Us and Them

On 20th March this year, a collision occurred between a cyclist and a pedestrian which tragically resulted in a fatality. The cyclist was killed. He was Ben Pedley, aged just 26. We doubt you heard about this case. You probably assumed we were referring to the widely covered case involving Charlie Alliston, which resulted in the tragic death of Kim Briggs. The concerted efforts of various media outlets to portray cyclists as a menace have become all too apparent in the wake of these cases, and downplay the significance of fatalities caused by other means. We need to have a conversation about the real threats on our roads, and the worrying biases affecting our most vulnerable road users. There is no Us and Them, despite what the tabloids would have you believe.

To make ourselves clear, this article is not intended as a defence of Charlie Alliston, or of brakeless fixed gear riding on the road. There has been plenty of (sometimes misguided) discussion of this topic already, and it is perhaps a subject for another article entirely. We both ride fixed gears, but either in the seclusion of a velodrome or fitted with brakes. Even if just to reduce risk, and avoid personal liability in horrific circumstances such as these, it’s probably worth riding with a brake isn’t it?

Let’s take a look at a few headlines in the wake of the accident.

Arrogant killer cyclist RAISES EYEBROWS as he’s jailed for mowing down mum for ‘thrills’ – The Express
Police video shows how cyclist who ploughed into mum in fatal crash could have stopped with front brake – The Mirror
London cyclist accused of killing woman ‘shouted at her after collision’ – The Guardian
Mum of killer cyclist who mowed down mother-of-two on an illegal racing bike says jailing her son was “appropriate” – The Mirror

Immediately, Alliston is portrayed as a remorseless killer, wielding a lethal weapon with malice. You could be forgiven for forgetting that Kim Briggs stepped into his path without looking, while he had right of way. A recent article in Medium highlights the case of motorcyclist Jessica Wells, tried in the same courthouse in the same week as Alliston. She killed a pedestrian while speeding, undertaking, and not looking at the road, in what was undoubtedly a more serious and disturbing incident. A search for the Wells case returns two Google hits, compared to Alliston’s 13,000. What makes these numbers even more sickening is the proportional risk that motorists and cyclists actually pose to pedestrians. A recent alarmist article in the Daily Mail  claimed that collisions between pedestrians and cyclists have risen by 50% since 2009. That amounted to 408 accidents in 2015, with “several” fatalities (as far as we can tell, this means two). In the same year, according to a government report, there were 24,073 collisions between pedestrians and motor vehicles, with 409 fatalities and 4940 “serious” injuries.

Charlie Alliston was cleared of manslaughter, but convicted of “wanton and furious driving” under an archaic law mostly applicable to the days of horse-drawn carriages. In a recent Guardian article, Kim Brigg’s surviving husband Matthew said:

“Just because something is rare doesn’t mean the law shouldn’t cater for it. The law needs to serve as many eventualities as it possibly can.” 

We completely agree. However, where is the comparative outrage for every victim killed by a motor vehicle, whether pedestrian, cyclist, driver or passenger? The reason that the law hasn’t been updated to prosecute cyclists who’ve killed pedestrians is because cyclists hardly ever kill pedestrians.

Between 2011 and 2015, 98% of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries in urban areas were caused by drivers of motor vehicles. In the same period, only 1% of pedestrian fatalities (and 1.8% of serious injuries) involved a pedal cycle – despite cyclists making up 2.3% of all urban traffic. Red light jumping is perhaps the most frequent complaint against cyclists, but not a single pedestrian was killed by a cyclist jumping a red light from 2005 – 2014. In comparison, 52 people were killed by drivers doing just that. As a pedestrian, you are over 200 times more likely to be hit and killed by a driver than by a cyclist. With this in mind, and given the limited time and resources available to our police services, surely it makes sense to focus on the greatest risks to vulnerable road users, both cyclists and pedestrians. To ignore the many fatalities caused by motor vehicles each year is a disservice to those who have died. They are no less important than Kim Briggs.

Injuries and deaths for road users in 2015. Available from the Ministry of Transport here.

