The Wedge

27 February 2015

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.


  1. Andy Morris 27 February 2015 11:02pm #

    Now our advocates are arguing for cyclists to be removed from the roads altogether in protected cycle lanes.

    • Jitensha Oni 28 February 2015 10:17am #

      Straw man. How about “in useful places” rather than your “altogether” which is clearly impossible. I don’t see many riders along the A3 in Outer London, even though it is by far the best connection in and out of the SW of the city:

      A protected cycle lane there might just make it easier for bicycles. I gather this will actually soon happen along the Westway – presumably you think that’s a bad idea.

      • David 28 February 2015 3:36pm #

        The A3 is more like a motorway in those areas. Even with a marked cycle lane I wouldn’t ride on it. Even a separate lane would take some encouragement and a lot of pollution protection, remember some sections of it have very high sides due to it being underground…

      • lastwheel 2 March 2015 1:59pm #

        Andy Moris is a troll, or worse, a sock puppet. At the very least he’s a motorist occasionally in charge of a bicycle he uses on quiet roads and known to take advantage of the good cycling infrastructure he can find. He will endlessly bikeshed to derail people and forums (especially with an anti-space4cycling narrative. Don’t waste time, ignore, move on to someone receptive.

  2. D. 27 February 2015 11:39pm #

    Problem is: pedestrians have been taught to listen for an engine, and (half the time) will step out without looking if they cannot *hear* something approaching.

    Problem is: motorists (and others) see what they expect to see. Many collisions are where a motorist has looked and just hasn’t see (hasn’t registered) the cyclist or the pedestrian. I have had occasions where I have seen a motorist look carefully and diligently both ways before pulling out right in front of me. Clearly, I didn’t register, wasn’t noticed as something to consider. And that, with a headlight, and a blinky front light, and dressed like a highlighter pen.

    Problem is: motorists have been taught to expect everyone else and everything else to get the hell out of their way or else.

    In the “care the kids” youtube clip, the child seems to walk out without looking. But she is using what looks like it should be a crossing point (am I imagining the dropped kerb?).

    • Matt 4 March 2015 10:44am #

      >In the “care the kids” youtube clip, the child seems to walk out without looking. But she is using what looks like it should be a crossing point

      Can’t see the dropped kerb myself but she definitely looks right (camera left) at 0:12 seconds in and left 1 second later. Regardless if the child stepped out without looking or not, she immediately had priority as soon as she steps into the roadway. The whole point being that the motorist was obviously driving too fast for the conditions if they couldn’t stop in the distance they could see.

    • Eric D 8 March 2016 4:42am #

      I think you mean “scare the kids” not “care the kids” video!

      Then there’s luminous prawn-whiskers !

      And flags have failed

      Not many people know that car headlights aren’t legally required in lit-up areas – side-lights are enough. Not great for seeing reflectors though !
      I doubt if drivers will see more with less light.

      113 “You MUST use headlights at night, except on a road which has lit street lighting.”
      115 “You SHOULD also use dipped headlights, or dim-dip if fitted, at night in built-up areas”
      I doubt if they intended side-lights-only on street-lit roads that are not built-up !
      Highway Code needs clarification.

      Main trouble with DRL Day-lights is when people use them at night, not realising they are pitch-dark behind !

      Reading about policing in New South Wales, Australia is worrying – could it happen here ?

      • Tony Franklin 26 May 2019 6:38pm #

        Having only side lights means you’re not haring around because you can’t see too far and if you are obeying the HC with regards to travelling at a speed you can stop well within the distance you can see to be clear then driving slower because you can’t see that far ahead because you only have side lights on is not a bad thing.
        You should try driving with side lights only and see how much more careful you are with regards to your speed and actually looking/seeing.
        You fail to acknowledge what was said in the first instance with regards to pushing onus onto others, brighter and brighter headlights have done nothing for improved safety so your assertion that less light equals less seeing/lower danger is actually incorrect.

  3. rdrf 28 February 2015 12:03am #

    I remember being appalled to hear that the CTC opposed compulsory rear lights (until 1948, legislation had been brought in as a “temporary measure” in the war) when I heard about this in the early 1980s.

    I then went away, did the reading and thinking, coming up with the same ideas as in the piece above.

    If I can give a plug, it’s in a book I wrote here: . See Chapter 9 on the conspicuity issue.

    BTW, I don’t think that the “driving test” is any kind of real control on danger from motoring. (That’s in the book as well).

