September 22, 2016
It’s hardly uncommon for a phrase to transform into a policy statement purely by virtue of being glib, but perhaps nowhere is this more so than in the road safety industry. Indeed, “road safety” is itself such a phrase: it’s more snappy than “road danger reduction”, so once in use it acquires a great deal of inertia. But the difference between the two is significant, and is exemplified by everything that I’m about to discuss in relation to one specific phrase: “share the road”.
Share the road
“Share the road” is a particularly insidious phrase, because it’s superficially benign: it evokes a sense of equality, and equality is good—right?
Well, that depends on what exactly you’re equating.
It’s fair to say—and I trust we can all agree on this—that two randomly-chosen people can be assumed to be equal. Person equals person: humanitarian equality by definition. But when you add different vehicles to each side of that equation, it no longer holds true: a lorry is not the same as a bicycle; a car is not the same as a pair of shoes; a motorbike is not the same as a horse. The basic premise of mathematical equations holds absolutely true here: since the vehicles are different, if “Person A plus lorry” is deemed to be equal to “Person B plus bicycle” then it follows that Person A and Person B are not equal. This simple truth underpins the whole problem of defining people by their mode of transport: if we treat all road users as homogeneous regardless of their vehicle then for as long as Person A is defined as a “motorist” and Person B as a “cyclist” it is impossible to erase the inequality imposed on them by making their vehicle a part of their identity.
It is by this means of sham equality that “road safety” campaigns always fall into the pattern of making a similar number of requests to The Person As and The Person Bs: they presume it would be unfair to ask one to do more than the other. But this is founded on the blurring of that boundary between person-plus-vehicle and simply-the-person; it’s about overlooking the difference between the vehicles so as to give a veneer of equality that most people mistake for the real thing.
A fine example is RoSPA’s “Sharing the Road Together” booklet, which cobbles together a dismal list of things that each party would supposedly like the other to know. It’s a great press release for backing up editorial that fuels people’s little pet hates about cycling, as demonstrated here: “Empathy works both ways of course…cyclists need to drive more predictably…cyclists should not ride in the primary position when it is not necessary…courteous cyclists will ride in single file.”
All of the points in the “what cyclists would like drivers to know” column are matters of physical threat. Whereas the “what drivers would like cyclists to know” column includes things like “they get annoyed when cyclists ride two abreast (even though it’s not illegal)”.
But then, of course, cycling two-abreast actually makes it easier for safe drivers to pass, as explained below.
So… what’s RoSPA’s message here? That anyone cycling should make it harder for safe drivers to pass safely, and easier for unsafe drivers to pass unsafely, just in order to avoid annoying the latter? It would seem so. “Share the road” is all about deferent pleasantries to the uninformed, and this is exemplified by being expected to give up one’s own ability to mitigate physical threat, merely so as to avoid annoying the very people who present it.
Most alarmingly, while RoSPA says “cyclists would like drivers to know” that the reason they often ride in the the middle of the lane is to be more easily seen and to prevent dangerous overtaking, they also say that “drivers would like cyclists to know” (wait for it, this is a doozy) that they don’t understand why cyclists ride in the middle of the lane. RoSPA’s idea of a fair exchange here is one party trying to explain that they do something to reduce the potentially lethal risks they face as a result of others, while the other party—the exact one that has the capability of creating that risk—responds with “yeah, but I want you to realise that I just don’t get that”.
Stop and think for a moment about the logic behind the co-existence of those two bullet points, and about any sort of process by which they must have been arrived at. I mean, really pull it apart in your head. Because it’s… I dunno, words fail me.
Still: a nice equal seven bullet points in each column, so job done—right? Seven equals seven. That’s the sham equality of people-plus-vehicle right there.
A message falling on deaf ears
Sometimes it’s actually kind of worse. Brighton & Hove have long had a “Share the Road, Share the Responsibility” campaign, which includes messages whose underlying logic is not only flawed—unlike vision, sound is really quite an unreliable mechanism for assessing vehicle movements in an urban landscape—but borders on violating the Disability Discrimination Act. Imposing a requirement on people to hear their surroundings in order for their safety to be valued is arguably implicit discrimination against deaf people, according to section 3A.1 and section 21B. (Unsurprisingly, drivers are free from Brighton & Hove’s attention, because no-one cares about them not hearing their surroundings.)
