13:26, March 04 114 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-04 13:26:04
The Guardian view on cycling and the law: good manners needed

Hard cases make bad law. The tragic – genuinely tragic – death of Kim Briggs, a pedestrian in London who was hit by a cyclist as she crossed a busy road, and died of her injuries, has now led to the proposed introduction of an offence of causing death by dangerous cycling, to match the existing offence of causing death by dangerous driving. As the law then stood, Charlie Alliston, then 18, who killed Ms Briggs, could only be charged under a Victorian statute, even though it was argued that by riding a bike which had only a back brake he was not only breaking the law, but doing so with a culpable disregard for the safety of other road users.

Both the case and the resulting proposed law highlight the extent to which cycling has become a front in the culture wars. The bicycle started off as a symbol of liberation at the end of the 19th century. It allowed young people – especially young women – an astonishing degree of freedom and autonomy. In the mid-20th century it became a symbol of honest, unpretentious transport for anyone who could not afford a car. Mrs Thatcher’s grim employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, used the example of his father “Who got on his bike and looked for work” as a way to damn slackers and scroungers. Forty years later, the meaning has changed again and the bike is associated with everything reactionaries believe is wrong with modern Britain.

Tebbit senior’s bike would have had a frame of British steel that could batter any potholes which dared argue with it. The only soft part would have been the saddle. The modern carbon-fibre bike has disc brakes, innumerable electrically operated gears and a saddle so advanced it is only comfortable in special padded underwear. It seems to demand a different sort of character.

What poisons relations is when one side – or both – feels morally superior to the other. Cycling in many parts of many cities is frankly terrifying. Yet there is an important paradox here: cyclists are statistically less likely to be killed on the road than pedestrians, although they are much more likely to be injured in accidents. This is not just proof that the health risks of physical inactivity far outweigh those of cycling (or walking in cities). It also highlights a strange fact about the psychology of cycling, since no one feels especially brave when they set out to walk down the road, even if this carries a 20% higher risk of a fatal accident than cycling does. In Britain, 29.5 cyclists were killed for every billion miles ridden in 2016; 34.5 pedestrians died in accidents for every billion miles walked. Of course, children are trained from an early age that cars are dangerous so that pedestrians have now entirely interiorised their own inferiority relative to cars and feel there is nothing unnatural in their vulnerability.

Cycling, by contrast, can be touched with exhilaration. Car driving caters to the same feelings of omnipotence, as any car advertisement on the television shows. But the cyclist in a traffic jam can feel free while the driver is horribly conscious of being imprisoned there. This does not have an improving effect on the character. Anyone familiar with city traffic in Britain will have seen cyclists, as well as car drivers, behaving with disregard for other road users. But when a car driver makes a mistake he is still physically safe. It is the cyclist or pedestrian who pays the price for arrogant drivers. Cycling does in fact have all the moral and physical benefits claimed for it but that should not make cyclists the objects of resentment. Some cyclists, however, need to remember their common humanity with the humble pedestrian.