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Riding without helmet or flourescent clothing among the behaviours cited in magazine's research...

Motoring magazine Auto Express has claimed that its reporters saw three out of four cyclists – 719 in total – break what it calls “road rules” during morning rush hour at a busy London junction, compared to just one in eight motorists. Closer inspection of the feature published in this week’s edition, however, reveals a very different story.

In a three-page ‘Inside Story’ feature called ‘Cars vs Bikes,’ the magazine sought to answer the question, ‘When it comes to breaking the rules of the road, are drivers or cyclists the bigger sinners?’

The magazine’s reporters spent two hours at Highbury Corner in North London to try and ascertain the answer. During that period, they observed 3,140 motor vehicles and 976 bicycles passing by. Coincidentally – and not mentioned in the article – that suggests that cyclists make up nearly one quarter of rush hour traffic at the junction in question.

The main picture accompanying the article shows a motorist looking angrily at a cyclist, who happens to be wearing headphones, the car complete with a big dent above the wheel arch.

If there has been a collision, the cyclist and his bike seem to be somehow entirely unscathed despite that damage to the vehicle, which in any event appears to have been pulling out of a parking bay when whatever is supposed to have given rise to the staged road rage incident happened.

The story was trailed on the magazine’s website under the heading, ‘Cyclists break more road rules than motorists,’ with the online article going on to say, “We witnessed more than 1,000 breaches of road rules in a two-hour morning rush hour period. These were committed by three quarters of the cyclists but only one in 10 drivers.”

It added that of the nearly 1,000 cyclists observed during the survey, which took place between 7.30am and 9.30am on a Monday morning, 719 “committed offences” compared to 380 motorists “caught breaking road rules.”

The detailed findings of the research appeared in the print edition. Here’s what they were.

Cyclists  %*   Fault                      Cars    %**

287      29.4  No reflective clothing      NA      NA
104      10.7  No indicating               49     1.6
 90       9.2  No helmet                   NA      NA
 84       8.6  Pulling out without looking 25     0.8
 58       5.9  Jumping lights              12     0.4
 44       4.5  Wearing headphones          42     1.3
 33       3.4  Almost causing collision    17     0.5
 16       1.6  Mounting pavement            0     0.0
  0       0.0  Waiting in cycle box        83     2.6
  0       0.0  Crossing a stop line        83     2.6
  2       0.2  Using phone                 38     1.2
  1       0.1  Eating                       9     0.3
  0       0.0  Blocking crossing           22     0.7

719      74.2  Total                      380    12.1

* Based on sample of 976 bicycles during a two-hour, morning rush hour
** Based on sample of 3,140 vehicles passing during the same period

Source: Auto Express magazine

The full article in the print copy, but not the online version, which omits those detailed findings, does address each issue in turn and point out where laws are being broken rather than common sense or recommendations in the Highway Code.

Wearing a helmet or reflective clothing, for example, are recommended for cyclists, it’s true, but they are certainly not compulsory – and on the question of high visibility kit, the survey was in any event conducted in summer, not midwinter.

Yet in lumping everything together under the erroneous heading of “road rules,” that’s the impression that the article gives at first glance. Those two categories alone account for more than half of the supposed breaches that cyclists are guilty of.

Moreover, while Auto Express says that the cyclists or motorists in question “were guilty of at least one of breach of the road rules” – misleading phrasing, since in many cases they are not guilty of anything – it does seem that a cyclist riding without a helmet or reflective clothing, for instance, will have been counted twice.

As the article acknowledges, failure to indicate, whether you’re a motorist or a cyclist, isn’t in itself an offence, the Highway Code simply saying that you should give plenty of warning.

Likewise, pulling out without looking, wearing headphones, eating at the wheel (or handlebars) aren’t in themselves illegal, irrespective of whether you are riding a bike or driving a motor vehicle, although in the latter case they could form the basis of a careless driving charge.

Nor is using a mobile phone illegal if you’re a cyclist – but it is if you are a motorist.

Auto Express acknowledges that its category of “almost causing a collision” is “an entirely objective one” but that it felt “duty bound to include it” because it saw so many instances of it from both cyclists and motorists.

What isn’t said, however, is that organisations such as the AA urge drivers to give cyclists as much room as possible because they can change direction suddenly to avoid obstacles such as potholes.

There is no mention of the fact that a motorist will be much better protected in the event of a collision, even one they may have caused themselves, than a cyclist will.

That’s not to say the above wouldn’t be considered examples of bad riding or bad driving, and in some cases can form the basis of a charge of careless driving – but they aren’t in themselves specific road traffic offences.

So what does that leave? Well, for cyclists, jumping red lights and mounting the pavement, for a total of at most 64 occurrences, assuming no double-counting.

Home Office guidance is that cycling on the footway should only be punished when considered dangerous, as outlined in Bikehub’s Cycling and the Law article.

Auto Express points out that legislation currently in the pipeline will, however, allow local authorities and Transport for London to impose tougher penalties on cyclists “who put pedestrians at risk by riding on footpaths.”

As for drivers? Well, blocking a junction or waiting in a cycle box aren’t offences, although the latter may well become one in London under that same legislation mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Using a handheld phone is, however, as is crossing the stop line and jumping the lights, for a total of 133, again assuming no double counting.

Other potential offences not considered at all – some of them impossible to tell from looking at a vehicle – include failure to wear a seatbelt, driving an unroadworthy vehicle, failure to display a valid vehicle excise duty disc, or driving while uninsured.

So, taking just the behaviours that breach a specific law, and assuming no double-counting, at most 7.0 per cent of cyclists were observed committing an actual offence, compared to 4.2 per cent of motorists.

Yes, a higher proportion of cyclists than motorists committed a traffic violation assuming that the observations of the Auto Express staff were accurate, but less than a tenth of the proportion implied by that headline figure of 3 in 4 bike riders.

And that comes to perhaps the crux of the complaint that many cyclists would have with the article.

Ask a driver in London what proportion of cyclists jump red lights, for example, and the answer is likely to be much higher than the 1 in 17 that the Auto Express researchers established; it’s figures such as that misleading reference to 3 in 4 cyclists breaking “road rules,” whatever those may be, that sticks in the mind.

We’ll leave the last word to the magazine, which concluded its article with a paragraph headed ‘Our Verdict,” and which twice made a misleading reference to those vague “road rules.”

“Neither party fared well in our survey. However, in this tarmac turf war it’s clearly the cyclists who behave worst [sic], with three out of four breaking at least one road rule during our study period. We were shocked by standards in both camps overall, though, witnessing more than 1,000 breaches of road rules in only two hours.”

Most readers – the site generates more than 1.3 million unique visitors a month, more than 20 times the print copy’s circulation of 56,000 - will only see the online version which omits that detail. Inevitably, that misleading statistic will stick in the minds of many.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.