The message is clear: If you want to share the road, you must share the responsibility. But this responsibility is one which a deaf person cannot share. The message therefore diminishes the right of deaf people to safety of the road. Giving someone on a bike the responsibility of hearing things (and then what—leaping out of the way?) is the same as saying to others that they can merrily assume they’ve been heard. The only possible outcome is that people drive less cautiously.
What’s more, the “share the responsibility” ethos (which, although Brighton & Hove make it explicit, is implicit in “share the road” messaging) fails to recognise that the responsibility that really matters is the responsibility not to cause harm to others. Anyone choosing a pedal cycle instead of a car has already acquitted themselves of a whole load of that responsibility, by choosing a vehicle far less capable of causing harm. Again the messaging wilfully ignores the heterogeneity of vehicles.
The price of safety
All of this inevitably leads to the same state of affairs every time: requests for driving behaviours which reduce the risk posed to others are traded for cycling behaviours which merely afford drivers convenience or, worse, serve to allow drivers not to bother so much with the behaviours that reduce risk.
If you want a clear illustration of the relative values of the annoyance suffered by people driving cars and the physical harm suffered by people in cars, check the following chart (click it for a larger version). Specifically, the third and eighth rows.
The punishment for driving in the middle lane, causing “at least six other [drivers] to brake and overtake” was £500, plus £262 in other charges, and six penalty points. The punishment for driving with defective eyesight and hitting a man on a bicycle—inflicting a serious brain injury, breaking his back in four places, fracturing his skull, and fracturing over 30 other bones in his head and body and placing him on life support with his family having to say goodby to him twice before he finally survived—was £95, plus £45 in other charges, and the same six penalty points. Clear enough? Causing six people to change lane is five times as bad a crime as setting out without being able to see properly and taking someone as close to death as it’s possible to go.
Is that equality? Is that sharing responsibility?
I’ve previously discussed one film which makes demands that legitimise not looking before opening a car door (“Don’t…pass me on the inside…I can’t see you [on the bicycle]”) or overtaking at junctions and not leaving safe space (“I need you [on the bicycle] to check it’s safe before you turn right or change lane”) and while the advice in both cases is sound, the phrasing is pernicious: in both cases it’s actually the person on the bike who has the need, because they are the one at risk, not the person in the car. Indeed, the sole reason they need to be wary of riding alongside vehicles is the risk of people in cars opening doors without looking (which is illegal) and one of the main reasons they need to check before moving to the right is the risk of people overtaking at a junction and/or without leaving plenty of room (which, while not a strict offence, may and should be construed as an offence of careless or dangerous driving). The convenience-for-safety bartering of the “share the road” philosophy neatly tips this need on its head, while still sounding egalitarian. It’s a deft trick.
The message wrapped up in this phoney equality is that if you want to be safe, you need to make some concessions in order to allow people to drive cars without having to reduce their risk to others—the risk posed almost entirely by the nature of the vehicle—as much as is possible. They should be allowed to pass close, overtake at junctions, be a bit careless opening doors; and it’s you who should be accounting for this. It’s part of sharing, part of the same package of messages sent out in every film.
And, aside from the conciseness of the phrase, this is the reason we end up with “road safety” instead of “road danger reduction”. It’s too politically difficult to address the fact that the vehicles are different and the danger comes almost wholly from the choice of vehicle: it would cause an outrage. To see people as equal and vehicles as different is taboo: we are all conditioned to look at the person-plus-vehicle. Whether it’s road safety films, news reports (have a browse of the now-mothballed @absentdriver‘s tweets) or anything else, when someone climbs into a car they are assimilated by it; they become a mere particle within the person-plus-vehicle atom.
Recently shared on social media
A couple of recent events show the grim psychological and sociological responses to this approach in all their gory detail.
First, there’s Jeremy Vine’s much-publicised recent experience of being assaulted in the road. This inevitably triggered a deluge of anti-cycling rhetoric from numerous angles—obviously including whichever ghost writer currently bears the responsibility of Jeremy Clarkson having “outrageous opinions, every week, to a deadline”—but the following letter is representative of the thoughts and emotions behind the response.
