!

  2. dom says:

    You get my vote.

  3. Debbie says:

    What you say is all very well and good but I have to say that here in Glasgow the cyclists do not do very much to help themselves.

    “Cars look out for bikes, bikes look out for people”

    I agree but what if the bikes aren’t easy to see in the first place. I am utterly shocked and appalled at the complete disregard some cyclists here have for safety equipment. Every morning I start to lose count of the number of cyclists that haven’t got a single piece of hi-viz and reflective clothing on them (more often than not they are wearing dark colours) yet are riding at dawn and dusk or, even worse, in the dark! Then there is the lack of lights on these bikes (those tiny little reflective squares are totally useless)! If you want drivers to notice you then make yourself seen! I ride horses and generally I stay off the roads and stick to bridle paths were possible but I always have hi-viz, reflective clothing on myself and items on my horse too. I want people to notice I’m there and take me into consideration so I do my best to make sure I am seen!

    I also think there should be better education and training for cyclists, In fact I’d go so far to say that I think cyclists should have to sit a course and test before going on the roads. It might prevent those ones who creep along and are less assertive being lost in the traffic but also give the ones that are down-right dangerous and thoughtless in their cycling a bit of food for thought. I know that the driving test proves that just because you’ve passed the test doesn’t automatically make you a good driver and imagine it will be the same for cyclists too but I would hope it would help some.

    I am well aware of the awful driving many cyclists experience while on the roads but after witnessing various near-misses where the cyclists have been at fault I can see how they easily get a bad name. For example, the other day I was sitting at a red light at a cross-roads. The lights for the cars travelling in the opposite direction were also red. The lights were green for those on my left. One car went to go straight through the junction to the road on my right but suddenly a cyclist, who had been creeping up on the left-hand side of all the cars queued at the opposite side of the road from me, went straight through the red light without even looking and the car that had right of way, that had went through the green light and planned on going straight ahead, had to slam on their brakes and narrowly missed crashing into the cyclist. The cyclist was very lucky the car wasn’t going any faster and had time to stop. Surely if you were the cyclist you would think “this light is red for a reason, I should stop”. I understand that in a queue of traffic like that you would want to get to the front and be ready to take off before the cars so you are seen and not cut up by someone turning left who hasn’t bothered to check their mirror but the light is red for a reason and going straight through without even a glance left or right was just plain dangerous!

    Unfortunately I think the blame lies on both sides.

    1. Miles A Head says:

      A cyclist that takes up a whole lane will incur anyones wroth! Cyclists who ride two abreast are also disrespectful of other road users and can expect to meet some equally menacing road users. As regards poor visibility not being an excuse, I would add the following examples. Hi viz jackets are compulsary in many work place scenarios that are significantly safer than the road. Cyclists are few and far between on many roads, yet motorists are expected to look in every direction as roads systems and signs gets ever more complex and still think about a possible cyclist who jumps out from nowhere! We all seen that one! How many of us fail to see a car because it’s the same colour as the background such as a road, car park or hedge row. We know when we are courteous drivers, when we are in a hurry, and when we have a close shave with fellow drivers. I do however like the idea that we are constantly reminded of our obliigations to other road users.

  4. Barrie Philpott says:

    Whilst I wholly agree with the fact that you say that cyclists need to be seen I do really think that there should be legislation to put in force a rule to make it compulsory for cyclists to wear hi-viz clothing and have adequate lighting.

    If a cyclist collides with my vehicle I have no means of recognising the offender. So it would also be an idea to pass a law whereby cyclists bore a number on the hi-viz clothing to be identified. Every vehicle except a cycle has this form of ID. I have witnessed many times cyclists riding through speed cameras in excess off the limit.If the cyclist wants to be treated as all other road users then they should have the same responsibilities as others IE ….pay a road licence fee , have compulsory insurance and a “cycle MOT” as others do.

    I do not think this should apply to cyclists under 18 but for those under 18 there should be compulsory training.

    The identification idea would stop cyclists jumping red lights riding, over pavements and verbally abusing other road users.

    In closing I would say that all above comments do not apply to the majority of cyclists but unfortunately a few do spoil it for the many.

    1. wilf says:

      @Barrie I think that a number tag would help to some degree and make certain cyclists who it applies to, culpable for their actions – but your comment about a license fee is a moot point.

      Cars pay VED, which is entirely based on emissions on the road. As the emissions of a bike are zero, there would be no fee to pay, much like many new cars on the road and the same as horses, milk floats, tractors etc. Road Tax was abolished by Winston Churchill in 1937. Roads are maintained by taxes that everyone pays and therefore everyone is already responsible for the roads.

