Following from the tremendous success of cycling in the Olympic games (and the Tour de France) we started to dream of a Golden Legacy. People started to report that drivers were treating them with a modicum of respect when they were riding bicycles on the roads. There was hope in the air!

However, just a few months on, things are starting to revert, a small number of columnists in the print media have started to berate people for daring to ride bicycles as transport. Maybe we could blame this on Mark, who wrote a guide for columnists on how to write a terrible article about bicycles (something Tony Parsons seems to have taken rather literally). But no, the trend had started here in Scotland before Mark wrote his guide, as can be shown by Helen Martin writing in the Scotsman recently.

So I thought maybe it was time that this piece was examined in a little more depth. Let’s start with the headline:

Helen Martin: Invest in ‘active travel’ but make cyclists liable

which begs the question make cyclists liable for what exactly?

Well, she doesn’t tell us that at the start, therefore we need to work our way through the full article before getting to the punchline. She starts by telling us that she admires cyclists, while admitting to being chronically unfit. Next, she says that she doesn’t object to public money being invested in Active Travel, even if she doesn’t fully understand what it is. Public transport also involves an active element, as it doesn’t transport one from door to door, you are required to walk (or even cycle) at least a part of the way. Using cars and taxis is much more like “passive travel”, as the users will avoid walking at all cost, even if this involves parking on pavements or in other places which causes inconvenience or even hazard to others.

As a driver, Ms Martin then tells us that cyclists have made her a better driver, as they have taught her to use her mirrors. Well, speaking as an ex-driving instructor, I would hope that she had been taught to use her mirrors when she was learning to drive, as it is one of the basic skills which are tested during the driving test. Sadly, many drivers fail to understand that all the skills they are taught test are for use in everyday driving, all too often I have heard people saying “you only learn that for your driving test”. Besides which, all drivers are legally obliged to drive with due care and attention, failure to do so can put 3-9 penalty points on your licence (not that this seems to make that much difference). Maybe Ms Martin is also unaware that she is legally obliged to drive with reasonable consideration for other road users (again, failure to do so can result in 3-9 penalty points), she certainly seems to begrudge having to do so. She claims that “no driver wants to cause them harm or sets out to make their two-wheeled journey more treacherous than it need be”. Again sadly this is not the case: over the last few years in Edinburgh there have been a number of court cases where drivers have been prosecuted for deliberately endangering cyclists. Most, if not all, of these cases have been covered by the newspaper which Ms Martin is writing for. One of these cases involved a driver who “nudged a cyclist” as “a joke”, the driver in his defence claimed that he did not think this would seriously harm the cyclist. The cyclist suffered a broken hip. Now I am in no way suggesting that Ms Martin would drive this way herself, merely pointing out that these things do actually happen. Fortunately, such malicious behaviour is rare, however motor vehicles are inherently dangerous (which is why society only allows people to drive under licence). As a result, an inattentive driver is just as dangerous to other road users as a malicious one, for a cyclist or a pedestrian being hit by a car travelling at a speed of 35 mph, their chance of living is only 50%! Just think about how many drivers actually keep to the 30 mph speed limit, surveys have shown that the majority of drivers admit to exceeding it some or all of the time. The result of this inattentive and illegal behaviour results in, quite literally, thousands of innocent people being killed or seriously injured. Given these facts and that cyclists are required to ride on the roads to get from A to B, is it any wonder that they can be rather defensive when criticised by lazy journalists?

Next Ms Martin moves on to helmets, where she asserts that she “heard the generally accepted wisdom of cyclists wearing helmets being pooh-poohed by a lobbyist on radio”. Humm, I wonder who that could have been, I think I might well know. More importantly, where is the evidence to support this “generally accepted wisdom” on cyclists wearing helmets? For anyone who cares to check their facts, they will quickly find that it is rather less convincing that is widely supposed. Probably because the people most enthusiastic about the idea of cyclists wearing helmets are not the cyclists themselves, but drivers who don’t cycle (mostly because they think it is too dangerous). The reason they are so keen that those riding bicycles should wear helmets, is their belief that, should they “accidentally” hit a cyclist, they hope that a piece of polystyrene might in some way save the cyclist’s life. Sadly the evidence for this simply does not stack up.

