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Sharing responsibility for safer cycling

26 June 2012

My bike has a new bell. It sounds a bit like a 1950s telephone; ringing loudly and insistently. At every reassuringly annoying ‘ding-a-ling’, pedestrians decide not to walk out blindly in front of me and even drivers abort unplanned turns. In short, it’s fantastic.

The bell, along with a hi-vis jacket (also reassuringly annoying), is a recent purchase after a few months away from my bike that gave me cause for reflection. While cycling down a high street one lazy afternoon, a car door opened abruptly as I passed, instantly breaking my hand and knocking me into the path of oncoming traffic, which did well to avoid me. I wasn’t able to cycle for nearly four months but, of course, it felt like much longer.

The driver in my ‘door jacking’ case said she just ‘hadn’t thought to look’; hopefully an attitude that this blog may help adjust. But I was lucky – 40 cyclists, ranging in age from 8 to 80, have been killed on our roads so far this year, and thousands more have been involved in serious accidents.

It is precisely this unacceptable level of danger that stops many people from cycling; something that everyone should feel able to do. It is not only friendly on your wallet (there is a recession on, you know) but it helps with mental and physical wellbeing, as well as providing the obvious environmental benefits.

And it is for these reasons that The Times launched its ‘Cities Fit for Cycling‘ campaign, calling for the 500 most dangerous junctions in the country to be identified and improved, installing measures such as phased traffic lights where appropriate. Earlier this month, just such improvements were made to Bow roundabout, in South East London, where two cyclists had died within weeks of each other. The new system – the first of its kind in London – gives cyclists a few seconds’ head-start before other motorists get a green light.

Many people will have heard of the transport charity Sustrans, but there are now a fleet of organisations championing cycling and, given the scale of the issue, there are several in London alone – the London Cycling Campaign is an 11,000 strong membership charity providing a voice for cyclists, and it’s Go Dutch campaign – initially targeting the Mayoral election pledges – has recently resulted in commitments from Boris Johnson to explore ways to improve Greenwich and Vauxhall.

London, at the centre of the world stage this summer, has a chance to show leadership through such commitments. Through these and such visual examples of an embedded cycling culture as cycle hire schemes, cycle lanes and the plethora of cycle cafes around the city, we have a real opportunity to show the world that we can be the best at nurturing cycling as well as producing some of the best professional cyclists.

Some people reading this will have been amongst the 27,000 cyclists that took part in the British Heart Foundation’s London to Brighton ride on Sunday (17th June) and many more may be amongst the half a million people taking part in events across the country to mark Bike Week (16th to 24th June). This year’s sponsor – Samsung – has launched an added incentive to take part through its ‘Hope Relay’ app – for every mile you cycle, they will donate £1 to charity.

More campaigns to improve safety will encourage more people to cycle and initiatives such as the Hope Relay app will give them the inspiration to do so. And the more cyclists there are, the more voices added to the argument that safety should be improved. It is a constantly developing positive, er… cycle.

But while we await further policy and physical changes on the road, there are a number of things that cyclists can do to improve things themselves.

I recently took part in the Police’s ‘Exchanging Places‘ programme – I sat in the driver’s seat of an HGV while an officer on a bicycle demonstrated how easily the cyclist becomes ‘blind’ to the driver when too close to the front or left of the cab, and I was amazed by how simply it must be for an HGV to turn left into a cyclist without knowing. Until all HGVs get fitted with improved mirrors, cyclists need to ensure they have been spotted by the driver. Give ’em a wave if needs be.

Being unpredictable or unseen exposes cyclists to risk, and a recent survey from the Institute of Advanced Motorists found that 54 per cent of cyclists agreed that cyclists in general should improve their behaviour by sticking to the Highway Code at junctions.

Jumping red lights is one common way of breaking the code and being unpredictable but of the 2 per cent of cyclists who admitted they do this regularly, the main reason cited was that they felt safer by getting ahead of other traffic. This was reflected in the finding that 22 per cent of car drivers weren’t even aware that it is illegal to stop over an Advanced Stop Line – the box designed to keep cyclists safe at the front of the queue at traffic lights.

Clearly there is room for improvement on both sides, but cyclists have a chance to secure additional and widespread safety improvements if we can show we are already doing everything right ourselves, even if that means being slightly annoying with our clothing choices sometimes.