Charlotte Green discusses how the potential ban on using headphones whilst cycling is symptomatic of a system determined to blame bikers for accidents, not motorists
Cycling is good for you. It gets you fit and healthy, whilst reducing carbon emissions and lowering congestion within cities. David Cameron, himself a cyclist, has called for a “cycling revolution” in Britain, and has backed the cycling boom occurring in the South-East of England; the so-called ‘Wiggins effect’.
Politicians are predicting that soon UK towns and cities will have similar levels of cycling to cities in Holland or the Netherlands, where cycling is the most common form of transport within centres. However a revolution is impossible when British roads continue to be fundamentally anti-cycling. The Government needs to work with Councils and the Ministry of Transport to create a safe environment for cyclists across the UK, you can’t endorse cycling as a means of positive alternative travel and then fail to protect those who join the great “revolution”.
Six cyclists have died in London in less than two weeks. The politicians’ response? To blame the cyclists. Following the deaths London Mayor Boris Johnson has stated that he is considering a ban on cyclists wearing headphones, saying that it is “absolutely nuts” to wear them and that it terrifies him to see cyclists “bowling along unable to hear the traffic”.
This is such an absurd misappropriation of blame that when I read the quote I was slightly staggered. Headphones or no headphones, it makes no difference when a six-tonne articulated lorry indicates late and then turns across your path. What BoJo is doing is picking on the easy option. By attacking something as relatively small-scale as headphone wearing, he is choosing to place the blame on the cyclists, those people who put themselves in a risky position in the first place, not addressing the inadequacies of the current roads in accommodating cyclists.
As a cyclist myself I will admit that I wear headphones whilst cycling the busy roads of Manchester. And yes I accept that it may not be the most sensible idea in the world, when you have to be constantly alert and aware of your surroundings. But so do cars. And yet Boris is not considering banning car stereos or sound-proof windows. It doesn’t matter how loud Bowie is singing Suffragette City, I can still hear the magic bus coming up behind me on the way into Uni. I wonder if the same can be said for the cars with stereos so loud you can hear the bass pumping from 100m away.
If we need further proof that headphones are only a tiny part of the wider issue we only need to examine the figures. According to road-cycling statistics released by the House of Commons in June, the total number of fatalities on rural and urban roads in 2011 was almost exactly the same, 52 urban fatalities to 55 rural fatalities. However the serious casualties totals are very different and highlight the disparity between safe cycling in cities and the countyside. In rural areas the number of serious casualties totalled at 745, in urban areas it was 2,340, over three times the rural amount.
It seems unlikely that in all these cases headphones were responsible for a cyclist being involved in an accident.
What I resent most is the perception that as a cyclist I am somehow invading the domain of the motorist, that my presence on the roads is an intrusion that is permitted, but not supported. By this reasoning any accidents that occur on those roads must ultimately be my fault, because I chose to endanger myself by entering the car-zone in the first place.
In Manchester since 2005 the number of killed or seriously injured cyclists has doubled, from 7 to 14 in six years. In Withington on the other hand, the number of KSI cyclists has declined from 10 to 3 over the same period.. The answer is obvious; cycle lanes. Oxford Road is a prime example of a road that makes no allowances for the existence of cyclists. Weaving in and out of the busy bus lane whilst avoiding speeding taxis is stressful, and at times, exceedingly terrifying. One evening I ended up being trapped between two buses as one tried to overtake the other. The sides closed in, inside the passengers stared at me as I pedalled desperately, and I remember thinking that there was nothing I could do, no way of making myself visible or preventing the oncoming collision. That time one bus pulled away, and we carried on as if nothing had happened.
Every cyclist has their own near-death story where it was only by luck that they escaped unscathed. Yet we should not have to be relying on luck. The way traffic currently operates in urban areas presents a significant danger to cyclists, one that won’t be solved by continuing to hold cyclists solely responsible for their own accidents. By targeting headphones Boris Johnson is sending the wrong message. He is demonstrating the state’s reluctance to embrace cycling, despite publicly encouraging it.