      Insurance is a very good idea and already exists – I am a member of the London Cycle Campaign, who provide insurance for cyclists on the road for free (after your membership has been paid, a very small fee), and also have taken out extra insurance through one of their partners which I paid a premium for. This ensures I am covered for theft (unfortunately had to use this recently), damage and any accidents that may occur on the road. I wholeheartedly recommend cyclists to join them for both their own sakes and others.

      As for an MOT, a cycle has a lot less moving parts than a car that can cause an accident – not to say they can’t. It’s recommended to service your bike around every 3 months, and a lot of cyclists clean, oil and maintain their bikes at home as it means your components don’t rust/break and cause you to replace them all the time as this can get very costly.

      Consideration and a bit of understanding for everyone on the road is what’s needed on every side – cyclists need to understand that motorists cannot look 360 the whole time for others and should stay away from danger, and motorists need to realise that even the smallest touch or swerve can be one of the most frightening things when travelling at speed without the luxury of a metal cage around you. Let’s just be friends.

      Ps, I drive too and hope that seeing both sides makes me a better road user, though far from perfect, we’re human after all and make mistakes from time to time.

    2. Mark Hirst says:

      Sorry, but having scene four cars disregard a pelican crossing as book one was crossing today your assumption that cycle id would solve anything is nonsense. One of these was a taxi which has two types of identification.

      More punishment for all offenders the answer surely?

    3. Robwiz says:

      Speed limits don’t apply to cyclists. They can however be charged with ‘driving furiously’ or ‘driving aggressively’.

  5. George Worship says:

    I’m a regular cyclist in London but I totally disagree that there should be any assumptions about who is at fault in a collision based on the size of their vehicle. Each of us and all of us have a responsibility to look out for other road users irrespective of the mode of transport. The cyclist ignoring a red traffic light is as dangerous a road user as the taxi driver veering to pick up a fare, or as the car driver texting. My recent experience is that the most scarce commodity is in fact consideration for other road users. That’s about each of us as individuals not about legislation or policy.

  6. S Rowe says:

    So should a lorry hitting a car automatically be at fault? That is the logical extension of your argument. I certainly don’t want to bash a great sportsman, but did he have lights? Was he wearing reflective clothing? Far to simplistic to say that the bigger vehicle is at fault.

  7. Alastair Garrow says:

    Bradley was hit after dark. Did he have any lights on the bike!!??!

  8. stuart says:

    I do hope that Bradley
    1) was wearing a helmet
    2) did have lights on
    3) was not listening to an ipod.

    I got hit by a car on my motorbike and am still suffering the famous lower left leg injuries usually experienced, the same car pulling out of a give way and not seeing me – that was only at 40 mph. all the protective gear still doesn’t help you.

  9. Gerry says:

    For many years cyclists have been too vulnerable to poor driving and bullying tactics by some drivers of bigger and more powerful vehicles. Cycle lanes have in theory brought – patchily – a greater security to cyclists. But . . . some cyclists have decided that if the road is too unsafe, it’s ok for them to do to others the very thing they complain about. Pedestrians are increasingly at risk from cyclists who use FOOTpaths (yes, the clue is in the title) in the same menacing way that car and lorry drivers use cycle lanes. Many seem to think that it is their right. It ain’t.

  10. Andrew Chapman says:

    As a cyclist, motorist and pedestrian I can not accept the premise that cars should be assumed to be at fault. There are just as many stupid cyclists as there are motorists. Recently I was driving at night when a cyclist without lights or reflective gear jumped lights and cut across me. I just managed to avoid and all I got for my trouble was a 2 fingered salute. Cyclists like that deserve to be banned.

  11. Rhonda Riachi says:

    About 21 years ago in Oxford a spinal consultant at the John Radcliffe hospital was knocked off his bike and killed by a drunk driver. The driver was given a suspended sentence. I have never lost my anger about that case. Two decades later our roads are still not safe for cyclists and our drivers not nearly careful enough with the half-tonne or more of metal they drive.
    I still cycle, despite two serious accidents (where the drivers likewise “just didn’t see” me), and before anyone asks: yes, I wear a helmet. We have much to learn from our Dutch neighbours. When will our governments take cycling safety seriously?

