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Make cycle awareness part of driving test, says top motoring journalist

Poll finds that 1 in 3 drivers see cyclists as distraction; but gadget use cited by 8 in 10 as biggest risk to safety

One in three drivers in a new survey have said that among issues outside their control, cyclists are the biggest risk to road safety – prompting the motoring correspondent of the London Evening Standard to call for cycle awareness training to be made part of the driving test.

According to 84 per cent of the respondents to the poll for Zurich Insurance, drivers distracted by gadgets such as smartphones, iPods, DVD players and sat-navs are making motoring more dangerous than it was a decade ago.

“Driving has never been so distracting; gadget overload and the rise of complex road systems has meant concentration is less and roads are trickier to read,” commented Neil Greig, policy director for the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM).

“With an increase in cyclists there is another major risk factor in play too,” he added.

But the Standard’s motoring editor, David Williams, pointed out in an article yesterday commenting on the survey that while levels of cycling have nearly trebled in London over the past decade or so, Mayor Boris Johnson’s goal is to double them again over the coming years.

The result, he said, is that “there will be a lot more ‘distraction’ — and many thousands of drivers will have a lot more adapting to master.”

Williams, a former motoring editor of the Daily Express and past winner of the the Journalist of the Year award from the Guild of  Motoring Writers, said: "As a Londoner who cycles as frequently as I drive I understand the fear from both sides. I curse vehicles that swish past too close when I pedal. But when driving on city roads that are invariably narrow and twisty, it’s challenging to find the right overtaking opportunity that will leave a sufficiently large gap."

He called for cycle awareness, now included in courses for learner drivers provided by Britain’s two biggest driving schools, AA and BSM, to be made a compulsory part of the driving test.

Almost half (48 per cent) of respondents to Zurich’s survey say they themselves became distracted by phone calls or text messages when at the wheel, and nearly a quarter (22 per cent) admitted checking social media while driving.

Zurich points out that it is a decade since using a hand-held mobile phone while driving was made illegal, but those data suggest that the law is of minimal deterrence.

Earlier this year, fixed penalty fines for the offence were increased from £30 to £60, and drivers caught also have three points put on their licence, but apart from occasional police blitzes – one in Wales recently saw 1,000 motorists fined – enforcement seems minimal.

Insurer Swiftcover has previously said that it believes only 3 per cent of motorists illegally using their phone while driving actually get caught.

Meanwhile, a Transport Research Laboratory report published in March this year claimed that driving while checking social networks such as Facebook or Twitter – neither of which was around when the law came in –was more dangerous than driving while under the influence of drink or drugs.

The Zurich study says that 80 per cent of motorists surveyed feel more at risk now than they did a decade ago. The top 10 risks in 2013 compared to those 10 years ago were:

1. More people using mobile phones (68%)
2. More cars on road (67%)
3. More reckless drivers (61%)
4. More urgency to get to destination (44%)
5. More people using sat navs (39%)
6. The number of vans/lorries on the road (30%)
7. More speed cameras (29%)
8. More cyclists (29%)
9. More signs on the road (27%)
10 .More motorcyclists on the road (16%)

Phil Ost of Zurich Insurance commented: “While the rise of mobile technology has made it easier for us to communicate on the move, it’s also making our lives feel busier.

“Staying safe is far more important than staying in touch. Turn off your gadgets if you think you might be tempted to check them while driving.

“Plan your journey well in advance and don’t just rely on the satnav - make sure you’ve checked the route yourself before setting off on your journey.”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Matt eaton | 10 years ago

I hate to say it, but I think that greater use of helmet cams could be part of the solution to poor driver behaviour. I can personally say that I've tried everything I can think of to make a difference to the situation. I tried reporting bad/dangerous driving to the police but have never seen any evidence that this was in any way worthwhile or that any attempt was made to bring the driver to task. Somebody else might be able to comment on the legal particulars but the police seem genearally disinterested unless an actual collision has occoured.

Having given up on that approach I have tried speaking calmly to drivers themselves but I'm not convinced that I'm getting through to them and am conscious of the risk of getting thumpted. At least with video evidence the police might be forced to take some action. I've got a helmet cam on my crimbo list and, if Santa brings it, I will use it in the car too.

The situation can feel a bit desperate as it's increasingly easy to conclude that those in a position to improve the situation on our roads don't have the will or resouce to do so. I wouldn't be surprsed to see cyclists confiscating keys from offending drivers themselves if official enforecement doesn't increase in the near future.

ironmancole | 10 years ago

What I struggle to understand is how society just accepts these death and injury rates. I'd say pretty much all of it is avoidable.

