The Red Light District

128983484_1fd77c8fa8_oCyclists behaviour on the road is a contentious subject right now, the media are attempting to portray two sides to a perceived conflict between the two fairly obvious tribes, drivers & cyclists. This provides some sort of pseudo-battleground & an opportunity for hateful column inches which feed into the prejudices of some readers & make dramatic headlines. The perception of an ongoing battle between two opposing sides who live in completely separate worlds but are asked to share a road. The realists among us know this perceived battle to be very far from the truth.

Drivers V Cyclists

I’ve been a member of various bike clubs for years, meeting probably thousands of cyclists, with a few rare exceptions I can deduce that most club cyclists also drive, any cycle event car park will demonstrate this fact. The biggest group who don’t drive are obviously the under 17 years old, who all seem to want to drive as soon as possible. But many stories are attempting to make us to believe that cyclists hate drivers, and drivers hate cyclists, ignoring the idea that anybody from the cyclist tribe is highly likely to function within the driver tribe too.

It’s a good idea to not get drawn into this debate in polite company with normally rational individuals, I’ve found recently that more non-cyclists are bringing up this subject with me, danger on the roads, red light jumping, cyclists think they own the road etc. I tend to point out that actual incidents are very rare really, but unfortunately as cyclists all know, if two cars bump into each other the damage is often repairable, while the same relatively slow speed impact with a car & bicycle will generally end badly for the cyclist. Drivers run into each other all the time, with the additional safety measures now installed in cars, air bags, ABS etc, the driver ‘feels’ safer, driving is no longer perceived as dangerous as it used to be. This perception flows through to general behaviour on the roads, with the dominant vehicle type being the motor vehicle, the biggest threat to a drivers safety is from other motor vehicles, not the low threat of a bicycle. The implications for road users if a cyclist is killed or injured due to the other road users actions, also looks particularly one-sided, with a few hundred pounds being a common fine for seriously injuring or killing a cyclist.

Culture

In distant pre-war times, cycling was popular with the general public, but since the rise of the motor car things have changed dramatically. Cycling became the poor man’s method of transport, with the idea that only us oddballs in cycling clubs keeping it alive, with racing being hidden away from the public for many years, an embarrassment to the forward-looking modern society that we all think we live in. Meanwhile in continental Europe, myths & folklore were being formed, with cycling superstars in the public eye & becoming icons of their age, in the UK the sport of cycling was seen in a very different light. Things are taking a huge turnaround again, perhaps driven by the economic crisis & the ever rising cost of fuel, people are realising that cycling can often be the smart choice for commuting, along with it becoming cool now that there are sporting icons in cycling who hold a British passport. The ‘bike to work’ schemes have also had a hand in making good quality bikes popular & affordable, where there is government income tax & VAT incentive to purchase a bike with up to 40% off its retail value as a salary sacrifice, so you don’t even need to pay it all up front. Most bike shops have plenty of good bikes in the ‘under a grand’ price bracket, which as most of us know, but prefer to ignore, these bikes are good enough to win domestic races on.

So more riders are on the roads, mixing with motor vehicles in towns & cities, where the majority of conflicts occur. As bicycle traffic increases & motoring costs continue to rise, I expect we’ll find that the tiny minority of irresponsible drivers (the same percentage as cyclists, a certain percentage of people are irresponsible) become more irate & more vindictive. Cultural change is happening rapidly, too rapidly for some, cycling usage is increasing all the time, more bikes were sold last year in Europe than cars.

Red Light Jumpers

This brings us to the subject title, the seemingly ubiquitous red light jumping cyclist. I’m not sure many of us can say that we’ve never done this, but most of us will have done it at some point away from anybody’s view, perhaps in a very early morning commute, at a deserted road works in the wilderness, or other such occasion where nobody would see you. What irks everybody, drivers, responsible cyclists & the media reading public, are offences carried out in broad daylight, at busy junctions, even at points where pedestrians are crossing. This kind of behaviour can never be condoned, not only is it irresponsible & dangerous, it’s idiotic, people risking their lives to save a couple of seconds, I’d advise them to get out of bed early or have a dump at work instead. This kind of behaviour relies on everybody else obeying the rules, so having evidence that people break the traffic rules (i.e. you, now), the perpetrator continues through a red light, assuming everybody else is stopped, two cogs short of an 11 sprocket.

I expect most people would be very surprised by how many drivers also break these same rules, away from the eye of the world. Anybody who’s commuted well before rush hour in a major city will have witnessed countless taxi drivers & others driving straight through red lights after a slight pause to see if there are any other users about. Generally cyclists witnessing this are not bothered about, as the perception is that they will also break the law.

Most drivers would be also be quite surprised by how inflamed the responsible majority of cyclists become when they also witness another rider jumping a red light. It makes us all look bad, we’re labelled along the law-breaker as being the same, even though we’re quietly waiting for the light to change. I’ve been the subject of abuse while obeying the law, like many others I’ve been shouted at by drivers who having seen a red light jumper go past me, take it out on me, the only cyclist they can find as the other is far away, even if that cyclist is a responsible traffic law obeying one. I’ve chased down red light jumpers too (legally within the traffic laws, I might add), to let them know what the effect of their transgression could be, one of which nearly ended in a fist fight, all ended in abuse or silence. The responsible cyclists all pay for the wrongdoings of others.

Repercussions

Unfortunately for the organised side of cycle sport, the effect of bad behaviour can come back to the club level. Some cycling clubs receive irate letters & emails from drivers, simply due to them running a cycling club in the area where the offence occurred. The rider who broke the rules probably has no idea the cycling club even exists, nor has connection to the organisation associated to cyclists, or really cares. But it’s the visible part of cycling that takes the hit for something they cannot control. We’re an easy target, but we probably have never come into contact with the habitual law-breaker.

