It all began, as it so often does, with a couple of simple questions.
On the back of the widely reported collision on a pavement involving a man on a bike and a young girl, BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme sent out the following:
On today’s Call You and Yours we’re talking about cycling. Do you think it’s time to ask cyclists to take a test before they’re allowed on the the roads? Should they have insurance like everyone else?
A collective groan passed as a wave across social media. Cyclists, as a ring-fenced group. Should they have to take a test? Should they have insurance?
The call was clear: this request goes to You, the Not Cyclists, for opinions about Them, the Cyclists.
The programme came and went, after which one of the producers tweeted gleefully, “Our phone-in on cycling hit a nerve with the UK”. It would be understating things to say that not everyone shared the glee.
In order to explain why they didn’t, I’m not going to unpick the programme itself. I’m going to start by looking at what has happened in the six days since.
A week is a long time on the roads
Two days after the broadcast, May 28, was the third day of 2015 in which three people were fatally injured whilst on bicycles. At around 6:40am, an as yet unnamed woman was killed when she was struck by a van which then collided with two other vehicles. A little over an hour later, Esther Hartsilver was crushed by an HGV in Camberwell. That afternoon, April Reeves—aged just 7—was killed in front of her family in Weston-super-Mare.
On the same day, a man was left “fighting for his life” in a critical condition in a collision with a car and another—also reported as “fighting for his life”—had to have a bus lifted off of him. Two days later, a fourth fatality: a woman was killed after being struck by a car in Aston Clinton. And another man in a critical condition.
And that’s just people on pedal cycles.
Never mind Alex Weatherley who was killed when struck by a car which left the road, the three people killed on the A421 (including a schoolgirl), David Lister who was killed in a collision with a car in Lackford, Jeannette Dixon who died in Harrow, the motorcyclist who died in Pembrokeshire, John Walsh who died near Bury St Edmunds, Scott McCallum who died on the A90, the teenager who died in County Durham, the man killed and the man left in a critical condition in Harrow, the two-year-old girl killed and boy in critical condition after a car left the road, the woman killed and the several injured on the M73, the man killed on the M74, another man killed on the A90, Thomas Edwards who died on the A3400, the man who died on the M1, the man killed in Northern Ireland, Amar Atwal—aged 12—who died in West Bromwich, the man who died in Somerset when his car left the road, the moped rider killed in Leicester, the man killed in Lancashire when his car left the road, the man killed on the M5, the two people left in a critical condition after being hit by a bus in Glasgow…
I know. I’ve lost you now. You’re just skim-reading, or you’ve simply jumped to this paragraph from halfway through the previous one.
But that’s the point.
Death and injury caused by the often incautious use of motor vehicles is so common, so mundane, that it doesn’t warrant even reading a whole paragraph of six days’ deaths—at least twenty-seven of them, nearly five a day—let alone a phone-in radio show.
It’s not like there’s a massive disconnect between the cyclist-hits-girl incident and this carnage, either: browse through the examples above and you’ll find numerous cases where the casualties occurred away from the carriageway (and yet another one appears as I type this), and/or where the drivers were unlicensed and/or uninsured; and you’ll find numerous cases where it was young children who were killed or seriously injured. Indeed, all of these factors can be found among the cycling fatalities alone.
Likewise, in the same week, the ripples from fatal collisions that illustrate the fallacy of faith in our licensing and insurance system roll into the shore: another cyclist killed when struck by an apparently unlicensed and uninsured driver. And then the fallacy of thinking that cars aren’t a danger on pavements is highlighted by news reports of further incidents where motor vehicles end up crossing pavements: in Bristol, and in Sussex. Remember, this is just in the last six days, and just stuff that happens to have passed before my eyes on Twitter: other than one Google search for the fatalities above, I’ve not even bothered going looking for anything. It’s a constant firehose of carnage that all highlights the same fallacy: the false assumption that licensing and insuring people fixes their behaviour.
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others
You and Yours glibly kicked off with the question, “should [cyclists] have to take a road test and buy insurance, just like everyone else?” Yet this well-worn phrase, “just like everyone else”, neatly overlooks an uncomfortable truth: There are a lot of people already out there, in cars and ignoring the law, who aren’t “just like everyone else”. The whole idea of “everyone else” presupposes that everyone else is law-abiding and responsible, and that the systems in place to make them so work perfectly. And—clearly and inevitably—they don’t. Laws are not simple solutions: as David Allen Green notes in the context of prohibition: “To say there should be a law against a thing is often no more than saying there should be a spell against it,” and this uncomfortable chasm between idealism and reality is applicable to all legal contexts.
