Bez: “The Wedge”

by Bez 11

Here’s the latest installment from Bez for your Friday morning reading pleasure. This time it’s about ‘safety’ devices…

OK, here’s a hypothetical scenario. Imagine this.

The largest representative body for cycling in the UK is making a stand against legislation. Specifically, it’s arguing vociferously against the requirement for cyclists to display rear lights at night.

Huh? What are you thinking? Are you trying to get us killed?!

All these devices are queuing up to stick the boot into anyone who doesn’t want to be a perfectly normal, well-adjusted sociopath.

No, says the organisation. Quite the opposite. We’re fighting the idea that people should expect others to be illuminated.

But why would I want to be less visible? You’re insane!

No, says the organisation. Quite the opposite. The idea that people in cars should be unable to deal with things outside their own beam of illumination is what’s insane.

Whatever. Even if you have a point, you’ll get nowhere with it. That horse has long since bolted, mate!

Ah. Now, here’s where we get to the interesting bit.

You see, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario. It’s real. Or, at least, it was real in 1934.

And – crucially – in 1934, that horse hadn’t yet bolted.

The thin end of the wedge

In 1934, although cycling was still the main transport for many in the country, the motor car had spent a decade firmly on the up and up. Carnage on the roads was on a similar trajectory, which is hardly surprising given the absence of driver testing (which was introduced the following year) and the recent abolition of the 20mph speed limit. Casualties on the roads had risen from 139,000 in 1926 to 239,000 in 1934. Action had to be taken. And, assuming your imaginary 1934 Venn diagram of ‘those affluent enough to own a motor car’ and ‘those in a position of power’ looks anything like mine (slice a boiled egg in half and you’re on the right lines), inevitably this was going to involve a squeeze on anyone on fewer than four wheels.

The motor car had spent a decade firmly on the up and up. Carnage on the roads was on a similar trajectory…

Thus, among other measures, compulsory rear lights for cyclists were proposed, and the Cyclists’ Touring Club robustly opposed them. (Indeed, it opposed some of the other measures and proposed some of its own; notably it was staunchly opposed to segregated cycleways, a move which precipitated an 80-year decline in cycling, as discussed by Mark Treasure and David Arditti among others.) The CTC’s argument was that to be burdened with a red light was not only an inconvenience, but more importantly the thin end of a wedge that could only lead to faster, more dangerous driving.

A fatter bit of the wedge

Let’s fast-forward to the present, and we find ourselves at a point where the requirement to display lighting in the hope of not having someone else drive a car head-first into oneself is completely unremarkable. Maybe you even think this whole article’s a bit nuts for implying that it should be remarkable.

But it didn’t stop at lights, of course. Other horses may not have bolted so quickly for the field of legislation, but they’ve been gaily wandering in and out of the still-open stable door in the intervening 80 years. Hi-viz clothing, for example, may not be a legal requirement (although it is elsewhere) but is frequently foisted upon cyclists; often quite literally: handed out by police, given away at Sky Rides, very often paid for by the motoring industry. Not just cyclists: it’s given away to schoolkids left, right and centre (curiously, Specsavers in particular is on some sort of mission). And if your kids don’t like it, they’ll be intimidated into wearing it. (Note that there is not one single mention of the driver in that video. We’re so far removed from the idea of a driver taking responsibility for driving within the space he or she can see, that we now show the headlamp beams and never even discuss the driver: it’s the child’s fault for getting into those beams.)

It seems like a good idea because they – we – are understandably keen to clutch at whatever straws are available.

Yet, although there is evidence that hi-viz is effective in terms of railway worker casualties, there is little if any evidence to demonstrate its efficacy in terms of affecting road collision rates or casualty rates (indeed there is a little to suggest it has no effect, or even a negative effect – oh, and don’t get killed while wearing it in low sun: the hired ‘experts’ will say it was camouflage). But it seems like a good idea. It seems like a good idea to individuals on bikes because, being at mortal risk, they – we – are understandably keen to clutch at whatever straws are available, and it seems like a good idea to people in cars because they – we – want to drive faster and at the same time expend less cognitive effort.

