Cycling: Do we take it seriously enough?

August 02, 2012, 1:43 PM UTC

As accidents involving cyclists are increasing, John Humphrys considers - who or what is to blame?

Bradley Wiggins has become a national hero. To be the first Briton to win the Tour de France and then a couple of weeks later take gold in the cycling time trial at the London Olympics has thrust him into the pantheon of Britain’s greatest athletes. No Brit has ever won more Olympic medals than he has. Wiggins’ extraordinary success has also pushed the sport of cycling into the spotlight and it is bound to encourage even more people than are already doing so to take to two wheels. But are we taking the safety aspects of cycling seriously enough?

The issue starkly confronted us all the very day of Wiggins’ Olympic triumph. A twenty-eight year-old cyclist was killed when he was hit by an Olympic bus ferrying journalists between locations. Deaths on the road have been decreasing in the last ten years or so but last year saw the first rise since 2003, to 1,901 fatalities. About a hundred of these involved cyclists. In London there have been ten cyclist fatalities this year alone and last year saw a 60% increase in the number of cyclists killed in the capital over the previous two-year period.

Who's to blame?

Partly this is the result of the increased number of people taking to their bikes and that has led to greater acrimony between cyclists and motorists as to which of them is the more irresponsible. Cyclists complain that motorists drive too fast, that they are too careless and that they often simply fail to see cyclists before it is too late to avoid an accident. Motorists complain that some cyclists seem to think they own the road, ignoring traffic lights, swarming round slow-moving cars and recklessly cutting in on the inside of traffic. Too many of them seem to think they don’t need to have lights at night. Accidents seem inevitable. So who’s to blame?

In May the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, claimed that two-thirds of cyclists  killed on the roads of the capital were responsible for their own deaths because they had broken the laws of the road. But this conclusion has been flatly contradicted by others. A study conducted in 2009 reported that, according to the police, around two thirds of accidents involving cyclists and resulting in either death or serious injury were caused by motorists.

The helmet debate

After his triumph at the Olympics, Bradley Wiggins gave his own views about the growing controversy over cycling safety. He said: “at the end of the day we’ve all got to coexist on the roads. Cyclists are not ever going to go away, as much as drivers moan, and as much as cyclists may moan about certain drivers they are never going to go away, so there’s got to be a bit of give and take.”

More pointedly, he seemed to pin a lot of the responsibility for doing so on his fellow cyclists. He said: “[people] shouldn’t be riding along with iPods and phones and things on and [they] should have lights and all those things.”

Controversially, he said that the wearing of helmets by cyclists should be made compulsory by law, “because ultimately, if you get knocked off and you ain’t got a helmet on, then how can you kind of argue?” It has been estimated that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of brain damage to anyone involved in such an accident by between 63% and 88%.

Wiggins’ view, however, has been sharply challenged by other figures in the cycling world. Chris Peck, of the cycling charity, CTC, strongly opposed the idea, arguing that such a law would lead to “an immediate reduction in cycling” with a consequent adverse effect on public health. He pointed out that while a hundred cyclists a year are killed on Britain’s roads, around 50,000 people die of the effects of taking too little exercise. For the sake of public health we need to do everything we can to encourage cycling, not discourage it. The experience of both Australia and New Zealand, he said, was that after the introduction of a law compelling helmet-wearing, bike use immediately fell by between 30% and 40%, though it has picked up somewhat since.

Despite the growing popularity of cycling, Britain still lags many other countries in the extent to which we get on our bikes. Here, on average, only 2.8% of journeys to work are taken by bike, compared with 10% in Germany and 25% in the Netherlands. Chris Peck said that only around 1% of Dutch cyclists wear a helmet.

'Individual choice'

After the death of the cyclist hit by an Olympic bus on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said he had no plans to issue helmets with the ‘Boris bikes’ he introduced to London a few years ago. And the Department for Transport said that wearing helmets should be a matter of ‘individual choice’.

Some, however, will argue that there are double standards in play here. After all, motorcyclists have been compelled to wear helmets for the last forty years or so. There seems to be no logic behind forcing one group of road users to wear helmets and not the other. It’s true that motorcyclists are likely to be travelling much faster when they have an accident and so risk greater injury to their brains if they are not wearing a helmet. But cyclists, riding at slower speeds, can still suffer fatal brain damage. So if the ‘individual choice’ argument doesn’t hold for motorcyclists, it oughtn’t hold for cyclists, it’s argued.

Others say that however the helmet issue should be resolved it is actually a sideshow. What really matters is making the roads safer for cyclists. This is what both Chris Peck of CTC and Martin Gibbs, the director of public policy at British Cycling, advocate. Gibbs argues for more money to be spent on increasing dedicated provision for cyclists on roads and at junctions, for the safety measures governing heavy goods vehicles to be improved, and for all future road plans and transport to be subject to a cycling safety assessment before approval is given.

What’s your view?

  • Are you a cyclist or, if not, has Bradley Wiggins success encouraged to start to use a bike?
  • If you are a cyclist, what measures would you like to see introduced to improve safety?
  • If you are a motorist, what’s your view of why accidents involving cyclists happen?
  • What measures would you like to see introduced to reduce the number of cycling accidents?
  • Do you agree with Bradley Wiggins that the wearing of helmets should be made compulsory for cyclists?
  • Do you think that requiring motorcyclists but not cyclists to wear helmets by law is justified or not?
  • Do you think the government should spend more money or not to make the roads safer and, if you do, what specifically do you have in mind?

Let us know what you think.