This comment overlooks a whole heap of things. For instance: the fact that if you drive in London you really should be psychologically prepared for the inevitability of being frequently held up by myriad things; the fact that cycling in the middle of the road in this specific situation is advised by Bikeability training, the Highway Code and numerous other government-provided advice (because of the risk of people opening car doors—remember that film above which points it out?—and because to overtake someone on a bike on such a narrow carriageway would be extremely dangerous anyway); the fact that the person on the bike may themselves be an oh-so-important businessperson who may or may not be late for their oh-so-important meeting but would like to get there in one piece without being assaulted along the way.
You will share, and you will share right now
The letter above is a tour de force of entitlement and bigotry, from the classic variation on the “I’m not a racist, but…” opening gambit, through “if other people are frustrated, it’s your fault; therefore it’s your fault that they
assault you have a little accident”, to “people in cars are important and people on bicycles can’t possibly be”. It’s all the usual stuff: Get out of the way. Share the road. My road. Stop being slightly slower than someone in a car can travel along a London street in the brief periods between getting stuck at the next queue of traffic.
The pathetic nature of this is illustrated perfectly by my two young children. One will go to the other, demand that they hand over the toy they’re playing with, and on inevitably receiving the response “no” will immediately run to me and yell “THEY’RE NOT SHARING!!”
To which I have to explain simply: Sharing does not mean getting what you want whenever you want it.
With a bit of luck, my kids will in time figure this out. I am less optimistic that the adults who take the same approach to driving will manage to do so.
The reason is not so much that my kids are young and rapidly changing while adults are more set in their ways. It is more that my kids will regularly experience both sides of the toy-sharing process, whereas few drivers will ever experience both sides of the road-sharing one.
And that’s a huge problem: the behaviours that one must exhibit while cycling in order to minimise risk from others—such as moving to the middle of the lane at certain times—are often the exact behaviours which are seen as “not sharing” by uninformed eyes. The Northern Irish film mentioned above implores everyone to “share the road, respect everyone’s journey”, which instantly frames the act of deliberately keeping someone behind you as unwillingness to share. Then RoSPA hammer the message home by pointing out that drivers want cyclists to know that they don’t understand why they’re doing it. If I’m on a bike, what are RoSPA supposing that I do with that information? I can do nothing. All they’re doing is stating explicitly that my behaviour may well be misunderstood, and stating implicitly that there is no desire on anyone’s part for that misunderstanding to be corrected.
Promoting the sharing
The second and rather less prominent event was the disappearance of the “@sharetheroad_uk” Twitter account. Its eventual demise came about at the hands of its author, who had apparently become fed up with people pointing out its flaws. (The reason given was “trolling”—which, following its mainstream appropriation as meaning “attacking vile personal abuse” instead of its original “seeking to provoke a reaction”, is a handy euphemism if you want to morally frame the issue by implying that disagreement is a form of personal attack.)
A few months before that, however, the account and its author had struck up a close relationship with the Lincolnshire Road Safety Partnership (no sign yet of a Lincolnshire Road Danger Reduction Partnership, obviously) and Lincolnshire Police. So close was this relationship that the two were essentially indistinguishable: the “share the road” logo was used by LRSP to an extent where it appeared to be a sub-brand. Establishing its true provenance wasn’t reassuringly easy.
This close relationship, as we’ll see, was perhaps ill-advised in terms of public relations. Although, that said, it’s easy to see how LRSP would have been blind to that. Here’s one of their tweets, defending the driver in Jeremy Vine’s video:
Just as with the author of the letter in the newspaper, LRSP are unashamedly excusing assault on the basis of being late for work. It’s jaw-droppingly crass stuff.
Anyway, back to the “@sharetheroad_uk” account, which tweeted some curious things that any worthwhile “road safety partnership” might not want to be associated with: aside from its fondness of sarcastic disdain for its critics (especially during what appeared to be a bit of an emotional breakdown shortly before its demise) one tweet advertised the Top Gear “Cyclist Safety Film” feature, which—regardless of whether or not it’s a laudable piece of entertainment—is hardly suitable for a campaign of this nature, while on another occasion it retweeted the following plea for people not to cycle in dark clothes, showing a video where someone in dark clothes can be very clearly seen.
