On The Road
by Ben Rogers
The last two weeks have seen two separate news stories about cycling that were obviously connected. But no-one seems to have joined up the dots, so I am going to join them here. First, the Lib Dem transport minister Norman Baker was roundly criticised by road safety campaigners for setting a bad example by refusing to wear a cycle helmet.
Then we had the news that the Department of Transport were considering backing a Private Member's Bill to introduce an offence of death by dangerous cycling. As the BBC reported, "Drivers convicted of death by dangerous driving face up to 14 years in jail. But there is currently no law against causing death by dangerous cycling, with most cases of careless cycling being dealt with by fines. Ten pedestrians were killed by cyclists and 262 seriously injured between 2005 and 2009, official figures say".
The connection? There is good evidence that cyclists who wear helmets cycle faster and have more accidents than those that don't. In other words, the campaign to encourage people to wear helmets could encourage exactly the sort of wreckless behaviour a death by dangerous cycling law is intended to discourage.
For over 30 years road safety analysts have noted that steps taken to make driving safer don't appear to have had much effect on the accident rate. The most likely reason for this is that as driving become safer, people just adjust their 'risk thermostat' and take more risks - an instance of the phenomenon of 'risk compensation' whereby we adjust our behaviour to attain a constant level of risk. Professor John Adams at UCL, an expert in risk compensation and road safety, has persuasively argued there is no evidence that seat belt laws reduced the accident rate, and some evidence that they transfer risk from drivers to other road users - namely pedestrians and cyclists.
So what should we be doing to reduce the risk of serious accidents road accidents, whether involving cars or bicycles?
First, we need to make driving not safer but less safe. The best option might be to place a sharp blade in the middle of every steering wheel - in this case you could be sure that collisions would fall very sharply. Failing that, we should do everything to discourage large tank-like cars, and further unnecessary high-tech safety measures along the lines of seat belts and air-bags. Large cars should be taxed not only to reflect their impact on the environment, but their danger to other road users.
Secondly, we should continue to explore ways of increasing drivers' aversion to accidents, perhaps through campaigns that remind them of the negative consequences of accidents, or through increasing the disincentives to dangerous driving - via heavier punishments, higher insurance premiums, etc.
Finally, government should continue to invest in 'shared space' street designs, taking down the barricades, traffic lights and pedestrian-crossings that separate drivers, cyclists and pedestrians from one another. It is well established that shared space schemes work to 'humanise' the highway, encouraging drivers to slow down and drive more carefully. Unfortunately public spending cuts mean that there is unlikely to be much money left for these sorts of redesigns in London or anywhere else.
And what about wearing a helmet? As is sometimes noted, no-one wears helmets in the Netherlands, yet cycling and walking is safer there than it is here. Against that, while there is no doubt that people who wear helmets do cycle faster and less attentively than those who don't, we can't be sure whether this completely neutralises the effect of the helmet. So I wear a helmet - if nothing else, I can get faster from A to B, albeit at an increased risk to other road users. Which gets us back to where we started. Encouraging helmet wearing is likely to result in marginally increased risks to pedestrians.