Quid pro quos have no place in any road safety debate

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Quid pro quos are getting Trump in hot water, but newspaper and radio commentators and others in Ireland seem to have no issue with looking for a quid pro quo for road safety. Be it a new law or planned infrastructure, the discussion often goes the same way.

Quid pro quo in this case can be phrased as “it goes both ways”, “it’s a two-way street”, “everybody needs to follow the rules of the road”, and “cyclists also need to take responsibility for their own safety”.

The logical conclusion to this is like saying: “I won’t knock you down if you don’t break the law” — I cannot believe I have to spell this out, but there’s huge legal as well as moral issues with this line of thinking. Another position which is hardly better is “cyclists endanger me when I walk around, so, why are they getting protection”.

Often the people making the arguments dress them up far in nicer ways than the blunt way outlined in the last paragraph. These commentators tell you that they are not anti-cycling. Some will say they cycle, others say their friends cycle — so, they cannot possibly be anti-cycling.

They can be anti-cycling, but putting labels on people in this regard misses the point — you don’t need to be willfully anti-cycling to say foolish things which are not just wrong but heartless and dangerous.

People on bicycles clearly should respect other road users and two wrongs don’t make a right, but the way cyclists are painted as if they are abnormal, which makes people see cyclists are “others”. This may seem fluffy but one study found that “around half of non-cyclists view cyclists as ‘less than fully human’”.

Yes, even dangerous. The idea that people on bicycles are more reckless than your average human, or that they are anywhere near as dangerous as motorists, allows some driver on the road to excuse their dangerous behaviour. Be it overtaking people on bicycles dangerously, parking in cycle lanes, pulling out in front of bicycles or anything else which makes things worse for people on two wheels.

For example, there’s a common narrative that people cycling just get in the way of motorists because they don’t care or want to block cars, when the true is that people on bicycles do things like cycle in the centre of lanes because it’s safer when they have to avoid something that a motorist might not see (it’s even in the latest edition of the Rules of the Road).

And there’s the idea that cyclists break the law more than motorists — which, if you look at the facts, is next to impossible. The RSA free speed survey for 2018 (published at the start of 2019) found that on urban national roads with a 30km/h limit, nearly 100% of motorists were breaking the law (98%). For 50km/h zones, 81% of motorists were found speeding and for 60km/h zones still 70% were speeding. Survey after survey also shows high percentages of motorists admitting to holding phones while driving — usually around 45%.

But what about red lights? Surely cyclists run then more? Not according to data taken from red light cameras. There’s various theories why motorists (and others) don’t see or are more forgiving of motorists running red lights. Pedestrians crossing on the green man are killed nearly yearly by motorists yet we hardly every hear about this — it doesn’t make it onto radio talk shows too often.

It’s at this point that we hear that “cyclists are the biggest risk on footpaths”. But again: Motorists continue to end the life of pedestrians on footpaths yet we also hardly every hear about this from those who give out about cyclists. The levels of illegal parking on footpaths also is epidemic — the worse of such regularly forces vulnerable pedestrians onto the roadway. Motorists parked on cycle lanes also increases risk but this is even more dismissed as harmless despite the fact that it pushes people out to mix with cars, trucks and buses.

People cycling recklessly on footpaths should just get off the path and hopefully are stopped by the Gardai — the reality is that some of the people who give out about cyclists on footpaths are giving out about children, teenagers or vulnerable adults. It should not be this way.

In discussion of cycling safety, one of the things that should ring alarm bells is that many people who give out about cyclists are far from the best on road safety. They mention things that are not illegal and which are generally safe or safer — such as cycling in the middle of the lane, cycling two-abreast, filtering in traffic (aka “weaving in and out”).

There’s also no legal requirement for cyclists to wear helmets or high-vis, and have questionable usefulness in saving life of limbs (see links). Bicycle lights are, of course, legally required and highly recommended. It’s of note that people complaining about cyclists rarely talk about the things we list in our survival guide and many actively disagree with key bits of advice such as ‘keep away from the kerb’.

Mentioning of “road tax” or even motor tax disqualifies the person from a road safety debate, as tax has nothing to do with road safety, and mentioning insurance shows the person has no concept of risk, a person on a bicycle has the same range of risk to others as a person on foot. Mentioning the idea that cyclists should give cars the same distance as they want motorists to give them shows again that the person has no idea of risk and is rubbish at physics.

Do you know what really makes cycling safe? What’s proven over and over again? Giving over street and road space to provide for segregated cycle routes and filtering through traffic out of smaller streets and roads. It’s strange that the people who give out about cyclists usually are not the same people who support space and funding for cycling infrastructure and generally safer streets.

What if it saves one life? If you have read this far and are still mainly thinking of the foolish things some cyclists do or that you think cyclists could do more for themselves, then maybe the safety of cyclists isn’t really that high on your agenda?

DO MORE: For those serious about cycling safety — get yourself over to CyclingForAll.ie and act now.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

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