Bugs in The Code

by
June 11, 2016

If you juxtapose the phrases “Highway Code” and “cyclists” and then drop them into the media, the initial reaction from the more vocal parts of the general public is going to be somewhat predictable. I could write you out a bingo card and you’ll have called “house” by the time you’ve reached the end of the comments underneath the first article.

City Centre is a like a futuristic collection of glass towers
A not very cycling-friendly city, yesterday.

Equally, when the phrases are juxtaposed by a motoring organisation, the reaction from some people who cycle or who campaign to enable others to do so will be somewhat predictable, not least because they’re acutely aware of the previous point.

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So when The AA released a book entitled “Cyclist’s Highway Code” this week, along with a press release that was rapidly picked up by numerous media outlets, there was inevitably a bit of noise. The media reported, commenters commented, Twitter frothed, and Gizmodo mischievously ran the headline “The AA Patronises The Nation With Little Special Highway Code For Cyclists”. Edmund King, president of The AA, and Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz and encyclopedic cycling historian who contributed to the book, have both stoutly defended the new guide.

But what’s the reality? Does the content (and the context) warrant the noise?

I’ve got a copy, so let’s find out.

The content

The book can be thought of as an abridged Highway Code bookended by some added material. Its target market is slightly unclear: Carlton Reid, who provided input including the foreword, says “the book is aimed at drivers”, and AA president Edmund King makes much of the point that a little over one fifth of AA members cycle. But this all seems a little baffling: to qualify as a driver, one must have demonstrated an understanding of the full Highway Code. The supposed target audience for this abridged version seems to entirely comprise people who have already read the full version. What’s more, it’s fairly widely known that four fifths of people who cycle hold a driving licence, so they’ve had to demonstrate that they’ve read the full version, too.

But, of course, it’s not just extracts from the Highway Code, which is freely available online. In addition to 70 pages under the heading “Safe Cycling”—largely comprising the extracts from the Highway Code—there are 41 pages of other material. So a little over a third of the book is content that you don’t get in the standard Highway Code.

Let’s look at that first.

The additional material

The first few pages are fairly straightforward: a basic introduction followed by two pages illustrating some aspects of children’s and adults’ bikes that prospective buyers might wish to consider. Reasonable enough, though it’s the sort of information that’s widely and freely available online, and basically equates to the five minute chat that first-time buyers will inevitably have at the bike shop anyway. But there’s nothing wrong with putting it in a book.

The next page covers “the essentials”: the kit you can’t do without. First on the list? Slightly curiously, a bell. Then lights (fair enough), flashing lights (“a cheap way to add extra visibility”) and reflectors, followed by a pump (recommending CO2 canisters to first-time buyers—really?) and a lock. It’s curious to see that a puncture repair kit only makes it to “key accessories” when the “essential” pump is kind of useless without it, but I’m nitpicking.

Next, a couple of pages on child seats and trailers, and some tips on riding as a family, followed by three pages discussing sore bottoms, numb hands, punctures and other joys. All quite reasonable stuff, I suppose, though after ploughing through that, and the advice to check everything on the bike (how often do people’s seats stop working?) and clean your chain and “wipe the dirt from wheels” (really? who does that?) weekly—yes, weekly—you don’t exactly emerge thinking “cycling sounds brilliant”. More like “cycling sounds a pain in the arse” (metaphorically and literally).

After the Highway Code content, which I’ll come back to, there’s a page on first aid, a page on the National Cycle Network, a page on off-road riding, and a larger section titled “Learn to Ride”. This section, following a brief introduction to Bikeability, simply contains tests for the three Bikeability levels (the answers to written questions are essentially given below the questions themselves). It’s a bizarre inclusion. Are The AA expecting people to write in the answers? Will readers think they’ve completed Bikeability if they do so? I could understand taking Bikeability advice and presenting it in a digestible, accessible form—but to just dump tests into the book is somewhat baffling.

All in all, the added content isn’t bad, but it’s arguably not really remarkably insightful or valuable either, and the Bikeability section is frankly just strange.

What of the Highway Code part, then?

The Highway Code

On reaching the Highway Code section, because rules 1-58 (for pedestrians, mobility aids and animals) are omitted, the first thing you’re hit with is rule 59: advice about hi-viz and helmets. On one hand that’s sort of inevitable if you’re going to list the rules in numerical order, but there’s no escaping the fact that it helps to hammer home the “make yourself seen” message: I’ve not mentioned a number of the book’s earlier references to it, but we’ll see some more yet. Note also that hi-viz clothing appears in all of the on-road photographs and—as far as I can tell—every rider in every photograph is wearing a helmet (which makes Carlton Reid’s “look at the cover and count the helmets” rebuttal seem a little disingenuous).