So, what of this fallacy of faith? What’s the truth behind the received wisdom that drivers are licensed and insured and cyclists aren’t?
Driving by numbers
The number of uninsured drivers on the road can only be estimated, but the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, the UK industry-wide body whose role is to manage a fund to settle claims against uninsured and untraced drivers, puts the figure at around one million. (As a side note, prosecutions run at a rate of around 160,000 per year, and once you’ve got a couple more figures you can do some basic maths to work out whether buying insurance even makes sense. Spoiler: unless you’re a responsible driver who’s already racked up a decent no claims bonus, it probably doesn’t.)
The number of unlicensed drivers is also inevitably an estimation, and one that’s made less frequently. Most articles cite a supplementary memorandum to a 1999 report commissioned by the Association of British Insurers and The AA, which put the figure at around 800,000. (It includes evidence to indicate, unsurprisingly, around a 90% overlap of uninsured and unlicensed drivers.) The report, by the way, makes for interesting if unsurprising reading in terms of assessing the type of person who eschews insurance and/or the licence.
So, with some 35 million registered drivers in the UK, a little under 3% of people behind the wheel are unlicensed, uninsured, or—most probably—both. (Let’s not delve into legal drivers’ rates of compliance with road laws or we’ll be here all day.)
Whereas 100% of people on bikes are unlicensed and uninsured, right?
Cycling by numbers
Firstly, although there is no need to pass a test to ride a bicycle on the road (nor is there to ride a horse, nor to use a mobility scooter; yes, scooter users cause serious injuries and deaths, and the phrase “mobility menace” even comes as a slot-in minority-grouping replacement for “lycra lout” should anyone’s journalistic barrel require scraping) around 80% of cyclists hold a driving licence, meaning they’ve successfully completed the same training as 97% of drivers.
As for insurance, anyone who is a member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, British Cycling, the London Cycling Campaign or other similar groups is covered by third party liability insurance, and indeed such policies can be purchased in their own right for £21 a year (I’ve not shopped around, but this is clearly nowhere near being “not far off [the cost of a motor policy]”, as one cyclist who called You and Yours opined it might be).
But—rather more pervasively—anyone who lives in a house is probably covered, too, as CTC advisor Dave Holladay pointed out on air. Check with your insurer if you want to be sure, but household policies include third party liability cover, and normally this applies when on a bicycle. Take the AA’s policy, for instance (the emphasis is mine):
We will insure you for all amounts which you have legal liability to pay as compensation for accidents not connected with the occupation of your building which result in: death, physical injury, disease or illness to any person other than your employees; or loss of or damage to property.
That cover is good for up to £2 million. And “You”, by the way, is defined as “the policyholder, their spouse/partner, relatives and domestic employees normally living at your home”—for most households, that’s a lot of people covered by one policy. Note that there are explicit exclusions for mechanically propelled and mechanically assisted vehicles, but a pedal cycle is neither.
Basically, if you live in an insured household: you’re almost certainly well-covered for third party liability while riding a bicycle.
So, in reality, the whole insurance question is almost completely moot. Granted, it’s not mandatory to have insurance; but there’s a fighting chance that the rate of insurance coverage for people on bicycles is—because it is so cheaply and widely provided—actually higher than it is for people in motor vehicles.
So why the fear and loathing of this supposed lack of insurance, when it may be the use of bigger, heavier and thus more dangerous vehicles that is less well covered than the use of light and relatively slow ones? Why the fear and loathing of this supposed lack of testing, when four out of five have actually passed a test?
The answer, as it happens, brings us back where we started.
Points of view
Even the long list of death and trauma caused by motor vehicle collisions over the past six days doesn’t diminish the trauma suffered by one little girl or the distress suffered by her family. Nor does it represent any justification for suggesting that it should never be discussed. Two wrongs (twenty-seven or more deaths and one injured child) do not make a right.
What it does mean, however, is that context is hugely important, as Chris Boardman was keen to point out on air. It’s vital if a constructive discussion, rather than the mere echoing of received opinion, is to be had.
