OK, here’s a hypothetical scenario. Imagine this.
The largest representative body for cycling in the UK is making a stand against legislation. Specifically, it’s arguing vociferously against the requirement for cyclists to display rear lights at night.
Huh? What are you thinking? Are you trying to get us killed?!
No, says the organisation. Quite the opposite. We’re fighting the idea that people should expect others to be illuminated.
But why would I want to be less visible? You’re insane!
No, says the organisation. Quite the opposite. The idea that people in cars should be unable to deal with things outside their own beam of illumination is what’s insane.
Whatever. Even if you have a point, you’ll get nowhere with it. That horse has long since bolted, mate!
Ah. Now, here’s where we get to the interesting bit.
You see, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario. It’s real. Or, at least, it was real in 1934.
And—crucially—in 1934, that horse hadn’t yet bolted.
The thin end of the wedge
In 1934, although cycling was still the main transport for many in the country, the motor car had spent a decade firmly on the up and up. Carnage on the roads was on a similar trajectory, which is hardly surprising given the absence of driver testing (which was introduced the following year) and the recent abolition of the 20mph speed limit. Casualties on the roads had risen from 139,000 in 1926 to 239,000 in 1934. Action had to be taken. And, assuming your imaginary 1934 Venn diagram of “those affluent enough to own a motor car” and “those in a position of power” looks anything like mine (slice a boiled egg in half and you’re on the right lines), inevitably this was going to involve a squeeze on anyone on fewer than four wheels.
Thus, among other measures, compulsory rear lights for cyclists were proposed, and the Cyclists’ Touring Club robustly opposed them. (Indeed, it opposed some of the other measures and proposed some of its own; notably it was staunchly opposed to segregated cycleways, a move which precipitated an 80-year decline in cycling, as discussed by Mark Treasure and David Arditti among others.) The CTC’s argument was that to be burdened with a red light was not only an inconvenience, but more importantly the thin end of a wedge that could only lead to faster, more dangerous driving.
A fatter bit of the wedge
Let’s fast-forward to the present, and we find ourselves at a point where the requirement to display lighting in the hope of not having someone else drive a car head-first into oneself is completely unremarkable. Maybe you even think this whole article’s a bit nuts for implying that it should be remarkable.
But it didn’t stop at lights, of course. Other horses may not have bolted so quickly for the field of legislation, but they’ve been gaily wandering in and out of the still-open stable door in the intervening 80 years. Hi-viz clothing, for example, may not be a legal requirement (although it is elsewhere) but is frequently foisted upon cyclists; often quite literally: handed out by police, given away at Sky Rides, very often paid for by the motoring industry. Not just cyclists: it’s given away to schoolkids left, right and centre (curiously, Specsavers in particular are on some sort of mission). And if your kids don’t like it, they’ll be intimidated into wearing it. (Note that there is not one single mention of the driver in that video. We’re so far removed from the idea of a driver taking responsibility for driving within the space he or she can see that we now show the headlamp beams and never even discuss the driver: it’s the child’s fault for getting into those beams.)
Yet, although there is evidence that hi-viz is effective in terms of railway worker casualties, there is little if any evidence to demonstrate its efficacy in terms of affecting road collision rates or casualty rates (indeed there is a little to suggest it has no effect, or even a negative effect—oh, and don’t get killed while wearing it in low sun: the hired “experts” will say it was camouflage). But it seems like a good idea. It seems like a good idea to individuals on bikes because, being at mortal risk, they—we—are understandably keen to clutch at whatever straws are available, and it seems like a good idea to people in cars because they—we—want to drive faster and at the same time expend less cognitive effort.
Then, of course, there’s helmets. Helmets seem like a good idea for pretty much the same reasons: people on bikes will again generally take what they can get because they run the risk of death, whilst people in cars want the peace of mind of believing that if they knock a cyclist off (well, it could happen to anyone, they’re so hard to see) that everything will be fine and they won’t be landed with a chat with the Old Bill and a bit of a burden on their conscience (yes, I know it was his fault—he was so hard to see!—but I just feel guilty, you know?).
OK, I’m overdoing the characterisation, but you get the point: We’ve normalised inattentive driving and we’ve normalised collisions. They happen. Collisions are normal, so you’d better be prepared: I’ve got air bags, side impact bars and crumple zones; what have you got, a pair of gloves? Jeez, you’re not even trying! Here, pop a polystyrene hat on and we’ll call it quits.
A slightly fatter bit of the wedge
It goes further. As the cycling demographic has moved from miners and factory workers to city bankers and IT middle managers, the technology sector has been ever more drawn to a market of well-heeled but slightly scared people: you can get indicator gloves, cycle-lane projectors, bike-symbol projectors, jackets with an entire car’s worth of lights in them, and—my personal favourite—the intergalactically insane Smarthat (still a concept, but pro-motoring politicians have got right behind it). Some designs do at least focus on the vehicle that actually poses the threat, though one might worry about the driver’s habituation when they get into another vehicle without the system, but others rely on two-way communication between the lethal vehicle and its potential victim. So now we’ve got drivers who might be tempted to rely on audible alerts, but what happens if you’re the guy without a beacon? Some “lucky” people can pick them up for free at the moment, but after that they’re £20 a pop. I know this is hyperbole, but it’s really hard not to make comparisons to the Mafia’s business model. It’s protection money. We’re putting devices on trucks, and the driver will come to rely on them, and you need a £20 beacon to make your presence known, son. Paya da money or we crusha your head, capisce?
The fact that we have a problem seeking a solution does not mean that any solution thrown at the problem must be good. Buy into these flawed solutions and in the long run we’re all worse off, because we’ll be stuck with them. We need the right solutions, the most important of which is proper infrastructure, where not one of these techno-trinkets are remotely useful.
All these devices are queuing up to stick the boot into anyone who doesn’t want to be a perfectly normal, well-adjusted sociopath who won’t travel anywhere without a metal cage, a bucket of dinosaur juice and a box of explosions. All these things are part of the same thoroughly biased system, a system that insidiously works to undermine the protection of people—and not just people on bicycles, but people on foot and on horseback and on mobility scooters—from motor vehicles, instead working to promote the mere convenience of those who drive them.
The wedge really exists
Of course, you could easily dismiss all this as scaremongering. But let’s not forget, from the comfort of our only-moderately-insane UK viewpoint, that jaywalking is an offence elsewhere, and it’s a deliberate result of motor industry lobbying. In some places, even if you’re crossing without jaywalking, you need to wave a flag. No, really. Spain is about to start legislating against drink-walking. Drunk in charge of a pair of shoes. Where does this end?
It’s quite understandable that in the current environment you might choose to dress up like a roller-disco building site worker to ride to work, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that every time you do so you kick cycling and walking an inch further away from being the sustainable, accessible, scalable and—if we are to have any hope of avoiding an urban dystopia of pollution, disenfranchisement and misery—absolutely essential modes of transport that they are.
And to think, people once seriously argued that all this was the responsibility of the person wielding the heavy, fast, lethal machine.
That horse has bolted, mate.