The AA have added some material to certain parts of the Code, and it will be of little surprise that rule 59 receives a full page of additional advice, as does rule 60 (lights). Readers are invited not only to wear vests, but also to consider “reflective accessories such as chest straps, ankle bands, stickers, badges, scarves and the like”. They are even advised that “reflective straps or LEDs on gloves or forearm can help make signalling more obvious”. (Ah, techno-trinkets.)

The editorial unsurprisingly carries the mantra “be seen and be safe” and also points out that “although there may be enough light to see by, there may not be enough to BE SEEN” (no, that’s not my emphasis: the book really does go shouty-caps). A vexatious reviewer might be tempted to point out a logical inconsistency in this statement; fortunately I’m nothing of the sort. Ahem.

However, even for fans of fluorescent-fabric-and-flashing-lights-for-everyone policies, there are some concerning issues with the way in which the rules of the Highway Code are presented.

One of these pertains to cycle lanes. There is no clear explanation of the ambiguous term “mandatory cycle lane”. For those who aren’t aware, the “mandatory” bit means that it’s mandatory for vehicles other than pedal cycles to be kept out of it; it is not mandatory for pedal cycle users to remain within it. This is a fairly notorious point that was ripe for clarification in a cycling-specific Code, but apparently no-one saw fit to do so. Two whole pages on reflective stickers and LED gloves, but not one word to clear up an obvious ambiguity that would leave many pedal cycle users confining themselves to the gutter. How strange.

(Tangentially, can I also point out that evidently no-one involved in the book can spell “kerb”? Sorry, it’s a pet peeve.)

The AA have also included the rules relating to speed limits. While it’s true that the book includes a number of rules which are specific to drivers, the convention within the book is that these are placed in pink boxes to clearly mark them. This is not the case for speed limits, which—in case you weren’t already aware—only apply to mechanically propelled vehicles: those with an engine. Again, there is no clarification here at all, just a rather misleading inclusion of an inapplicable rule. The authors might even have had the foresight to spot that this rule becomes particularly unclear once the matter of e-bikes is considered, and added some useful information to help anyone taking advantage of this fast-growing form of transport, but no. The rule is simply presented without comment, as if it were as pertinent as any other rule.

If this is a cycling-specific Highway Code, there’s an underwhelming amount of cycling-specific thought that’s gone into it.

What next?

Nestling among the rules from the Highway Code are not only paragraphs of “advice”, but a few bullet-point lists of concise instructions. It’s hardly far-fetched to imagine that some readers would see these as part of the Highway Code: they may not have numbers next to them as the genuine rules do, but they’re neatly dropped into the flow with no indication of their provenance. They’re not part of the Code, of course, and some of them are rather spurious. One instructs riders to “Always yield to walkers and horses,” (somewhat irksome given that there are very few situations in the full Code which direct drivers to yield to pedestrians) while another says “Do not expect to cycle at high speed on any cycle path or cycle way.”

The additional “rules” become more bothersome still. One paragraph implores: “Take extra care passing stationary buses and NEVER squeeze past a bus, either stationary or moving slowly, on the left.” Again, this text does not appear in the real Highway Code, but this time there’s an additional feature: the use of capitals. In the Highway Code, this typographic treatment has real meaning: words in capitals are used to indicate mandatory instructions backed by specific legislation. Again, it’s not unreasonable to imagine some readers mistaking this for such a rule, when it is absolutely not. The advice could have been worded more helpfully, pointing out that it’s often unwise to put oneself in such a position while acknowledging that cycle lanes are often found to the left of buses and that it’s often perfectly safe if done with sufficient care and in the right circumstances. But, again, no. Just a simplistic and entirely inappropriately emphasised command.

As you read through the Highway Code section, you feel that there’s actually rather little that’s been left out. This isn’t necessarily a criticism—much of the content is applicable to all road users even if a number of the scenarios are rarer for some than others—but it amplifies the question of what the aim of this book actually is. A useful primer it is not: it’s just as mentally fatiguing as reading the full version. The idea of a more digestible version is sound, not least because some people who cycle don’t drive and needn’t necessarily read the full Highway Code (nor do they necessarily want to; and indeed some may have learning difficulties or other characteristics that prevent them driving through inability to comprehend complex texts, but who still need to be mobile). Remember: 80% of cyclists and 100% of drivers have already had to demonstrate that they’ve read the full version. But this book does not represent any real difference in accessibility over the full version. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a good idea that has been rather weakly implemented, or simply a weak idea in the first place.

And the thing is, this opacity of purpose and motive isn’t helped by the nature of the comments that accompanied it’s release.