For example if for one week all urban traffic was slowed to 20mph and all rural traffic was slowed to 40mph, the only exceptions being roads that can actually handle by design fast moving traffic such as motorways and A roads that would surely be a good starting point to reassess where we are.

I've heard the arguments that speed isn't always the problem, however if anyone is going to get hit would any sane person prefer that to be a high speed impact over the lower?

Quite why an uneven, narrow, twisting and potentially mud and leaf strewn road has a speed limit just 10mph lower than a three or four lane motorway with excellent sight lines, lighting, adhesive road surface, ample drainage runoff and immediate access to emergency services is staggering.

Speed limits are merely excuses for the reckless to try and hide within. Rural roads should simply be blanketed with a national 40mph limit (that drivers will still do 50mph in anyway) simply to protect the vulnerable.

It was very telling to observe the fairly recent attempt by government to increase motorway speed limits. The reason given was more capable cars and better motorway road quality to allow that speed.

In balance however, there was no joined up thinking shown proposing a drop on rural roads given their propensity to generate the highest potential for fatality.

It seems it's all about the speed and perceived convenience and the accepted cost for that is lives.

Just seems to me that those contributing to that quota are not the motorists who berate our presence, but the vulnerable.

Classic case of schoolyard bully, with a headmaster coming out not to chastise the aggressor but to put the boot in and insist nothing is going on...and who'd send their kid to a school like that?!

spragger | 10 years ago

After all the hubris & examination of late, one is even more convinced that the only thing that will work in the UK is . .
- Enacting a law of Strict Liability

It seems to work in most of Europe. .

teaboy replied to spragger | 10 years ago
spragger wrote:

After all the hubris & examination of late, one is even more convinced that the only thing that will work in the UK is . .
- Enacting a law of Strict Liability

It seems to work in most of Europe. .

There isn't an "only thing that will work" - there is a long, long list of things that will help to make things better. Strict Liability is certainly one of those things, as is better driver training, cycle training in schools, and infrastructure improvements. None of these things is mutually exclusive, and everything except the massive infrastructure projects could be enacted overnight. The only thing missing is political will.

Karbon Kev | 10 years ago

yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes this needs doing ...

ironmancole | 10 years ago

I'd press for compulsory bikeability pass before you start learning to drive. Cycling made me a better driver from a young age, more alert, more careful around others by default.

The notion that losing your licence is practically impossible needs changing too, I believe if you kill or injure to the point that a life is effectively ended you lose your driving entitlement for life.

Harsh? Yes, but so is being killed for the victim and you don't hear them using the 'unfair hardship' excuse do you?  39

The car you drive in terms of power should be a reflection of your driving history...not an expression of how big daddys wallet is.

Impressionable and inexperienced sixth formers who get to borrow their parents powerful range rover sport (as happened at my school) before causing a major incident on a rural lane involving an elderly couple in their car shouldn't or access to it does not supersede common sense.

After all, if a lotto winner wrote to British Airways and threw enough money at them would it be sensible for the chief exec to let them fly passengers abroad? Course not, so why would a similar situation on our roads be accepted?

Finally, better use of technology in cars to report and monitor driving behaviour. If the black box in my car shows I think a rural road is my own private race track, that I'm tailgating cars at 90mph on the motorway and generally making the rules up as I go along then my insurers need to know about it...pronto, and automatically adjust my quote accordingly.

We have the ability to monitor cars amongst surroundings already so insurers and government need to quickly explore how tech can not be distractive but instead helpful.

teaboy | 10 years ago

Put learner drivers on bikes as part of learning. Increase the awareness of how to drive in the same environment as other people on bikes. Introduce re-tests every 5 years rather than the current 'once you pass the test you drive forever' systems we currently have. This, along with strict liability, can alter driver attitude. Actually enforcing the rules would have a huge effect too.

Critchio | 10 years ago

The fines are £100 + 3 points where I live. The problem is that our Police are so stretched and now so few in numbers they cannot just get out and about when they see fit in order to enforce traffic law.

If you contrast that with as little as 5 years ago there were always police around my area who would stop on a random road with a speed-gun or watching for phone users or generally bad cars that had dangerous faults and they'd spend an hour or two giving bad drivers fines and points and enforcing traffic law.

That did make a difference in my opinion. Today, with so few Police officers enforcing traffic law, the British driver has become complacent, discourteous, aggressive and at times downright bloody dangerous. The only way to change attitudes is by enforcement and penalties for breaching. Drivers have to be told they are jerks but they all think they are great and safe drivers and own that several feet of road under their car, wherever it may be.

