Road Safety GB NE & Cycling Safety – A metaphoric car crash

We recently adopted Sustainable Safety as a campaign policy and said we would keep educating decision-makers on this positive approach to road safety. So when the traditional blame-gamers such as Road Safety GB Northeast have their destructive say again – we would like to remind these “safety advocates” that real safety comes from tackling root causes. In 2011 we spoke to council officers about their harmful approach to road safety (some of you may even remember Ghost Street) – but unfortunately the message hasn’t sunk in with the executive body, the council: this ineffective blaming approach now (again) appears on Newcastle City Council agendas. We are worried, as we did believe they had listened in 2011.

There’s a new kid on the block touting “cycle safety” messages, mainly on Twitter and Facebook – Road Safety GB NE, the NE branch of the national organisation Road Safety GB. They are a road safety partnership, it seems, between the twelve councils that make up the North East region (Northumberland down to Darlington and Teesside) and several “co-opted” organisations including police and safety camera partnerships. You can see the list on their page here.

One of their recent “gems” is this flyer about cycle safety, attached below, which manages to pack a lot of nonsensical statements – scaremongering myths – into a couple of pages. Let’s pick the whole thing apart in good old Mythbuster fashion:

MYTH 1

– At all time ride in single file “Grouping together” obstructs the highways and makes overtaking difficult

BUSTED – There is no legal requirement to ride in single file. Rule 66 in the Highway Code states that you SHOULD never ride more than two abreast. Note the ‘should’ not a ‘must’, so it’s a recommendation and not a legal requirement. Groups strung out in single file can be harder to overtake. This is just nonsense to try and prevent people on bikes from delaying drivers. Real cycling safety would be about getting drivers to be patient and waiting for safe places to overtake, and not squeezing though at or near traffic islands or when there is oncoming traffic or the road is narrow. We would also strongly advocate that it is perfectly acceptable parents cycling next to their children to shield them from motor traffic. In addition even the national Think! road safety campaign advises cyclists to ride central on narrow roads, and to ride a door’s width away from cars, which contradicts with this advice not to hinder overtaking.

MYTH 2

– If there is a cycle lane use it!

BUSTED – There is no legal requirement to use a cycle path or lane. The Highway Code explicitly states that use of these cycle paths, cycle lanes, Advanced Stop Lines, etc. are not compulsory (Rule 61 and Rule 63). Cyclists have the right to use the road as per Rule 63 in the Highway Code. This makes complete sense as well. Often cycle lanes are narrow, covered in rubbish and debris, stop randomly and are badly designed. The Highway Code reflects that in asking drivers to be careful, as cyclists may have to swerve to avoid missing drain covers etc.

MYTH 3

– Footpaths are for pedestrians

NOT BUSTED – Yea, they can have this, footpaths alongside roads are not legal to cycle (Rule 64) on unless designated as shared access (Rule 62), but away from roads are a grey area. Also the Home Office has issued guidance that responsible & considerate cycling should not be penalised. Often cycle ways will suddenly just turn into footpaths. Be polite, be patient and you should be Ok. It is illegal to drive on footpaths or cycle lanes, but they are often blocked by drivers and vehicles. There is a good explanation this subject over on Bikehub.

MYTH 4

– Wear a correctly fitted helmet at all times

BUSTED – Again, not a legal requirement (Highway Code Rule 59) – so why make a song and dance about it? To cut a long story short, helmets are not designed to protect against vehicle collisions. They also do not protect against concussion and can make neck and upper back injuries worse in a fall. The pro-helmet compulsion evidence just doesn’t stack up. In addition, you are much more likely to suffer a head injury in a car, or when drunk – so why not ask people to wear one then, it could save many more lives. We believe wearing a helmet for cycling is an entirely personal choice. People are fit to make that decision themselves. Wear one, or don’t. It’s a distraction even going on about that. But if you feel like swotting up on the subject, this is the place here.

MYTH 5

– Know and use hand signals

NOT BUSTED – and fair enough. Indicating when turning etc is good and recommended to let others know your intentions (Rules 103 and 104). Drivers are supposed to know and be able to use hand signals – if you’re interested, see “the leaflet on hand signals [PDF]. How many do? We note also that there is a responsibility by drivers to make their intention clear – how many forget to put on an indicator? The consequences of that could be so much more serious too.

