Cycling against the car culture

In 2008, 2,538 people were killed in the United Kingdom due directly to the presence of motor vehicles on the roads. A further 229,000 a year were injured. Countless others suffer detrimental effects from the emissions, noise and even fear of road traffic. Motor vehicles are furthermore a major source of carbon emissions, whose contribution to global warming is now surely doubted only by those with a strong vested interest and the mildly deranged.

A human activity which causes this level of carnage ought to be subjected to serious scrutiny and control. However, the convenience of the personal automobile has led over the last century to the development of a car culture which largely exempts motoring from the strict regulation of other areas of life in which poor practice costs lives (construction sites, workplaces, product liability, aviation, infectious disease and even dangerous animals).

The main tenets of this car culture can be summarised as follows:

1. The inevitable attrition is a price well worth paying (by unknown others) in return for individual autonomy and convenience (often now described as necessary to the way in which we live our lives).

2. Every physically competent adult has a right to drive, removable only as a punishment for serious or repeated criminal offending and, even then, only temporarily.

3. Conduct which might be regarded as dangerous in any other walk of life is, in a motorist, merely careless and that which would otherwise be careless is excusable. This tenet is coloured by a sense of ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’ in the mind of the individual scrutinising the conduct in question.

4. Road safety efforts should be focussed upon segregating the vulnerable road user from motorised traffic (at the expense of ensuring the safe sharing of road space) and upon encouraging, or even mandating, personal protection to ameliorate the consequences of the collisions which are accepted as inevitable.

5. A myopic view of the fundamental laws of physics which permits motorists to argue that their responsibilities and actions in controlling 1,000+ kgs at up to 70mph should be judged in a similar manner to those controlling less than 100kgs at up to about 20mph. It is not necessary to be an apologist for red light jumping or pavement riding cyclists to point out that the risks they pose are many orders of magnitude less than the risks to pedestrians and cyclists from poorly controlled motor vehicles

There are some signs that the car culture runs deep within our justice system, which arguably lags Parliament’s and Governments’ (central and local) efforts to restore a balance between motorised and alternative modes of personal transport. The bicycle is not only an inspired individual response to the difficulties of getting around but also a solution to the general problem of traffic congestion. The individual cyclist who leaves the car at home is freeing up road-space, reducing risk for all other road users and benefiting the environment for all. Even the cyclist who makes a trip that would not otherwise be made by car presents a negligible risk to others. The number of pedestrians killed by cyclists is similar to the number killed by golf balls; in each case too small to register on statistics, but on the few occasions per decade that it does occur accompanied by much publicity.

Cycling is not, on any rationale scale, a dangerous activity. It is, however, often perceived as dangerous because of the cyclist’s inherent vulnerability and it remains, per mile travelled, significantly more dangerous than driving, a trend that the recently released statistics for the second quarter of 2009 reveal to be moving in the wrong direction. The perception of danger is heightened by the suggestion that protective headgear is a necessity. In a collision between a bicycle and a motor vehicle the cyclist will come off worse, with the motorist virtually invulnerable (save to any subsequent legal sanction). While bearing the relative risks in mind, it is nonetheless worth reminding cyclists that in a collision with a pedestrian, the pedestrian will often come off worse (though the cyclist will still not have the invulnerability of the motorist).

It is a mark of a civilised society that the law protects the weak from unwarranted harm inflicted by the strong. It is important for cyclists to know that they share the roads with motorists who have an obligation to take care around them and that those who do not will be called properly to account. When a motor vehicle strikes a cyclist, and particularly when a fatality results, it is of the utmost importance that a thorough investigation take place, that where the facts warrant it a prosecution is pursued for the appropriate offence (without requiring a near certainty of conviction), and that following any conviction a deterrent sentence is passed. The car culture needs addressing at each of these levels.

Read next section: ‘Investigation and Prosecution’

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