I’m not here to argue that wearing black at all times is a fantastic idea (though, hey: if it’s accompanied by a decent set of lights it shouldn’t ever be a problem) but this is a typical approach for most road safety campaigns: reciting dogmatic advice whilst giving an example where it makes no real difference.
It also retweeted the following.
This reminds me of a comment made by some minor celebrity—I forget who—years ago on a TV programme, one of the “people moaning about other people in a way that can’t possibly be malicious because it’s labelled ‘light entertainment’ in the Radio Times” genre, bemoaning people who used zebra crossings without deferently waving thanks to a driver who had stopped. The celebrity delivered his displeasure through slightly narrowed eyes, showing the true sociopathic nature of the genre with a memorable turn of phrase: “Where’s my thankyou? All I want is my little thankyou.”
It says it all. His thankyou. The protocol that he feels is rightly owed to him in return for obeying the law and not running someone over. The price of safety, clear as day. Courtesy as payment for not being harmed, like a protection racket based on a barter system. Share the road: I’ve shared it by not driving into you—and you’ll praise me for it, for sparing you harm, for doing the bare minimum that I’m obliged to do. Spoof news site Southend News Network knows the score.
The king of the jungle
We should probably ask how Lincolnshire’s approach to casualty reduction fares in the real world. And I don’t mean we should ask people, I mean we should look at the data. Time to fire up the STATS19 database.
The following graphs all show collisions which involved at least one pedal cycle and at least one motor vehicle, where there was at least one pedal cyclist casualty. Ideally this would be our barometer of how well sharing is working out for the group who are both less protected and less able to do harm, but to be fair we’d need to dig deeper and wider into data to be able to make confident claims about that. What it does illustrate, though, is the performance of a region whose “road safety” thinking arrives at “share the road”: so, more correlation than causation, but it’s a useful starting point.
In each case, the absolute numbers have been converted to an index based on the 2005-2015 average. This allows trends to become more easily comparable. Additionally, each graph shows two separate categories of pedal cyclist casualty: KSIs (killed or seriously injured) and all (KSIs plus slight injuries).
First, let’s look at the national trends.
We can see that casualties are rising gently, but KSIs are rising a little more rapidly. It’s hard at this stage to read too much into that: without knowing about the changes in cycling levels, it’s impossible to say whether this is down to an increasing danger posed by motor vehicles, an increase in the level of cycling, both, or indeed even an increase in one that obscures a decrease in the other.
So, we need to dig a little deeper.
London is a good place to start, for two reasons: firstly there’s simply much more cycling in London than in most areas, and secondly there are other datasets available which shed a little light on things.
In London there is a notable aspect to the trends: casualties on the whole are on the up, but KSIs show only a slight upward trend over the 11 years. In fact, since 2012 they have fallen dramatically.
Let’s add some more data, from TfL’s Travel in London Report: namely, the levels of cycling and driving in the capital.
The first thing of note here is that the all-casualty line appears to correlate remarkably well with the number of cycle stages. The second is that motor traffic is declining.
Restyling the graph to show the trend lines suggests that total casualties may be reasonably representative of cycling levels, while KSIs—which are rising at a below average rate in London—may be related to motor traffic levels.
Indeed, if the London data are plotted relative to the national figures (note that the KSI trend line now heads downwards, indicating that London is bucking the national trend, especially since 2012), the trend correlation of relative overall casualties to cycling levels is remarkable.
Note that London started building significant sections of fully separated cycling infrastructure in 2015, which means that any potential correlation between overall motor-collision casualties and cycling levels is likely to be much weakened from that point onwards.
There’s a second region that may allow us to infer meaning from the KSI trends. Devon & Cornwall disbanded its traffic policing unit in 2011 following budget cuts, and has been criticised for more than just a lack of resources. So it’s a prominent example of what happens when law enforcement on the road is considerably reduced.
