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Safe Cycling

Posted on March 18, 2016 at 11:10 AM

According to a recent European study, I am one of the 4%; I do it every day (well, almost every day). If you never do it, you are amongst the majority of UK residents (69%). In Holland the picture is strikingly different, 27% do it every day and only 13% never do it. I am referring to cycling, of course. But why on earth would anyone want to cycle on West Country roads? Well, I’ll tell you why I do it.

Firstly, I enjoy it; even though England seems to have replaced winter with a monsoon season and there are times when it feels like I am cycling in a war zone. The rhetoric of road war is fuelled by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, labeling cyclists as “lycra Nazis” and “pushbike Bolsheviks”. And asking the question…"When will people understand that roads are for cars and that there is no danger at all from speeding motorists if walkers and cyclists steer clear?" I can also put up with the abuse I get, indeed the often-heard taunt: “you don’t pay any road tax” is false: I do, and when I’m on my bike and my car is in the garage I’m doing much less damage to the roads and the environment.

Secondly, it is the fastest way to travel in cities, especially during peak hours. There used to be an annual ‘commuter challenge’ from the outskirts of London to the city centre. An average cyclist was pitted against a taxi, or public transport. Every year the bike won easily – even after a helicopter was introduced into the competition.

Thirdly, cycling is the healthy way to travel. When I bump into colleagues in the corridor at work wearing my cycling gear, many feel the need to justify why they do not cycle to work. Safety usually appears high on their list of reasons. But the risks of cycling are overestimated. A cyclist would need to commute every day for 8,000 years before they would be killed on the roads. The extra years of life gained by the regular exercise of cycling far outweighs the risks of death. I appreciate that cycling in the UK can feel dangerous, but it needn’t be like that. Hop across the Channel and you will find cities full of people on bikes wearing everyday clothes and almost none wearing helmets. Space for pedestrians and cyclists is frequently shared and no one seems to get het up about it. So why is cycling such a popular means of travel on the continent, but not in the UK? Of course, some countries have the advantage of being as flat as a pancake whereas it is almost impossible to travel any distance in Devon and Cornwall before being confronted with a hill to climb. More importantly, these countries have invested heavily in separating bikes from cars (and more crucially lorries) making it feel a lot safer.

Finally, it is clearly the right thing to do from an environmental perspective. If you are physically capable, you should walk or cycle short trips (40% of all journeys in the UK of less than two miles are made by car). We read about the harm caused by rising levels of CO2 and exhaust pollutants almost every day, but this discourages few from motoring. I suspect this is because they are not directly affected by global warming. If the water level in your house rose an inch every time you turned the ignition key in their car, I bet you would take climate change more seriously.

What is needed is a change in mindset and this requires a change in legislation. For starters we need laws that protect cyclists. In Holland if there is a collision between a car and a bike, the motorist is held responsible unless he can prove he is innocent. Penalties for injuring cyclists are severe. Open a car door in Amsterdam in the path of a passing cyclist and you may well end up in jail. In the UK, the law favours the motorist, the onus for safety is put squarely on the shoulders of those who choose to cycle.


Cyclists should be allowed to pass through red traffic lights if the road is clear. This is widely considered to be dangerous, but the greatest risk to cyclists comes from lorries turning left at junctions, so allowing the bike to go ahead would improve road safety. This fact has been grasped by many European cities, including Paris, and even some in the USA, the spiritual home of the motorcar. Also, employers should have schemes that encourage their staff to cycle to work, providing secure cycle storage and facilities for workers to shower and change clothes.

You might feel that such changes are unconscionable, but just reflect on what has happened to smoking. There was a time when it was deemed perfectly OK to smoke almost anywhere you liked; including pubs, cinemas, restaurants and even on airplanes. But all that has changed and the same could happen for cycling. Am I dreaming? Well, maybe not. The day after the BBC sacked Clarkson (no, that’s not in my dream); journalists mobbed him leaving his home … riding a bike. Surely if he can do it, so can you.

John Dean March Western Morning News March 2016

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