Then, of course, there’s helmets. Helmets seem like a good idea for pretty much the same reasons: people on bikes will again generally take what they can get because they run the risk of death, while people in cars want the peace of mind of believing that if they knock a cyclist off (well, it could happen to anyone, they’re so hard to see) that everything will be fine and they won’t be landed with a chat with the Old Bill and a bit of a burden on their conscience (yes, I know it was his fault – he was so hard to see! – but I just feel guilty, you know?).

OK, I’m overdoing the characterisation, but you get the point: we’ve normalised inattentive driving and we’ve normalised collisions. They happen. Collisions are normal, so you’d better be prepared: I’ve got air bags, side impact bars and crumple zones; what have you got, a pair of gloves? Jeez, you’re not even trying! Here, pop a polystyrene hat on and we’ll call it quits.

A slightly fatter bit of the wedge

It goes further. As the cycling demographic has moved from miners and factory workers to city bankers and IT middle managers, the technology sector has been ever more drawn to a market of well-heeled but slightly scared people: you can get indicator gloves, cycle-lane projectors, bike-symbol projectors, jackets with an entire car’s worth of lights in them, and – my personal favourite – the intergalactically insane Smarthat (still a concept, but pro-motoring politicians have got right behind it).

Some designs do at least focus on the vehicle that actually poses the threat, though one might worry about the driver’s habituation when they get into another vehicle without the system, but others rely on two-way communication between the lethal vehicle and its potential victim. So now we’ve got drivers who might be tempted to rely on audible alerts, but what happens if you’re the guy without a beacon? Some ‘lucky’ people can pick them up for free at the moment, but after that they’re £20 a pop. I know this is hyperbole, but it’s really hard not to make comparisons to the Mafia’s business model. It’s danger money. We’re putting devices on trucks, and the driver will come to rely on them, and you need a £20 beacon to make your presence known, son. Paya da money or we crusha your head, capisce?

Now we’ve got drivers who might be tempted to rely on audible alerts, but what happens if you’re the guy without a beacon?

The fact that we have a problem seeking a solution does not mean that any solution thrown at the problem must be good. Buy into these flawed solutions and in the long run we’re all worse off, because we’ll be stuck with them. We need the right solutions, the most important of which is proper infrastructure, where not one of these techno-trinkets are remotely useful.

All these devices are queuing up to stick the boot into anyone who doesn’t want to be a perfectly normal, well-adjusted sociopath who won’t travel anywhere without a metal cage, a bucket of dinosaur juice and a box of explosions. All these things are part of the same thoroughly biased system, a system that insidiously works to undermine the protection of people – and not just people on bicycles, but people on foot and on horseback and on mobility scooters – from motor vehicles, instead working to promote the mere convenience of those who drive them.

The wedge really exists

Of course, you could easily dismiss all this as scaremongering. But let’s not forget, from the comfort of our only-moderately-insane UK viewpoint, that jaywalking is an offence elsewhere, and it’s a deliberate result of motor industry lobbying. In some places, even if you’re crossing without jaywalking, you need to wave a flag. No, really. Spain is about to start legislating against drink-walking. Drunk in charge of a pair of shoes. Where does this end?

Drunk in charge of a pair of shoes. Where does this end?

It’s quite understandable that in the current environment you might choose to dress up like a roller-disco building site worker to ride to work, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that every time we do so we kick cycling and walking an inch further away from being the sustainable, accessible, scalable and – if we are to have any hope of avoiding an urban dystopia of pollution, disenfranchisement and misery – absolutely essential modes of transport that they are.

And to think, people once seriously argued that all this was the responsibility of the person wielding the heavy, fast, lethal machine.

That horse has bolted, mate.

Comments (11)

  1. Excellent bit of food for thought. I have the odd but of high viz, but don’t really feel any safer for wearing it. And i tend to wear darker clothes in bright sun to give better contrast.

  2. You have to wear bells on your toes and reflective pants because drivers can’t see you if they’re respond to a Tweet. RIGHT NOW. Around 1% of all drivers are fiddling with their phones Simple failure of enforcement. Tinkle tinkle.

  3. Of course it’s a failure of enforcement. But who’s going to enforce it, when driving is way more normal and habitual than walking, let alone cycling, to a lot of people, police officers, jurors, law makers and judges included?

    The only way we can fix this now is through getting a shed load more people walking and cycling, and that’s only going to happen if we redesign urban areas so they aren’t a car-dominated clusterf##k, change public transport back into a service instead of treating it like a cash cow, and start treating people like humans, with the attendant potential for error, instead of infallible vehicle operating machines.

