High-profile comments made in the London Evening Standard by AA president Edmund King in which he branded drivers who hate cyclists as “absolute idiots” have sparked an impromptu boycott of the RAC on social media sites with cyclists who drive cars urged to join the AA instead.
Reacting to the BBC One documentary screened earlier this week, The War on Britain’s roads, Mr King said of drivers who display aggression, whether verbal or physical, against cyclists: “They’re absolute idiots. There are some motoring groups who are talking absolute nonsense and who wind up cyclists. That is pathetic.”
His comments, which appeared in an article under the headline ‘AA boss says cyclist-hating drivers are absolute idiots' unsurprisingly grabbed the attention of cyclists on Twitter, with Danny Williams of the Cyclists in the City blog tweeting: “As a cyclist with a car, I'm renewing with the AA next year. Sod RAC who seem to think cyclists don't exist. Here’s why,” with a link to the Standard’s article.
While the AA regularly reports on cycling-related issues – indeed, its website has a page with advice on how motorists and cyclists can share the road safely – the RAC focuses very much on motorists exclusively.
Road safety charity RAC Foundation was, like the commercial RAC business, originally part of the Royal Automobile Club, though all there parted ways in 1999. Given the similarities in their names, it’s a distinction that would be lost on most.
As a result, statements such as one by the head of the RAC Foundation in 2009 urging Mayor of London Boris Johnson “to think less about attention-grabbing policies linked to niche modes of travel like cycling” and instead tackle issues such as congestion in Outer London boroughs – “with the best will in the world, encouraging a few more people onto their bikes is not going to solve the relentless jams in the suburbs,” he said, are unlikely to result in the RAC being viewed favourably by bike riders.
Of course, not all cyclists have been in favour of the mayor prioritising initiatives such as London's bike hire scheme or the Barclays Cycle Superhighways over other initiatives - among those to miss out on funding as a result of those flagship schemes was the funding of cycle routes in Outer London boroughs that could have gone some way to helping relieve that congestion the RAC Foundation lamented.
Yesterday, others quickly seized on Williams’ tweet and said they would do likewise, although as BikeBiz points out, the AA isn’t the only motoring organisation that has a positive view of cyclists, citing the Environmental Transport Association as another vehicle breakdown and recovery service worth considering – moreover, it also also provides cycle insurance and a cycle recovery service.
It’s well known that Mr King is himself a cyclist. Despite heading the UK’s biggest motoring organisation, he has made no secret of the fact that he sees the car as just one mode of transport among several options, depending on the journey to be undertaken.
Last month, ahead of a speech he gave at the Road Safety GB annual conference, he called for an end to the “two tribes” mentality that often sees motorists and cyclists portrayed as two entirely separate species – a case in point being that BBC programme this week, which failed to acknowledge that most adult cyclists drive cars and that millions of motorists ride bikes.
As someone who sits on Transport for London’s roads task force, Mr King is also in a position to help influence Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s transport policy. This week, the mayor revealed that TfL will have close to £1 billion to spend on cycling over the next decade. Mr King believes that money can make a huge difference, depending on what it is actually spent on and highlights junctions as the single most important area where improvements can be made.
“Blackfriars, Bow, Waterloo — anyone who uses them, whether you’re a cyclist or a bus driver or a car driver, you know there are problems there and they haven’t been sorted,” he maintained. “More safe, secure cycle paths would be incredibly helpful.”
The efforts of cycle campaigners, some politicians at local and national level and, from this February, The Times newspaper with its Cities fit for Cycling campaign have all helped push the issue of cycling, and cycle safety in particular, up the political agenda.
“Ten years ago, at meetings I would go to at the Department for Transport, cycling was not represented. There is now a realisation that it shouldn’t all be left to the traffic engineers,” reflected Mr King.
He also explained that while some motorists seize on certain cyclists jumping red lights, drivers had to examine their own behaviour, singling out the illegal use of mobile phones at the wheel as presenting a particular danger to road safety.
“A lot of drivers have to look at their own habits first. It’s appalling. We’ve got to get through to drivers that they’re killing people.”
On his own travel habits, Mr King, who lives in St Albans, said: “I never drive in central London — the hassle isn’t worth it.” Instead, he commutes into London by train, and also takes to a bike when the journey warrants it.
He’s not the only senior person at the AA who is a fan of two wheels either – he revealed that both the chief executive and the marketing director there are regular cyclists, as are nearly one in five AA members according to a survey.
“I actually think it’s getting better. We should encourage the explosion in cycling rather than resent it.”
As for that erroneous claim by some drivers that cyclists don’t belong on the road because they don’t pay ‘road tax’ – abolished in the 1930s – Mr King countered: “It’s a complete nonsense. I quite often wear an ‘I Pay Road Tax’ cycling jersey and an AA helmet.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.