Monday, 22 November 2010

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

I've read all sorts of opinions about cycling ranging from "Cyclists are vehicles and we should cycle on the road as equals" to "No - we should have separate infrastructure!" and almost everything in between.

I'll start by admitting that I don't have the answers to solving this dilemma, but I've stumbled across a few hints.

Normally, things kick off by some cyclist admitting they cycle through red lights. From there onwards it rapidly devolves into a maelstrom of counter-allegations and insults. Lovely.
If you've been reading my blog, you'd realise by now I'm one of those cyclists that sometimes rides through red lights. Now don't leave yet - let's begin by looking at the arguments against what I do, shall we? After all, if you're a critic then it would be subject material close to your heart. And if your a supported, well... just read on for now, OK?

The single biggest argument I've encountered for cyclists to stop at red lights is the one that simply states we must be seen to be above reproach if we ever want to be treated as equals on the road. Supporters of this theory typically state (probably quite correctly) that one of motorists' biggest gripes about cyclists is the skipping of red lights. They claim that every cyclist that skips a red light is an excuse for motorists to despise all cyclists, and there may be some truth in their claim.

Additional arguments against skipping of red lights include the fact that cyclists doing so are breaking the law. Of course, this is quite an accurate observation, after all, the law is clear on this matter.

So far it looks like a straightforward argument that is overwhelmingly against cyclists that skip red lights. As a result, you wouldn't be surprised to discover web sites such as Stopatred.org, who states "Stopatred was created by concerned cyclists, alarmed about how the cause of cycling is being undermined by the reckless actions of an unrepresentative minority."
At this stage I'd encourage you to visit Stopatred and read through the entire site. Seriously, I'd like you to be completely familiar with their quite compelling arguments, as put in their own words. While you're at it, search the Interweb for more such information and you'd see there's quite a large volume of it about, although it always centres around the same (compelling) arguments.

What you'd also see is the massive numbers of highly personal insults flung at opponents of the whole Stop At Red Lights argument. They may be compelling but sometimes some Stop At Red Lights supporters can be downright infantile!

Now that you have a good understanding of their entire argument, shall we look at the opposing one? The one favoured by cyclists sometimes skip red lights.

Shall I at this point just clearly state that what I say is merely my opinion. As my opinion is unlikely to sway you, I have tried to link to some facts further down.

Let us start to defend our point of view by looking at statistics, specifically statistics researched by Transport for London (TfL) Road Safety department. It has been know for a while that in London female cyclists are at greater risk of being injured or killed during collisions with Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV's) - what wasn't known was why this was the case.

The result of their research was quite controversial, so much so that TfL for quite some time did not make the results public. At this stage I will point you to an article by the UK's The Times newspaper, which deals with the contents of the TfL report. In that article it clearly states "The report by Transport for London’s road safety unit was completed last July but has been kept secret. It suggests that some cyclists who break the law by jumping red lights may be safer and that cycle feeder lanes may make the problem worse."

Now to be fair, there is another aspect that exacerbates the issue, one that is not touched upon in that article: more experienced cyclists tend to completely avoid being next to (or just slightly forward of) HGV's at junctions. As cycling in the UK still appears to be male dominated, there is a possibility that many new (and therefore less experienced) cyclists are female. This would be in line with increased numbers of both male and female cyclists. Still, it doesn't change the fact that many of those cyclists killed may still have been alive had they skipped the red lights.

My first argument therefore is simply a matter of safety. If it is safe to skip a red light, then you as a cyclist will be less at risk of injury caused by HGV's. Now I need to qualify this - safe means safe for you as well as for others. It is NOT safe if anybody else needs to take evasive action, including braking and it is NOT safe to skip pedestrian lights with pedestrians on the crossing.

Remember I said that apperently one of motorists' top pet hates about cyclists is the skipping of lights? Now if it was done safely, why would motorists hate us that much?

There are a number of possibilities -
1) Because they may need to overtake us again
2) Because they're frustrated that they are still stuck in traffic while we appear to be making progress
3) Because they think we feel ourselves above the law, while they get hammered by it.

I believe it is a combination of those three possibilities, with the number one reason being that they may have to overtake us again. Ever driven behind somebody that leaves an enormous gap between their vehicle and the one in front of it? And have you ever gotten stuck at the lights because that person only just got through?

In both cases it probably wouldn't have made a measurable difference to your journey times, but you were stressed by it none the less (even if only a little). Now how stressed do drivers get when they get stuck behind a cyclist? And how are those feelings compounded when they have to overtake the same cyclist again and again?

Research published by the UK's Department for Transport makes for very depressing reading as it so clearly shows that many drivers don't want to share the road with cyclists at all, regardless whether or not cyclists obey red lights.

And this is my point: cars are the new kids on the block, but they're also the bullies. For millennia people built roads, paths and tracks and traffic managed itself right until cars came along. Suddenly we needed traffic lights and other methods of controlling and regulating traffic. Ever since people get mowed down, but we simply call that "accidents".

When 9/11 happened, 2 752 people died in the World Trade Centre. It was an atrocity and elicited (quite rightly!) international condemnation. Yet in the UK in 2007, there were 2 946 people killed on our roads, and nobody seems to think it is such a big deal. Well, actually, apparently we're bragging about how we've never had it so good!

We live in diseased societies where cars rule, and everything else is secondary. We have overwhelming scientific evidence that we are killing each other, and killing the planet, and still more scientific evidence of the negative aspects high volumes of traffic has on our societies.

Above all else, it is an indisputable fact that by vastly increasing the number of people cycling we can alter the current state of affairs and make our world a better place for all. But we don't!

Instead we ignore all that and we point fingers at those cyclists who dare to challenge the status quo. We call them rude names, we belittle them, simply because they disagree with the current diseased system.
More importantly, anybody that dares challenge the current system is to be made an outcast, practically a traitor to his country.
It seems that we're expected to accept the carnage on our roads as a price we should pay with gratitude, a bit like medieval soldiers were expected to be proud of the chance to die for their king.

During the Great War (1914-18) in the UK some people even killed dachshund dogs because they were "German" and therefore the enemy. Cyclists who dare challenge the system are faced with the same lynch-mob mentality and it shows in the name-calling.

Once most western countries practised slavery, until a few brave souls dared to challenge the evils of that system. History is full of examples where brave ordinary people stood up and said "Enough".

Now I say to you, I am not wrong when I occasionally ride through a red light (subject to safety conditions I outlined above). Instead I put it to you that the law is wrong. What I'm doing is NOT the same as pushing drugs, or robbing sweet little old ladies, but rather a form of protest, a form of civil disobedience.

I am not alone in thinking this, but as long as you vilify me, and others like me, all you are actually doing is spreading the old lie "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". And sadly there can never be any glory in being mowed down by traffic.