The war on the roads
‘Should reckless cyclists face the same consequences as dangerous drivers?’ asks Good Morning Britain on Twitter. The cycling community sighs collectively.
Each time someone is killed on a bike or by a bike, it’s headline news. It perpetuates the perception that cycling is dangerous; it justifies people’s hatred of cyclists. It feeds the simmering nastiness on the roads that results in all of those who ride two wheels getting shouted at, beeped at, spat at, missiles hurled at, sworn at, swerved into, threatened and abused daily. This is the reality of cycling in the UK.
It’s exhausting that people hate me just because I choose to ride a bike. It’s exhausting and frustrating and saddening. I choose to ride because I love it, but it’s not just beneficial to me, my mental and physical health and my purse: it means there are fewer cars on the road, less pollution, better air quality, less congestion. In short, my being on a bike benefits drivers. If more people were active there would be fewer health problems, less of a strain on the NHS, fewer tax dollars given to treat preventable sedentary lifestyle-related illness. My being on a bike benefits the tax payer.
A cursory glance through the responses to this question from Good Morning Britain reveals the same old arguments. ‘Yes, and they should be made to pay road tax’; ‘Yes because all they do is run the lights’; ‘Yes and they should have to take a test’.
First, the tax question. So often this has been used as an argument against me, as a reason why someone would drive dangerously around me. Somehow I don’t deserve to use the road because I haven’t paid for it. Yet ‘road tax’ as it is known doesn’t exist. All road infrastructure is funded through general taxation. I pay tax therefore I pay for the roads, for the pavements, for the cycleways. The ‘road tax’ that vehicles pay is based upon emissions. A cycle doesn’t create any pollution; if you drove an electric vehicle you wouldn’t pay either.
Second, the moaning about cyclists jumping the lights. Yes, cyclists do it, and yes, it’s annoying. Lots of cyclists wait. Lots of cyclists call out other cyclists for doing it. And drivers do it too. Every day, almost without fail, I see a driver run the lights.
Third, the point about having to take a test. The fact is, most do. Most cyclists are also drivers, who have a licence to use the road. Most drivers have a licence, but that doesn’t prevent drivers running red lights, using a phone at the wheel, dangerously overtaking and speeding. Using examples of poor driving is not intended to exonerate cyclists of wrong-doing, but this whole debate exacerbates this war on the roads, this animosity between road users. It fuels ill-thought out arguments, it perpetuates tribalism.
It also ignores the real question asked by Good Morning Britain which is about consequences and culpability. Yes, of course cyclists should face punishment for causing death or injury, just as drivers should. Cyclists and motorists should both be accountable to the law, and penalties that befit drivers for killing someone should also apply to cyclists. The debate has arisen because a cyclist was given an 18 month sentence for killing a pedestrian. Many people on the thread point out the extraordinary number of examples of drivers who get let off with a fine or are found not guilty when they have taken a life.
I feel compelled to write a response to this one: ‘I face cyclists every day and they don’t care about anything around them apart from getting to their destination.’ I reply verbatim, substituting the word ‘cyclists’ for ‘drivers’. The fact is, everyone using the road wants to get somewhere; of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t be on the road. Everyone gets frustrated, suffers lapses in attention, goes a bit too quickly, sneaks through the light just as it goes red. I do it. Everyone does it. Yet arguably, and statistically, motorists are far more dangerous than cyclists. Because in the time it took for Charlie Alliston to be found guilty of wanton and furious cycling, 300 people were killed by motor vehicles. None of those made headline news.
Yes, the law needs to be changed and yes, there needs to be better enforcement. But we are all road users. There should be no Us and Them. We should be allowed to choose the type of vehicle we travel in/on without experiencing the negative backlash from others.
A few reasoned responses slipped through. One of the replies was, “These cyclists and these motorists are all still people”. I wholeheartedly agree.