Unfortunately what surfaced on air—inevitably, given the bait cast by the producers—was largely a trail of anecdotes. One caller, Barry, was given two and a half minutes of national airtime to tell a tale of bicycles that defied his understanding, with “no seats, no bell, nothing, and they’re in gangs, and they just jump out on you”, with this forming the basis for his demands for swathes of additional legislation. (I did enjoy Barry’s contribution, though; largely because his voice was rather Dudley Moore-ish, which conjured up a mental image of these terrifying biker gangs lurking somewhere inside Jayne Mansfield. Google “Derek and Clive” if you’re stumped, and brace yourself for some robust language.)
And this summed things up; it summed up the whole premise of the programme: that everyone has a tale to tell, their view of the world, their perspective; and that a quick bit of legislation will solve all the problems with all of those tales. And, frankly, that’s true of much media coverage of cycling.
Never mind that our cities are choking in pollution. Never mind that obesity is the NHS’s greatest expenditure and fast becoming the main cause of cancer. Never mind that tens of thousands are killed and seriously injured every year from motor vehicle collisions.
We can overlook all of these things, we can maintain our tight grip on our steering wheels, because a video of a small child being injured is, quite understandably, upsetting viewing.
We can overlook all of these things because we can use the phrase “just like everyone else” and pretend that “everyone else” is homogeneous and that laws are infallible.
We can overlook them because radio shows like You and Yours will happily read out the opinions of people who are factually wrong.
We can overlook them because anecdotes make “better” entertainment—certainly more effective clickbait—than holistic, circumspect consideration.
We can overlook them because they’re all so bloody normal. Five deaths a day since the last programme: that’s normal. The child dragged along the pavement is abnormal. In no small part it’s this abnormality that makes it newsworthy: the fascination lies not so much with the trees, forsaking all sight of the wood, but with a single curious twig.
But perhaps most of all, we can overlook them because of the status quo: the fact that cycling isn’t “You and Yours”, it’s Them and Theirs.
Just like the holders of the majority of speed and mass in a collision, the holders of the majority of opinion—and it is mere opinion, often the fuel of assault—are the people who don’t cycle. That’s what gives rise to the normalisation, to the lack of circumspection, to the factually wrong opinions, to the anecdotes, to the faith in law, and to the rose-tinted view of “everyone else”.
It was easy for You and Yours to come across as superficially balanced: the anecdotes of grumbling lorry drivers are apparently offset by the calm reason of Chris Boardman. But it’s a sham balance: the bubble in which the discussion takes place is already towards an outer edge of the bigger picture, focusing on one group’s adherence to law within the existing system instead of the nuanced nurturing of a socially beneficial system of mobility that focuses on people rather than one specific vehicle type.
The regulatory differences between cycling and driving are obvious; less so are the more productive questions: Why are so few people aware that almost all “cyclists” are insured? (And is this a factor in why some flee the scene of a collision?) What is the health benefit to the country of reducing pollution and increasing activity, and how much money does this save the NHS? How is it that Paris and Dublin exist as fully functioning cities with strict bans on many HGV movements? Why are so many cycle paths built so badly that no-one wants to use them? Why is regulation of the HGV industry failing to prevent wilfully negligent operators from escaping punishment and simply starting a new company? How can we address the number of uninsured drivers? Should we even nationalise driver insurance? Why are driving bans so ineffective? How can we prevent people taking to pavements on their bikes in order to flee traffic danger? Why do we lack the legal tools to deal with negligence? Why do we not choose to enable less dangerous modes of transport like cycling so that the worst drivers can actually be removed from their 70mph tons of metal? Why does the UK repeatedly try and fail to reinvent the wheel when the Netherlands offers a readymade set of templates for safe and appealing road design? Why do we remain resolutely focused on safety equipment for victims when the Netherlands again proves that it’s totally the wrong way to tackle the problem?
The list is endless.
So many questions, so little opportunity to simply offload the responsibility onto someone else, onto them. The insurance question is nice and comfortable and keeps the audience agitated, even though everyone’s apparently unaware that it’s already been answered. It’s something to have a bit of a moan about, and that’s the way we like it.
We’re going to have to endure more of these myopic, insular and divisive discussions before the issues of freedom of transport become Us and Ours.