Finally we reach the part about Liability, she starts by accepting that cyclists are vulnerable on the road and that most accidents will be caused by motorists, so far so good. Then we have “it is another thing entirely to say that cyclists cause absolutely no accidents”. Well yes, there is a small number of collisions each year where cyclists hit pedestrians or other cyclists, I would not deny that this happens. Next we have this:

What happens when they do [when they hit pedestrians or other cyclists]? Does the driver’s insurance pay out for his own injury or death as well as the cyclist’s? Who pays out when a cyclist collides with a pedestrian causing injury?

Now, at this point I would have expected some attempt at answering these questions, but no, instead Ms Martin starts to talk about “road tax” (for what it’s worth my views on Liability are here). She ignores the inconvenient fact that road tax was actually abolished in 1936 by Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the grounds that it was giving motorists what he regarded a dangerously inflated sense of ownership of the public road. Boy, was Churchill right on that one, 76 years later this delusion still persists, with many drivers not understanding that owning a car doesn’t give them a greater right of access to the public road. Indeed there is no right to drive a motor vehicle, it is a privilege granted under licence. But, I digress, as this is one area where Ms Martin does seem to has done a little research, as she states “We know road tax doesn’t actually pay for roads though it’s not always easy to figure out where it goes and what it funds”.

Well Ms Martin, for your information, Vehicle Exercise Duty (VED) is a tax on pollution, based on the level of CO2 emissions. Vehicles which produce emissions of less than 100 CO2 g/km are exempt from VED. This means that the bicycle is in effect a zero rated vehicle, although it is not required to carry a tax disk. It has been calculated that if every bicycle in the UK using the road were to be issued with a tax disc, the cost of administration would add £20 to the bill for every vehicle producing emissions of over 100 CO2 g/km. It should be noted that this estimate is a few years old, pre-dating the current increase in on-road cycling, so the cost would probably be greater now. Strangely, when this is pointed out, most motorists suddenly want to change the subject. OK, lets deal with where motoring taxes go to. It is simple, they are paid into Government funds where they are used to pay for all those things the State does. If you are one of those people who thinks that the State shouldn’t raise taxes or spend them on infrastructure and services, might I suggest that you try visiting somewhere these thing don’t happen, Somalia springs to mind.

Having stated that she doesn’t understand how the roads are paid for, Ms Martin then goes on to say that, as motor vehicles pay this mythical “road tax”, cyclists should stay out of their way, and use the “whole swathes of our roads [that] are marked for cycles only”. This begs another question, where is this cycling paradise? There are a small number of advisory cycle lanes across Scotland, most of which are badly designed and often used for car parking. There almost no statutory cycle lanes in Scotland (if you disregard a few hundred meters in Glasgow, where the total length is less than 1Km). She further suggest that cyclists don’t pay for any of the cycle facilities provided, effectively saying that if you are a cyclist you don’t pay tax. Why doesn’t my accountant know about this?

Ms Martin tells us that roads are “car lanes” (see, Churchill was right!) and that cyclists using the roads “is extremely dangerous behaviour that poses a threat to themselves and drivers”. Hang on a minute, cyclists using the road pose a threat to drivers? I know of no record of a driver ever being killed or seriously injured due to a collision caused by a cyclist. Yet there are thousands of cyclists killed or seriously injured every year by drivers (the same goes for pedestrians). Earlier in the article did correctly state that most accidents collisions are caused by motorists, so which way is it?

This is followed by what I can only describe as a rant, in which Ms Martin complains about “Lycra-clad and helmeted” cyclists behaving like drivers. It is interesting that this group is singled out. One of the reasons that drivers pose such a threat to other road users is their relative lack of vulnerability. It is also a known factor that helmet wearing cyclists are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, a phenomenon called risk compensation, and is often cited as a reason why promoting the wearing of cycle helmets can actually be counterproductive. Another point I would like to make is that an individual’s choice of transport doesn’t make them a better or worse person, a reckless moron is a reckless moron, regardless of whether they are driving a car or riding a bicycle. The only difference is the scale of the risk they pose to others. Reckless, stupid, selfish behaviour should be condemned for what it is, irrespective of the mode of transport of the person concerned.

In conclusion, if you are going to write an article saying that “everyone has responsibilities and it would be nice to know what responsibilities cyclists should display as their part of the bargain.” You should first remove the mote from your own eye, before offering to wipe the speck from the eye of another.

Active Travel has a great deal to offer to the City of Edinburgh, but it is not helped by this hypocritical bilge masquerading as a reasoned argument published in the Scotsman.