The context

As noted above, the target audience was broadly indicated to be drivers. Edmund King expanded slightly: “As a keen cyclist and father of three cycling children, I would urge you to check out this book. Today more than one fifth of AA members regularly cycle and this guide will encourage a new generation to join them.”

Chris Boardman—who, it would seem from various recent media outings, currently seems to have taken his eye off campaigning for normalised cycling in order to provide some sort of rent-a-quote service (“Triumphs and Turbulence: My Autobiography” is available now from all good bookstores and on your favourite e-reader from around ten pounds)—also provided some words: “British Cycling welcomes The AA Cyclist’s Highway Code as it should encourage new cyclists and help parents get their children into cycling.”

These claims seem a little unconvincing. “Encourage a new generation”? Do people really think a book of rules, written tests and puncture repair guides is going to get kids on bikes? When I asked Reid if he bought into the sentiment of King and Boardman’s statements, his reply was that “every little helps”. As someone pithily pointed out, this is so little as to be positively homeopathic. Actually, Reid goes somewhat further, explicitly claiming that the book “aims to encourage young ones to start cycling”. Really? I mean, really? Hey, kids: I know you’ve been reluctant to ride a bike, but here’s a book with 70 pages of rules, some sort of exam, and a list of weekly chores. Thanks, dad.

Cycling is awash with concepts that are heralded as being some sort of gateway to broader uptake of cycling. Such claims have been made of a law that would make compensation claims easier once you’ve been knocked off, of a law that dreams of making riding amongst HGVs and 60mph traffic slightly less terrifying, and now of The Little Book of Rules. I’ve no doubt that the same claim was made of many things that have come about over the last few decades and which are all focused on servicing the status quo and thus have entirely failed—no matter what anyone claims—to precipitate a cycling boom.

What to make of it?

The Cyclist’s Highway Code is a curious beast. It’s abridged, but not so much as to make it more accessible than the unabridged version. It’s supplemented, but not by particularly inspiring content. That said, it would be short-sighted were I not to concede that there are people who will gladly pay a fiver for a paper book rather than search the web or visit a bike shop. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with supplying that market. In short: it would be easy to describe it as underwhelming but inoffensive, and to describe the fuss around it as a storm in a teacup.

But I have a deep resentment of insidiousness, and I can’t help but see it.

Dropping spurious rules amongst the Highway Code could seem suspicious. Using typographic conventions that imply illegality where there is none could seem suspicious. To then defend the book as being unpolluted Highway Code content could seem suspicious. To employ an extremely knowledgeable figure within the cycling industry to edit the book and to then fail to address several very obvious ambiguities could seem suspicious. To apparently proclaim a balanced helmet policy based on the drawing on the front cover when the images between the covers show exclusively helmeted heads could seem suspicious. (And let’s not forget when, under the watch of its current president, The AA controversially distributed illuminated helmets to cyclists as part of a supposed aim “to break down some of the ‘them and us’ barriers”.)

I say it all could seem suspicious because I’d like to offer the benefit of the doubt and suggest that maybe these are all innocent oversights and errors. Contrary to what most readers will think, I don’t have a problem with publishing a cycling-oriented version of the Highway Code, nor even a problem with a motoring organisation doing so. I’m instinctively contrarian (that’s the revelation of the year, right?) and the first opinions that I saw were critical: I wanted to like the book. Really. I also want to believe that King and Reid are genuinely trying to do the right thing, but if they are then I certainly believe that this isn’t it.

The problem is it that—to me at least—it actually seems suspicious, because of the convergence of all of these things. Maybe it’s coincidence that all the ambiguities err on the side of suggesting greater restrictions to cycling than actually exist. Maybe it’s coincidence that the people defending the guide simply forgot about the helmets inside the book and the extra rules folded into the Highway Code. Intentionally or otherwise, the insidiousness is there in the pages. Meanwhile, the people responsible for it are doggedly selling it with trite claims that it is a means of getting people cycling, and defending it with dubious arguments: for instance the suggestion that it must be fine because The AA has published walking guides in the past is irrelevant, because as far as I can see The AA has never appropriated the name of a government document in publishing a Pedestrian’s Highway Code complete with unilaterally-loaded ambiguities.

When the Highway Code is used to brow-beat those on pedal cycles—not just culturally but legally, even after their death—any insidious scope creep or manipulation of meaning must be viewed with extreme caution, because it becomes weaponised. “You’re not sticking to the Cyclist’s Highway Code!” will come the cry as someone on a bike uses the cycle lane to the left of a bus; and from acorns of movement in public opinion grow mighty oaks.

Perhaps The AA is genuinely interested in supporting an increase in cycling and is happy to listen to criticism about how it goes about that. But neither this book nor the sales patter that accompanies it convinces me of that.

I’m a jaded cynic, of course. You may well not be.