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Cycling and the law: Is improved infrastructure the only real solution to improve road safety?

Specialist cycling solicitor Mark Hambleton looks at whether infrastructure is the answer to making the roads safer for cyclists

If you’ve read one of my blogs before, you’ll know I’m passionate about road safety and cycling. In the last six months or so I’ve mainly only been commuting on my bike, but I’ll shortly be getting in some longer rides in preparation for triathlon number two later this year, and I’m feeling more apprehensive than normal about spending more time cycling on our roads.

Why is that? I’m really sensible and considerate of others when I’m cycling, and I’ll be doing everything possible to avoid busy roads and the busiest times of day – I don’t particularly enjoy cycling in those conditions at the best of times.  

I think there are a number of reasons why I’m feeling this way.

Firstly, on Twitter and, I am watching more videos showing close passes; vulnerable people on their bikes are being put at risk by aggressive, intimidating and/or impatient drivers. My impression is that these encounters are becoming more prevalent and it’s certainly been my commuting experience recently. The number of videos being posted on social media are probably increasing but I don’t think that’s skewing my view.

My own experience of commuting home involves a 500ft climb up a mile-long hill. When cycling home now, especially in the last six months, motorists are taking more risks to overtake me. Just recently, a coach overtook me on a corner, squeezing past me with about half a metre to spare. Lots of other drivers are too impatient to wait until the opposite carriageway is clear before overtaking, forcing those travelling in the opposite direction to brake and steer towards the side of the road to avoid them.

Unless I want to do the same few rides on repeat (which I don’t), I have to get off the cycle path and explore on the roads, inevitably cycling among traffic. There isn’t the infrastructure to avoid this.

To a certain extent, I think you need to be courageous to cycle on our roads. Clearly that shouldn’t be a prerequisite, and a huge amount more should be done to give people the confidence to cycle. As I’m a little out of practice with longer rides, I suppose I’m feeling less brave compared to this time last year.

A big factor at play is also my job. As a personal injury solicitor, I represent people injured whilst cycling who are claiming for loss of income, compensation for injuries, rehabilitation, and care needs following road traffic collisions. I therefore spend a reasonable proportion of my working week dealing with the devastation caused by careless, reckless and dangerous motoring. I see the worst case scenario more than most and have no doubt this affects my confidence.

Finally, the majority of motorists responsible for killing or injuring those who ride bikes on our roads do not receive a driving ban or sentence sufficient to cause a change in driver attitude. Without proper sanction, I don’t see driver attitudes improving and I don’t feel people who cycle are properly protected.  

Each of these issues alone could make someone anxious about cycling. However, today I’m going to consider a potential solution to mine and others’ cycling worries: infrastructure.

What needs to be done about infrastructure?

The cycling infrastructure we all want is not what we often see, a short section of painted white lines that end abruptly or are completely impractical for any number of reasons, like this:

Towcester cycle lane.JPG


What we want to see more of are dedicated cycle lanes that are physically segregated from traffic and provide a practical solution for getting from A to B, traffic-free.

That isn’t going happen overnight, so we also want to see more quietways (shared with traffic but often aiming to redirect traffic and utilise on-street interventions), well-designed junctions, adequate bike parking and facilities at work for showering as a start to make cycling more attractive.

To improve our infrastructure, there needs to be a commitment to and delivery of changes to our existing road layouts, a better way of thinking on the part of those designing and funding our roads and a prioritisation of cycling (and walking) to enable people to leave their cars at home and enjoy active travel.

Re-framing the debate and removing the confrontation

In light of this recent shocking research in Australia, I feel this is a particularly important time to improve our cycling infrastructure. The research is reported by Simon MacMichael here.

Essentially, the research concludes that people riding bikes are dehumanised by motorists. Just take a minute to get your head around that. Because someone is travelling on a bicycle, they’re not even viewed as being completely human by drivers – the doctor responsible for the research concludes that the dehumanisation makes it easier to justify aggression towards those who are cycling rather than driving. A scary thought.

In that context, and with the capacity for a motor vehicle to cause so much more damage than a bicycle could ever cause, providing dedicated cycle infrastructure should be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it? To do so would also go some way towards humanising cyclists (fewer helmets, normal clothes, making cycling more commonplace amongst friends, family and colleagues).

It might also help in the transition away from the “them” and “us” attitude and moving the terminology away from referring to ‘cyclists’ as some sort of tribe and instead recognising that we’re simply discussing ‘people who ride bikes’ to get around. Food for thought, perhaps.

We don’t need to look far afield to find the cities and countries that are benefiting from their investment in cycling. Copenhagen, Utrecht and Amsterdam are often at the top of the table. The benefits of cycling investment rather than prioritising motor vehicles are well known to many of us. These cities, and their residents, are also benefiting from much safer conditions than we have in most of our cities.

So how could infrastructure improve road safety?

There are a few direct and indirect ways in which infrastructure could help to make our roads safer.

Firstly, it minimises the interaction between motorists and people riding their bikes, especially high risk vehicles such as HGVs. A benefit might be that with fewer collisions to deal with, police resources might be freed up to deal with enforcing motoring laws more stringently.

We’d be prioritising cycling in practical ways such as slowing down traffic, traffic lights to give people riding their bikes a head start at shared junctions, moving stop lines back for motor vehicles and creating better visibility for bikes at junctions.

With increased confidence about cycling in segregated conditions, away from traffic, cycling numbers will increase. I am certain of that because the number one fear people have about cycling is that it’s unsafe. Whether or not that view is statistically accurate is irrelevant if that is our biggest barrier to participation.

This in turn should reduce the problems of dehumanisation as more friends, family and colleagues cycle. As cycling increases in popularity, there will inevitably be more awareness of cyclists on the roads, which will benefit those cycling in areas with less on-street infrastructure than others.

This encourages and normalises cycling as a viable means of transport to reduce the number of cars on our roads. And with reduced congestion as well as some of the other common causes of impatient motoring, there could be fewer avoidable accidents.

Having spoken to cycling advocate Baroness Jenny Jones, I’m not the only one who sees things this way. When asked about the most important thing Government could do to improve safety and increase participation, she had this to say:

“Spend billions on safe, high quality segregated cycle paths like the Dutch and others have done. Fears about safety is the big barrier that stops cycling becoming the mass form of transit that we know it could be, especially for women, children and those just starting out.

I remember the shock at a meeting with the Mayor's Office and Transport for London when I said there should be a £100m annual budget for cycling, but that is the scale of expenditure needed to make a real transformation.

The few segregated lanes that have been built are great and well used, but still fall far short of a linked up door to door network. It would be a fraction of what we invest in the tube network, but a comprehensive cycle network would carry more people.”

At a time when congestion, pollution, obesity, avoidable illnesses and the burden on the NHS are all at tipping point, these considerations are more important than ever. Wouldn’t it be great if our roads were a reflection of the sophisticated society we claim to be, and protected the most vulnerable?

After taking up cycling to commute between Bristol and Bath, Mark has seen all sorts of incidents and has become a keen advocate for cycling and protecting the rights of cyclists.

Mark is now lucky enough to combine his passion for cycling with his day job as a cycling solicitor at RWK Goodman.

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