  12. philip watson says:

    As a regular road cyclist I am constantly surprised to see cyclist that wear dark clothing and useless dim lights or no lights at all. I ride with lights, not your usual halfords 30 lumin lights but 1000 lumin lights that really can be seen and certainly not be missed. I also wear hi Viz clothing and tights with reflective panels designed to be seen.
    I use lights on winter days as you must ensure you are seen. I would like to know what Bradley Wiggins was wearing at 6pm and if he had decent lights.
    Ride around Germany and cycle lanes are fully segregated from traffic through town. Once again the UK dithers around adding 10 meter sections of cycle lane at a junction that takes you straight back into the heart of the traffic as it pick up speed from the junction. More needs to be done immediately and Bradley’s accident should be the catalyst to get something done now. Brad was lucky, others are less fortunate.
    Get well soon Bradley and take safety to the top for all is cyclists.
    Thanks Phil Watson

  13. Phil says:

    I had a ‘I just didn’t see him’ moment a couple of months ago. The driver is a decent guy. He made a mistake.It hurt (and still does) but I’m lucky to be alive. Education combined with better infrastructure is needed. Look out for the vunerable one.

  14. Andrew Fanning says:

    If you drive a powered boat on a river and hit a yacht under sail, no matter what amateurish manoeuvre the sailor might have been pulling, then you are at fault. The reasons are simple, because you have the engine to be able to get out of the way, and because you are the danger. Carrying an axe is not illegal as such, but if you drop it on a small child, then you would expect to be culpable. Cyclists are inherently wobbly, eratic, hard to see at night, and often under-18. This is a fact of life. Motorists should drive so that they don’t hurt cyclists with all of these things taken into account. The truth is, most motorists do not realise that they are effectively swinging an axe in a kindergarten. A car is a deadly weapon and if you kill someone with yours then you should be hit by the full force of a very unsympathetic law. If you don’t understand this level of responsibility comes with your vehicle, then you shouldn’t be on the road in the first place.

  15. Bryan says:

    Recently I was at traffic lights in left lane with indicator on to signify left turn. Just as the lights went green and I moved forward a cyclist came up my left side , undertook me and cycled straight on. If I had not noticed him I would have ploughed through him possibly causing him grave injury. My fault or his?

    1. Phil says:

      You did the right thing using your mirrors before making the turn – that’s what you are supposed to do to prevent accidents. Motorcyclists look over their left should before a left turn, this is known as a ‘life-saver’.

      Highway Code Rule 182: Use your mirrors and give a left-turn signal well before you turn left. Do not overtake just before you turn left and watch out for traffic coming up on your left before you make the turn, especially if driving a large vehicle. Cyclists, motorcyclists and other road users in particular may be hidden from your view.

      Ultimately, the cyclist is filtering and it is a grey area. Experienced cyclists and motorcyclists will know not to filter past the vehicle at the head of the queue if there is a chance of the lights changing. There is also an issue of advanced stop box feeder lanes leading less experienced cyclists into undertaking and getting caught in a wave of traffic moving off when the light goes green.

  16. n0tice says:

    We’re following this story with interest because we’re running a campaign to get the UK to #keepcycling this winter. What do you want to celebrate or change about it? Head to keepcycling.n0tice.com to share your thoughts on it and inspire others to stay on their bikes.

    Get well soon Bradley!

  17. Miles A Head says:

    A cyclist can be inherently careless. A cyclist can make choices either to act responsibly or stupidly. Motor cyclists act responsibly when they use headlights during daylight hours. Cyclists need to look out for themselves until such time as every road user behaves sensibly and in accordance with the highway code. But visibility will always be an issue.

  18. Ben wye says:

    Following the above stream of logic, Pedestrians should have lights, licence and training before they are allowed to cross the road.

  19. Chris says:

    Came across this blog after nearly killing a cyclist last night… approached a T-junction, to set the scene: it was 11:30pm, pitch dark, pouring with rain, and the streets in quiestion are very poorly lit.

    Stopped at the T-junction to turn left, looked both ways… nothing, looked right again, nothing… started pulling out, and caught a small light in the corner of my eye… a cyclist !

    Luckily, I missed him, and pulled over on the left to apologise. It was then that I noticed he had no reflective clothing, in fact was wearing all black… no helmet, his front light was a tiny wee thing with probably 2 poor LEDs in it, and no rear light.

    He seemed pretty unphased to be honest, as if it happens all the time !? Not saying it’s his fault… but surely cyclists must take some responsibility for their own safety – cycling about on poorly lit roads, in the dark, with no reflectives and poor lights is an accident waiting to happen.

  20. keme says:

    almost got killed again this morning… still very furious… turning left, signalling left, mercedes van (a taxi – a professional driver) undertook me. if he’d hit me it would have been lights out. he claims he `didn’t know what i was doing’ because i was in the middle of the lane yet signalling left. unbelievable. take these people off the roads.

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