Until enforcement steps up things wont change. The 100 quid fines and penalty points leading to bans actually works and is a good system I beleive, but it needs to be robustly administered. The same also applies to bad cyclists. I had to shout at an idiot cyclist yeserday for mounting the pavement to avoid a red light and who was on a collision course with and elderly lady coming froma behind a bus stop he hadn't seen.

WolfieSmith | 10 years ago

Increasing fines for using a phone to something that hurts like £500 would help. So many lazy drivers with expensive cars with built in Bluetooth hands free that don't use it.

My car is 10 years old but a £50 device works fine. No excuses. 3 pts and £500 - or 6pts and £250. Too many pts already and no local bus? Tough.

OldRidgeback | 10 years ago

The statistics say otherwise about the risk of driving on British roads. Just 1752 people died in road crashes in 2012, compared with 2222 in 2009 for instance. There is a long term downward trend in road fatalities, which are now at about the same level as they were in the late 1940s when there was a mere fraction of the same number of registered vehicles on the road network as we have now.

Yes, distracted driving is a major problem, and increasingly so. And yes the penalties for distracted driving are so low (and rarely enforced) that they are alomost routinely ignored.

Yes there are a lot of aggressive and/or impatient drivers who tailgate and overtake on the inside and display other unacceptable risk taking behaviour.

But look at the fatality rates from the 1970s or early 1980s, when there were fewer motor vehicles on British roads, and realise how far road safety has improved.

Bez replied to OldRidgeback | 10 years ago
OldRidgeback wrote:

There is a long term downward trend in road fatalities, which are now at about the same level as they were in the late 1940s when there was a mere fraction of the same number of registered vehicles on the road network as we have now.
But look at the fatality rates from the 1970s or early 1980s, when there were fewer motor vehicles on British roads, and realise how far road safety has improved.

That's all true, but there are multiple factors at play: 1. rate of incidents (governed mainly by driving standards), 2. number of vehicles/people involved per incident (governed by usage patterns, eg a motorway collision can easily involve far more vehicles than a B-road) and 3. severity of incidents (governed mainly by vehicle safety engineering).

I'd speculate that although factor 1 is the interesting one, factor 3 is by far the greatest influence. If we were going to try to isolate the first factor, we'd look at collisions between four(-plus)-wheelers and two-wheelers, because the safety engineering for the latter (aside from helmet laws for motorcycles) hasn't ever changed significantly. You'd need to normalise it by the approximated number of passes, which you can guess at from total mileages of cycles and cars (ignoring that some roads only carry one or the other).

I've not done that and I won't speculate on what the trend is, other than that I very much suspect once you remove vehicle safety engineering from the equation you're at best looking at a much, much less impressive improvement in overall safety.

giff77 | 10 years ago

Ah, the good old 'raking' plates. The challenge of driving as badly as you can without being caught and having them extended.

MartyMcCann | 10 years ago

One big problem stems from the fact that the main focus of driving lessons is to pass the test, not to create safer drivers. That becomes very clear here in NI-people who have just passed their test have to display "R" plates for a year afterwards (and are limited to 45mph)- the number of R-drivers who suddenly, for example decide they no longer have to use indicators now that they have their license show that the same approach to studying for school exams is followed- do what you have to do to pass then forget about it afterwards.

This is just my long winded way of saying that, rather than concentrate solely on what the test consists of, we need to move beyond the mindset of simply learning to pass the driving test-that however is a long term and difficult process. As in my job, the temptation is to assume that information dissemination is the most effective way simply because it is easy- unfortunately attitudinal and behavioural change require smarter and more long term approaches- simply telling people to give cyclists more room won't work in a lot of cases.

2_Wheeled_Wolf | 10 years ago

train them all you like, they still be the same sort of drivers as before due to next to no enforcements. need liability laws, bans instead of fines, proper cycling infrastructure & get them to turn off devices when in a car if that distracting!

Simon E | 10 years ago

Changing the driving test this way won't really make much difference, and have zero effect on those who have already passed their test.

After all, how many drivers make an effort to follow the rules of the road after the L-plates are taken off? Far too few. Not the tailgaters, those who cross double white lines or overtake towards oncoming traffic, go through red lights or drive in bus lanes... and that's before we get to the aggression, and the attitude that a cyclist is some kind of rage-inducing obstruction or impediment to them continuing to tailgate the car in front.

I think it's more important to show current and future drivers that they have to take responsibility for their actions. While the legal system hands out meaningless fines for many serious actions that too often cause death or injury and many others go unpunished then nothing will change.

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