Let us not forget that, according to the Ministry of Transport, cyclists are are “vulnerable road user group”. In 2015, 100 cyclists were killed on the road and over 3200 were seriously injured, with 18,845 incidents in total. At the same time, only 44% of drivers convicted of killing a cyclist go to prison – while 26% don’t even receive a driving ban! By way of comparison, 60% of all drivers convicted of causing the death of another road user receive a custodial sentence. In many cases, all possible blame is attached to the cyclist, with arguments about lights, hi-viz clothing and helmets used to deflect responsibility from drivers.

Deaths and injuries of cyclists from 2015. Available from the Ministry of Transport here.

Even drivers who deliberately hit cyclists get away with horrifyingly short sentences. In a recent case, a man who intentionally drove into a group of 12 cyclists, including two 12-year-old boys, was jailed for 16 weeks. In  2016, an HGV driver crushed a mother-of-two to death when turning left, without indicating and while tidying his cab. He was sentenced to just 160 hours of unpaid work and a one-year driving ban. Tell us again that Charlie Alliston’s 18 month sentence is too lenient.

Perhaps it’s easier for a jury to relate to the driver in a given scenario, as fewer people have experience cycling on the road. Most of us can imagine taking our eyes off the road for a moment to change the radio, or peek at a satnav. How easy it would be for an accident to happen at just that moment, and how completely out of your control. “I just didn’t see them officer!” But maybe it’s time the pilots of two tonne metal boxes took a moment to look out for other human beings using the road. Cyclists have families too, and their lives should matter, even to those who don’t understand their transport choices. In 2016, there were:

  • 157 cases of causing death by dangerous driving
  • 225 cases of causing death by careless driving
  • 11961(!) cases of driving while using a phone.

If these cases had received even half as much coverage as the Alliston case, the roads would be a safer place for everyone.

Let us return to the case of Ben Pedley, killed when a pedestrian stepped into his path. Where was the witch hunt to prosecute the pedestrian for manslaughter? Where was the national newspaper coverage? Where was the campaign for more power to prosecute pedestrians?

It’s not all doom and gloom though. We were happy to read of the success of the recent West Midlands Police “Operation Close Pass”. This is a perfect example of limited resources being used to best effect. The ‘near miss’ is a common and often very scary event, as shown by a recent study into non-collision incidents (or a quick ride down your nearest high street). An average commuter can expect ~130 close passes in a year, and these are exactly the kind of incident that can lead to serious injuries and death. Operation Close Pass targeted drivers performing dangerous overtaking manoeuvres – and appears to have reduced the number of cyclists killed and seriously injured by 20% since its launch. Given this return for minimal investment, you do have to wonder why the scheme isn’t being reproduced everywhere.

Looking at recent incidents, there seems to be one common theme: they might have been prevented by properly designed and properly funded infrastructure, which could have eliminated any chance of conflict between different road users. Funding for cycling infrastructure in the UK is miniscule – just £1.38 per person per year. Compare this with the Netherlands’ £24 per person and it becomes clear why we have so few safe cycling routes. The government’s recent cycling and walking investment plan may go some way to helping, but it is still far short of the funding required to match the best.

The Charlie Alliston case laid bare the extent to which anti-cycling rhetoric permeates mainstream media, in the UK at least. The Times recently retracted an article that labelled cyclist fatalities as “Deaths caused by cyclists”. Barely a day goes by without the far-right echochamber masquerading as a newspaper The Daily Mail launching into another ignorant tirade against “Lycra Louts” and “Smug Cyclists”, or decrying cycle lanes as “Lunacy”. It’s almost like we don’t make up 31% of the population and 6% of all fatalities on the road.

We are all road users, the same mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters – humans – tied together by the same terrible infrastructure as we go about our lives. Please do not buy into the rhetoric of the media. As cyclists and as a community we can rise above it. We should do all we can to demonstrate that we are “considerate” road users, abide by the rules, treat everybody with respect, and prove to the public that cycling is a healthy, inclusive, and practical means of transport. We do nobody any favours by playing up to the stereotype of red-light-running loonies. If there is an Us and Them, it is not pedestrians versus cyclists. Rather, it’s Us, the public, and Them, the self-serving tabloid media, whose agenda serves only to sell copies.

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