Most club people will know, or have heard of, a rider who has been seriously injured, or killed by a motor vehicle (could be the same rider across many clubs, or a nation of clubs, but aware we are), their awareness of the dangers of cycling are perhaps higher. While the non associated city commuter likely has multiple times more of his hidden compatriots who have met the same fate, but he doesn’t know them, he’s not part of any cycling community, so as a result, never hears of any accidents unless he’s directly involved in them. The perception of danger is less for these people, therefore they take less care, they break some rules, their likelihood of injury is elevated as a result.

Meanwhile, club riders are out on the roads, taking abuse from drivers who have witnessed the behaviour of the red light jumper type rider. These drivers don’t realise that the opinion in often shared, perhaps more so by the club rider, who has probably been ingrained with how to ride safely on the road & how to be a responsible cyclist. Club riders are proud to wear their club kit, but wearing club kit while breaking traffic laws is worse than idiotic, it’s setting up your club officials & club-mates to abuse & in the worst cases, retaliation from drivers. Behave correctly, whether in club kit or not, your actions associate you a group, whether it’s a club, a pastime or just #BloodyCyclists. Lead by example & make sure everybody knows it’s unacceptable, we can re-confirm this right now within clubs, explain that rule breaking has repercussions to us all, next time it could be their son or daughter.

The Insurance & ‘Road Tax’ Questions

A commonly thrown about argument for removing cyclists from the road is their lack of insurance. As anybody who has British Cycling or CTC membership, we all have 3rd party insurance while cycling, some also have full legal cover in the event of an incident. The warning to irresponsible drivers is probably that a fully insured cyclist will have no hesitation in taking you to court, it probably won’t cost them a thing. So they should really take this approach to all other road users.

As we all know by now, Road Tax hasn’t existed since 1937, Churchill abolished it! What we have is Vehicle Excise Duty, a tax based on emissions from vehicles. It doesn’t pay for space on the road, all information on this can be found on Carlton Reid’s website, ‘I Pay Road Tax‘, which explains things better than I ever could. Bear in mind that drivers of cars exempt from this tax, like classic cars built prior to 1973 (changing to ’74 soon) & low emission vehicles like electric cars & a few petrol cars which meet the CO2 emission regulations, don’t get abuse from drivers for taking up their space on the roads, even though they also pay the same tax as bicycles do, people spouting this nonsense are quite plainly ill-informed, or idiots!

The Gist Of It

Cyclists are people, there’s nothing inherently different about them. Some people break rules, other try no to, but invariably everybody breaks some rules some of the time, knowingly or unknowingly. Some people break unwritten rules, a moral code so to speak, some don’t. What we have to consider here is that people are more likely to willingly break rules if they won’t get caught, especially if there’s no comeback from their rule breaking on the part of society that they are most aware, their friends, acquaintances, family & work colleagues.

What a club cyclist would consider a cyclist is possibly different to what the general population consider a cyclist. It’s assumed that we are all associated in some way, if one commits a crime we’re all to blame, but some cyclists never speak to any other cyclists, even though their actions can have repercussions on the public world of cycling. The same can be considered by hearing cyclists talking about ‘drivers’, when most likely it’s one driver in 10,000 that has passed them & caused some grief. When things run normally without incident we largely ignore them, it’s only when ‘something’ happens that we take more notice, such as a cyclist jumping a red light or a driver coming close to knocking you off your bike.

In general, these rule breaking & dangerous incidents are very rare for cyclists or drivers to perpetrate, it’s up to us to keep educating the riders we do know, we can’t do anything about the ones we never come into contact with. New riders to your club may have come from this dark world without repercussions, impart your knowledge on the subject & lead by example, teach cyclist how to behave properly. At this point I’d also encourage riders to join a club, I wrote a blog a while ago on how to find the right one HERE.

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2 Responses

  1. Tom

    Spokey, I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts that I have had on why cyclists in town might jump red lights etc. I know that this doesn’t relate particularly to what you have written above, but I hope that it might help explain some of the behavior that we witness on the streets of our towns and cities. Cycling in town can be tough and dangerous, and no-one is more aware of this than the riders themselves. A defensive and pro-active approach is absolutely necessary to stay safe. Taking a lane, establishing eye contact with drivers, and some exaggerated manouvering are all techniques that establish a rider’s presence on the road – this is required to enable safe progress to be made. But despite all this, the very poor state of the infrastructure and the callous and dangerous attitude of an always surprising number of drivers, render it a serious and often dangerous activity. It also puts cyclists in a position where they very often feel vulnerable, scared and marginalized. Now you, or I, or the majority of people who venture out on bikes may be able to rationalize this and accept it for what it is, using blogs and campaigning to make our case when we feel strongly about an issue, but it does not surprise me that others do not. When I see someone jumping a red on a bike I generally suspect that this rider feels so marginalised, disrespected and perhaps even scared by their ride that they feel completely disconnected with the rules of the road and the impression that they make on other road users. I have to say that I do comprehend this anarchy, especially if, as you point out, they are a lone wolf and unconnected with any cycling culture/club. But until we, as a society, make the roads more fit for and respecting of cyclists then we should expect to see people flaunting the rules, making their own way about our towns. You see a whole lot less belligerent and stroppy riding where the effort has been made and the money spent on sensibly accommodating bikes, through good planning, strict liability legislation and a general acceptance of cycling as a means of transport.
    Thanks for your great blog and the platform to make these comments,
    Tom Worthington, Glasgow

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