Shhh! Its Safe!

Shouting at the radio during a 5Live interview has, at times, become part of my morning ritual: Shower; shave; shout! But on Friday I was slightly knocked sideways because the guest I found myself vehemently disagreeing with was also a legend and a hero: Chris Boardman.

When Boardman speaks about cycling, you sit up and listen. Well you have to don’t you – Olympic gold medallist, world hour record beaker, Tour de France yellow jersey wearer and part of the incredible research and development group that has helped to deliver so much success for our elite cyclists. However, given the opportunity to address the upturn in cycle casualties that is currently taking place on Britain’s roads, I was vexed by the pretention that it’s apparently a non-issue, a small inconvenience that we can all ignore, as if by some Jedi mind trick we can wave a hand and say ‘These are not the crashes you are looking for; move along’

I share his passion for getting people active, I understand the concern that the public might be cautious of jumping on the bike if they hear about rising casualty numbers, but the advice becomes reckless if you paint an aspirational picture of utopia whilst validating dangerous choices that could exacerbate the situation.

I may be over analysing the matter, but I think cycling is in a tricky position right now. We have witnessed a massive renaissance of enthusiasm for the bike that owes a huge amount to the combined forces of sporting success, social conscience, political leadership and commercial investment. Without dissecting that any further it is to be wholeheartedly welcomed and embraced. Yet these successes also come with a price-tag as the nation fails to keep pace with the resurgence on the road.

Infrastructure, legislature and culture are all slow moving beasts, not least in this bleak time of economic uncertainty, though they are important constituents of a safe cycling future for all. And while the regeneration of our cycling heritage will not happily wait for each of these three giants to align with our collective desire, if we fail to exercise some caution in the way we proceed there will be needless casualties along the way.

In the current state of play you could argue that we do not have sufficient road space dedicated for cycling, sufficient legal protection for cyclists or sufficient respect from other road users, all of which must surely change, but until such a change has been effected is it not our moral obligation to help keep everyone safe on the journey?

On Friday Boardman derided the need for hi-vis or helmets and sneered at the risks of wearing an iPod whilst riding because any focus on such trivia might discourage cycling. He is not alone; British Cycling commissioned a report by the highly respected London School of Economics on the cycling economy [1]. Fascinating as its findings were about the £2.9bn of economic activity that flows through our economy, all because of the humble bike, the report completely failed to mention anywhere in its pages the considerable cost to the economy when it goes wrong (currently c£800m per annum). An independent analysis can only lead to the conclusion that the report’s sponsors wanted to keep that dirty little secret out of the main findings.

Maybe we don’t need a law for compulsory helmet wearing, but for those who are freely electing to wear them, why would you dissuade them from continuing. For the thousands of parents who are successfully getting their kids out on two wheels with high vis clothing as standard, why would you disparage their efforts. For the careless cyclist who foolishly thinks that wearing an iPod doesn’t impede your ability to monitor the road environment, why would you validate such a poor decision that puts them at risk?

The tricky position that cycling is in at present is that some of its most fervent advocates are presenting an ideological position when reality necessitates a more pragmatic response. As long as we pretend that the answer is deliverable by a giant sweep of the political paintbrush or the immediate injection of greater funding that is just round the corner, we will continue to be disingenuous about the reality of the road in the hope that we do not put anyone off in the meantime. Should we not be a little more honest in saying that cycling is fantastic but is best enjoyed responsibly; the way we address other perfectly legal and enjoyable pursuits. Of course ultimately we’d all like to live in the idyllic bike orientated society that Boardman and British Cycling advocate, but until that place arrives can we not at least talk candidly about what would help to keep us all safe.

The transcript of the full interview with Chris Boardman is below:

5Live Breakfast – 7th September 2012

[Nicky Campbell] Now this is about ROSPA saying that each year around 19000 cyclists are injured in reported road accidents, including 3,000 who are killed or seriously injured; and a campaign to reduce these numbers has been launched by the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham; following a large rise this year in cycle related admissions to their A&E department. Chris you are head of British Cycling’s Research & Development Group, you can tell us a little bit about this campaign. It’s interesting that Bradley Wiggins raised this debate didn’t he during the Olympics, Chris?

[Chris Boardman] Yes, Bradley’s was a throw away comment about wearing helmets, it was in reaction as a lot of this campaign is to the emotional site of seeing somebody injured. Now, I’m going to put it into perspective for you: Over £4bn a year is spent by the national health service on obesity related illness, 35,000 deaths from obesity related illness. Cyclists, tragic when anybody dies in any road accident, 107 deaths last year, that’s over 30 million kilometres travelled for a single death in cycling, that’s over 800 time around the planet; so cycling is a safe activity. Cyclists live two years longer than an average person, so really what the national health service are doing with a campaign that is looking to make cyclists wear helmets, get them into high visibility – they are portraying cycling as being a dangerous thing to do. Now you have got to put that in perspective and say ‘how many people am I discouraging from riding a bike, really we need to be talking about ‘hang on a minute why are we talking about helmets and hi vis; why do we need those things? They don’t need them in Denmark a few hundred miles from here, where people just regularly ride around in their business suits, go to the pub or whatever, riding a bicycle. It’s because of the environment.

[Nicky Campbell] Do you think people should be listening to iPods whilst cycling?

[Chris Boardman] Well, I think that’s a really daft argument, cause that says well ok , I’m going to have to drive my car with the windows down and with the radio off and not talk to anybody – you don’t do that and you don’t crash your car. So it’s absolutely a daft thing to look at; what we need to look at is why are we talking about helmets? And if you want people to ride bikes, no, let me step back. What we need to ask first is: ‘Where do I want to live? What is this place, what are we trying to achieve, and then you can ask, does this action get me closer to that?

[Nicky Campbell] You are looking for a cultural change?

[Chris Boardman] Exactly that!

[Nicky Campbell] How do you effect that cultural change from the motorist if that is what you are saying?

[Chris Boardman] Ok, well in the Netherlands, in Denmark how that happened was from the top. There was a specific decision I think it was in the 70’s to say that right we want to change things we are going to change the law and say ‘right, if there is an accident between a cyclist and a pedestrian, the cyclist is automatically at fault unless you can prove otherwise. if there is an accident between a car and a bike, then the car is automatically at fault unless you can prove otherwise’. It just change the whole emphasis. So it’s all about the environment; make it a place where you would want to go and ride your bike and its good for everybody.