  4. Timothy Nohe 28 February 2015 4:49am #

    Licensing is an effective way of making all road users safer.

    We know this is true because everyone who has a drivers license is a safe road user who obeys all the rules and keep us safe on our bikes, right?


  5. movementsci 28 February 2015 7:23am #

    Very interesting Bez!

    Have to admit that even though I’ve spent hours looking into road safety issues and should know better, my initial thoughts were pretty much along the lines of the writing in italics. Funny how strong social norms are in shaping our instinctive thinking.

  6. Josh 28 February 2015 9:06am #

    Hi, long time lurker here.

    You’re on top form with this! Very well written – and it approaches the issue from an angle I hadn’t even considered before.

  7. Swanky Bicycle Being (@UrbaneCommuter) 28 February 2015 10:52am #

    Well worth noting that rear lights at night are not compulsory in Japan, only rear reflectors.

    Japanese infrastructure is mostly fairly poor: shared pavement or what we would call “shared space” in back streets (no pavements, nothing) but cycling and walking thrive. IMHO this is because of low traffic speeds and the stringent administrative controls on the driver – regular testing, presumption of fault, lots of police about on bicycles.

    Drivers are expected to look out for unlit objects in the road, and to help them concentrate there are huge grey concrete poles in the road down many back streets.

    It’s a very different culture and environment, but there are a lot more cyclists and the majority from what I’ve seen are women, children and elderley people. That can only suggest that people feel safe.

    • blimp 1 March 2015 12:34pm #

      I’m sorry but you must be joking.
      Car, vans, minibuses and lorries are constantly parked at the kerb forcing bicyclist to ride in the middle of the road, which perhaps wouldn’t be a bad thing if cars were used to it, but they are not in Japan. I have never seen a bike lane in central Tokyo. And, no I am not talking about bike lanes following the river which won’t take you anywhere. Drivers here show no consideration whatsoever for cyclist, believe me I now after, three front wheels, one frame and four hospital visits, and a number of helmets that I have thrown away.

      The police, don’t get me started. No lights, riding on the pavement. I have never seen a police officer ask a driver to move his vehicle because he/she is not allowed to park where he/she has stopped. I walk up Yasukuni dori every morning and I usually count 20 vehicles parked along the road on one side, where it is no parking of course!

    • Notak 2 March 2015 10:13pm #

      It’s my understanding – but you’d better check – that some states of the US do not require rear lights, though, like Japan, they do demand reflectors.

  8. Notak 2 March 2015 10:24pm #

    “We’ve normalised inattentive driving and we’ve normalised collisions. ”

    I have a feeling this – along with the “boiled egg” – was probably always the case. I remember reading something about collisions between horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians in 18th century London. It seems they were pretty frequent, partly because the streets were used as markets etc, and generally there was no redress against carriage drivers however reckless they might be, because they tended to be rich and their pedestrian victims, poor.

    As I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps it is partly due to the (modicum of) redress offered by 20th-century legal systems that we have “the wedge”. That is, cyclists, pedestrians, motorcyclists, etc, are encouraged/persuaded/compelled to take various mediating steps precisely because drivers fear being forced to pay compensation, lose their licences, etc. Not that that’s the only reason, but one – and not that I’m saying 18th-century free for all would be preferable (though in some ways, it might – but anyway, that’s another topic).

  9. Notak 2 March 2015 10:34pm #

    Hi-viz. While it’s in my mind – what about the daytime running lights on new cars? That is another form of hi-viz. Partly, I’m sure, it serves the same blame-shifting purpose as fluorescent jackets: “The pedestrian must have seen me because my car has DRL, yet still he stepped out into the road.” Partly, as with airbags etc, it serves to persuade drivers to buy newer models. But it also shows how self-defeating the idea of conspicuity is – when the things which used to be obvious now require conspicuity aids because of the ubiquity of those various conspicuity devices.

  10. Jim 5 March 2016 7:49pm #

    To be fair, bike lights are very useful for other cyclists and pedestrians on unlit shared use paths … They’re not just about making you visible to cars.

    There are definitely well-lit streets where they’re basically pointless, however.

    • zmau 26 August 2017 8:51pm #

      I can not recall a single one location in my eastern-European town which is that dark.
      Btw, shared-use paths are also consequence of motordom, and a part of problem. On most city streets everywhere there is enough space for separated paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Only reason for existence of such shared paths is to preserve most of street width for cars.

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