The region shows an alarmingly steep upward trend in pedal cycle KSIs in motor vehicle collisions. And it also shows a downward trend in overall casualties. From what we know of London’s data, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that there’s been no growth in cycling in Devon & Cornwall over the decade, but that conditions for cycling have become significantly more dangerous. Naturally, the latter would be just one likely factor in preventing cycling levels from rising.
So, how about Lincolnshire?
Lincolnshire’s KSI trend is also rising significantly higher than the national average, and lthough it’s not quite as extreme as Devon & Cornwall it isn’t hugely far off. Meanwhile, overall casualties are tracking the national average pretty closely.
Plotting the data relative to the national average makes Lincolnshire’s performance clearer: whilst the purple all-casualties trend line is virtually flat, the orange KSI trend line runs from around 80% to 120%—meaning KSIs are rising at about 1.5 times the national average.
It all seems to point to Lincolnshire becoming significantly more dangerous than average in terms of pedal cyclists being injured in motor vehicle collisions. And although it would be unreasonable to claim (without further information) that these graphs show the direct effects of a “share the road” campaign, it’s not all that unreasonable to claim that they show the direct effects of policymaking that thinks “share the road” campaigns are a good idea.
Not just danger
Danger is far from the whole picture, though.
Back in 2014, Mark Treasure took a look at cycling levels. Obviously the general message was that cycling wasn’t booming, despite all the marketing claims that it was, but there’s an interesting detail or two in there.
Here’s the list of local authorities with the greatest decreases in cycling to work. North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire are—despite being in the same county—separate local authorities, but two (Boston and North Kesteven) are in Lincolnshire proper. Interestingly, North Kesteven “supported” (funded?) the Share The Road campaign video which has been heavily promoted by both Lincolnshire police and LRSP.
When it comes to really short-range commutes of less than 2km, the list of worst performers nationally again features a little too much of Lincolnshire: Boston and North Kesteven are now joined by South Holland.
So, in addition to the danger from motor traffic being on the rise in Lincolnshire, there appear to be signs that levels of utility cycling are down.
This seems to be plausible: it might be tempting to suggest that it debunks the hypothesis above (that overall casualty figures correlate to some extent with cycling levels) but what seems more likely is that utility cycling is down whilst leisure cycling, which generally has a much higher mileage per journey, is up, with the net result that a similar number of total miles are travelled. This fits with the KSI data because, mile-for-mile, leisure riders are likely to be exposed to higher-speed collisions, and it fits with a local Chief Inspector’s view.
So, perhaps the people who cycle for utility—to get to work and the shops and so on—are being discouraged from the road whilst the more determined leisure riders, joined by the supposed newcomers inspired by British successes in the Olympics and the grand tours, are getting on with it.
It’s a classic case of cycling conditions favouring the hardy athlete rather than the more danger-sensitive general public. The stereotypes are perpetuated: the Mamils are out there sharing the road in their quest for Strava segments, while everyday riders are simply forced out by this philosophy.
This is precisely how to keep cycling away from the masses.
And low levels of urban cycling are hardly surprising when Lincolnshire County Council takes the following approach, very much aligned with the “share the road” mantra, to directing cycle traffic:
The advice to cyclists is this: You see the signs for drivers? Well, that’s where you should cycle: the routes that we’re directing motor traffic along.
It’s the infrastructure equivalent of kettling: deliberately forcing everyone into the same space; “share the road” by design, with its inevitably one-sided consequences very much part of that design.
The legacy of “share the road” is suppression of, and increased danger to, the less heavily-armed side of the sharing. It is a mantra which promotes poisonous attitudes that give the more heavily-armed side a sense of entitlement and embitterment, and it is absolutely harmful to both cycling levels and the welfare of those who are bold enough to cycle. It is discriminatory, in allowing only the thick-skinned and the able-bodied to choose to cycle.
It’s high time this malicious and threadbare pseudo-philosophy was hung out to dry. It’s already happening in the US, and it’s time that local authorities and police forces in the UK started looking at data more closely and taking action, rather than building a little industry around glib slogans, trinkets and hope.
If people on pedal cycles are to be safe, “share the road” must die.