MYTH 6

– Wear brightly coloured clothing so others can see you

BUSTED – Hivis and bright clothing makes no difference if people don’t look and is not a legal requirement anyway. “Sorry mate I did not see you” or in short ‘smidsy’ remains an excuse for inattentive driving and its consequences. See the “Did you know” for a link to detailed analysis regarding “failure to look” collisions in the NE region. We will have to accepted people riding in everyday clothing using cycling as everyday transport. Why make it complicated? Where’s the comment telling drivers to always have brightly coloured cars? Drivers often miss or even collide with emergency and maintenance vehicles which are clad in hivis & bright paint. There is evidence that reflective stripes and clothing MAY help – but again, the info sheet even misses to make that distinction too.

MYTH 7

– Always use lights after dark or when visibility is poor

NOT BUSTED – Yes, lights after dark are a legal requirement and should always be used. See Rule 60. It’s not necessary to be used in poor visibility and not always effective actually. It is odd, as also mentioned above, that given the message about bright clothing, that the use of retro-reflectives is not used in their info sheet. These could indeed be effective at night as an addition to lights.

MYTH 8

– Ensure your bike is well maintained

BUSTED – It’s not a legal requirement, but is still a good idea to keep cycles well maintained, unlike drivers who need to submit their vehicles for annual inspection, and the millions of cars that are not maintained or miss inspections. A third of all drivers have admitted to dodging MOTs. It again comes back to the danger you pose. A defective car is much more likely to cause harm than a defective bike. Perspective please.

MYTH 9

– Stop at all stop signs and red lights

BUSTED – This panders to the old myth that cyclists don’t ever stop. It is of course a legal requirement (Highway Code Rule 109) for cyclists to obey traffic signs and signals as it is drivers. Yes, we must also acknowledge that cyclists often intrinsically know what keeps them safe. It is not helpful to go on about an activity that is low risk, when drivers pose so much more danger to others.

MYTH 10

– Don’t listen to music or use a mobile phone when cycling

BUSTED – There is simply no law preventing mobile use whilst cycling, but it is illegal for motorists and motorcyclists. There is research by the RAC Foundation concluding that mobile use was more dangerous than even drink driving when done by motorists, yet still millions do. Same with music. Why is listening when cycling so damned, when cars are all fitted with extensive audio systems, some with which are often better than most have in homes? Peripheral senses are much better when cycling than when sealed in box. This has been comprehensively tested and busted by RideOn magazine.

Did You Know ???

This whole section seems determined just to put people off cycling by making it seem as dangerous as absolutely possible, by quoting figures and forgetting to put them into any context for the unsuspecting reader. I cannot even pretend to understand how this whole section assists cycling safety.

You can have your own way with numbers. In 2013 alone, there were 35 car occupant fatalities, 21 pedestrians, and only 6 cyclists. So by those absolute numbers alone only cycling is much safer. Figures are taken from the North East Regional Road Safety Resource provisional report for reported casulaties 2013.

More importantly the info sheet completely fails to address “failure to look properly” which accounted for 38% of all collisions in the North East region from 2008 to 2012 according to this detailed analysis from the North East Regional Road Safety Resource. Over 40% of all cyclist and motorcyclist collisions for that period where a car or goods vehicle was also involved were the fault of the driver “failing to look”. There were also often other factors such as poor manoeuvring or excessive speed.

The flyer concludes with tips for wearing a cycle helmet. I won’t argue with these as I see plenty of people wearing helmets incorrectly and, as before, if you make a personal choice to wear one you should wear it correctly for it to be of any use. I will argue however against the subliminal message that wearing a helmet makes you safe on a bike. It does not.

The flyer finalises with a rather ironic “Look out for each other” when all it’s done is to tell cyclists what to do.

Conclusion

Perhaps an info sheet for drivers could be drawn up instead? A real cycle safety perspective would look at it like this: a safe, well designed road environment with separation from heavy, fast-moving vehicles keeps people on bikes protected. So it is unbearable to witness when road safety executive organisations, like local authorities, support and fund this nonsense that puts sole onus on cyclists. They fail to understand and deliver real and holistic solutions. The risk needs minimising and eliminating – handing out advice to mitigate against poor provision and bad driving is like trying to fix an amputation wound by using sticking plaster.