A commonly spouted mantra on how to make cycling on the UK’s roads safer is “be safe, be seen”. The idea being that if you make yourself visible to motorists, they won’t run you over. Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? Sadly, it’s completely fallacious, and observations from this morning’s commute provide a good example of why.
Now, I run a couple of cameras on my bike as I’ve had numerous close calls with drivers in the past and have used the camera footage as evidence in a number of successful prosecutions. However, while my own commute in today was comparatively uneventful, I witnessed someone else’s far from smooth ride, and believe this illustrates quite clearly where the source of most blame, and thus what should be the target of most road safety action, actually lies.
Riding to work at around 8:30 this January morning, I found myself cycling behind a young lad, about 14-15, for about a mile – I first saw him near Lidl in Prestwich. He had a hi-vis vest, helmet and lights, and obeyed the rules of the road – he didn’t run red lights or ride on pavements. However, his exemplary behaviour did not guarantee his safety: on the contrary, at the hands of the north Manchester car commuters, he was put in serious danger at least five times in the space of a mile, which I managed to capture on camera and am posting here to illustrate just how careless – callous even – some drivers are around people cycling.
The first incident I witnessed was at the junction of Cavendish Road/Bury New Road. Here a driver cut across the bike lane right in front of our lad in order to turn into Cavendish Road:
Then, as that car moved out of his way – at the very same junction – the next incident: a car turning right out of Cavendish Road encroaching into the bike lane, forcing our valiant young rider to swerve out of the bike lane and into the traffic carriageway:
A couple of hundred yards later, the driver of a blue Audi cut right in front of our friend to turn into Park Street. There is no way the driver would have been unaware of the boy cycling: they simply took a huge and unnecessary risk with his safety:
Slightly further on, at the junction of Park Lane and Bury New Road, a man who was still half asleep almost t-boned our young hero. This guy was simply not looking at the road – especially not for bikes – and also almost did exactly the same to me a couple of seconds later:
Slightly further on again, the driver of a different blue Audi forced their way across his path literally inches away from him, causing him to brake sharply and again putting him at serious risk:
Shortly after this he turned right as I carried on and I thus lost sight of him.
So, in a nutshell, in one short journey a young chap on a bike, doing everything that many non-bike-riders commonly bemoan (helmet/hi-vis/lights/not cycling on the pavement/not running red lights) was endangered by no fewer than five tested, insured, taxed blah blah blah drivers who either weren’t paying due care or simply didn’t give a toss.
And this is something anyone who cycles knows all too well. It doesn’t matter whether you wear all black or dress like a cross between a construction worker and a Christmas tree: it’s not drivers not seeing you that’s the problem, it’s them frankly not caring. In every single one of the incidents described above, the driver ought to have seen the lad and driven carefully to avoid endangering him. So why didn’t they? I’d be genuinely interested in any reasonable and reasoned justifications for such reckless behaviour. (Though I suspect there aren’t any).
And this is why the “be seen” approach is deeply misguided: the only thing I’m in control of is how I conduct myself on the bike, not someone else’s state of sensory alertness. Yet the “be seen” approach specifically demands that: it makes me responsible for whether someone else is watching the road or not. It shifts the blame from the driver to the rider: if I get hit, it’s my fault for not being seen, not the driver’s for not looking. It’s safety advice that says “don’t die” as opposed to “don’t kill”. It’s bullshit.
As I’ve often said to non-cyclers who raise the “if only cyclists wore bright clothes/used lights/wore helmets/didn’t cycle on pavements/didn’t run red lights, then they wouldn’t get knocked off” falsehood: get on a bike, do everything right and see how much respect you get. No one’s ever taken me up on that. I think this morning’s incidents indicate why. I’m just glad laddo lived to ride another day.