  4. Good article, but starting to slightly veer towards the ‘them and us’ stereotype preached by roadies everywhere. Not all car drivers are evil and not all cyclist are responsible; stereotypes over-simplify.

    Despite your mocking, I’d like to congratulate Spain in taking a bold move on being drunk charge of shoes. Having suffered a long period of disability and a written off vehicle due to trying to avoid a drunk pedestrian. At an age I couldn’t afford fully comp insurance, I had no redress. outwith an impossible civil case.

    Bottom line is that all road users need to be accountable for their actions. But that is another wedge and before we know it insurance will be compulsory for cyclist and pedestrians.

  5. “Them and us” is an interesting point. It’s an attitude that I’ve continually pointed out to be bogus and problematic on the blog and on the twitters. And I’d hoped phrasing things as “them—we—” kind of reinforced it, too; but hey, perhaps not.

    But there’s no denying some people adopt it: that’s how we know it’s a problem, right? That’s what this article is really about: the fact that this attitude is rife, not that it’s right.

    And it’s not just Them that do it, it’s Us too: it’s hard not to feel a bit of an oppressed minority when you’re surrounded by cars and lorries, and let’s not forget one of the more regularly amusing topics on the forum of “Why won’t other people on bikes wave at me?” (they’re supposed to be Us, right?—except now you can break it down further by saying Them is roadies and Us is hair-legged, peak-helmeted, saddle-an-inch-too-low mountain bikers who popped out for a 20 mile pub run, right?) And yes, I’m being facetious, I’ve been that Us too.

    But whilst Them and Us is bogus, or at most just the result of people’s arbitrary choices of barriers and bonds, there is a crucial differentiator. More of a “These and Those”.

    The differentiator is the vehicle. A car or a lorry is nothing whatsoever like a bicycle, and thus the sum of a person and each of those is nothing like each other, either. One weighs 1500kg, the other 100. One can do 80mph with ease, the other 20. One is designed to allow its operator to walk away from a 40mph impact, the other is two flimsy wheels joined by little more than domestic plumbing.

    So, no. There is no Them-and-Us. There is a Them-and-Us attitude, which needs to be fought, because it’s a distortion of a These-and-Those reality. And the distortion exists in no small part due to the fact that the vast majority are betrothed to These, a minority to These and Those, and vanishingly few to Those alone.

  6. Not a bike related comment, but this was an eye opener for me.

    I used to be a service engineer for petrol stations. One day there was a customer who had put the wrong fuel in. I was a bit surprised that people can get this wrong, the pumps are pretty clearly colour coded. Their response was ‘Oh, I’m still half asleep this time in the morning’ . I asked where they had driven from before pulling into a motorway service station half asleep. They had been on the road for 40 minutes and had pretty much freely admitted that they were still half asleep and unable to differentiate between a black and green fuel pump. They were a little offended by my enthusiastic lack of sympathy for their predicament.

  7. All interesting food for thought, thanks.
    I’m opting for Disco/highviz/Christmas tree at the moment; I only see 1-3 other riders on my short 2.5mile commute from the station and have to ride through two of the top twenty uninsured ‘hotspots’.

    Not trying to sensationalise that per se, just saying, there are lots of drivers in sunny Bradford that really need some retraining. And before anyone jumps on the UKIP/Anyother bandwagon, the last two drivers that jumped redlights in front of me last week were young white ladies….
    Currently trying to win hearts and minds by saying, ‘Morning/Heyup/Howdo’ to as many bemused pedestrians as possible.

  8. Every driver should be made to cycle at some point….Experience is everything

  9. Good article. Thanks.

  10. Cheers Bez…. I think, your stuff always points out just how mental our current road system is.

  11. Good article.

    Was thinking along similar lines the other day when reading an article about the killing of Michael Mason on Regent Street. Someone drove into the back of my car. An apology, an exchange of insurance details, and on our way we went. If I’d been on the bike it would have been a different story. At no point was it argued that the driver didn’t see my car, or that it should have been adorned with a high viz or reflective jacket. Or that maybe I should have been wearing a helmet behind the wheel.

    It seems in many of these discussions that people forget that drivers drive into very visible things all the time. Likely a function of the tiny amount of attention we drivers give what is perceived to be a common place low risk activity.

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