Slaying the myths

Slaying the myths behind cycling like Perseus with Medusa
Yesterday, BBC Radio 4’s 'You and Yours' asked listeners whether cyclists should take a test and have number plates and insurance. Cycling UK campaigner, Sam Jones seeks to slay these myths.

It’s a great shame that the BBC appears to be building a reputation of having an anti-cyclist stance. Last November, BBC Breakfast ran its series 'Cycling - The Road Ahead'. It turned out to be a missed opportunity for the BBC to broadcast a meaningful debate that might have educated the wider public, which frequently and sadly is misinformed about cycling.

Yesterday’s 'You and Yours' looked to be cut from the same cloth, asking: “Do you think it's time to ask cyclists to take a test before they're allowed on the roads? Should they have insurance like everyone else?”

Former Olympian and cycle campaigner Chris Boardman did a great job in debunking many of these myths. And to be fair some callers (including Cycling UK's public transport advisor Dave Holladay) were informed about the issues and presented good cases for cycling, despite the inflammatory topic. However, the overall set-up felt as though it was designed to be 'click-bait', rather than a useful addition to the wider cycling debate.

However, as we have seen time and time again in the media, and no doubt in your own personal interactions with people who do not cycle, the questions raised by 'You and Yours' are frequently asked and frequently misunderstood. Therefore, for the benefit of those who did not have a chance to hear Boardman, or perhaps did not want to listen, I’ve laid out Cycling UK’s official position on training, insurance and number plates.

The administrative costs of making training, registration and insurance compulsory would be as large as it already is for drivers and cars. The National Travel Survey in 2013 states 44% of people aged five+ own or have access to a bicycle. Even discounting some cycle owners, the huge expense of introducing and operating a parallel system would probably have to be borne by tax-payers.

In 2006, the Department for Transport said the costs of establishing a registration scheme would outweigh any benefits, so decided against the idea. Even if it would not be a costly exercise, it is the bureaucracy of registration which is a real fear. On a practical level, cycles change owners very frequently and are more likely to belong to children than to adults, unlike motor vehicles (in 2013, 84% of those aged 5 to 10 and 73% of those aged 11 to 16 owned a bicycle). This makes registration a nightmare to administer and adhere to. Rather than encouraging people to cycle, and bring all the associated health and wealth benefits, it is more than likely to put newcomers or occasional cyclists off cycling altogether.

The same goes for making cycle training compulsory in terms of registration and enforcement. Encouraging training is a good thing, and a cost-effective investment that helps more people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to cycle. It boosts skills and confidence, particularly in imperfect conditions, and teaches the rules of the road.

On its own, training should never be considered a substitute for proper Space for Cycling. Until we achieve this, cycle training to the National Standard will introduce trainees to real-life, on-road conditions, helping to equip adults and children with the skills they need to ride confidently in today’s traffic.

Furthermore, the case for either licence plates or learning bears no evidence that they would provide any safety benefits. Having number plates does not prevent large numbers of motorists from driving illegally and dangerously. Proper law enforcement does some good on this front. However, with road police numbers continuing to drop, despite overall numbers remaining largely the same, increased levels of traffic enforcement, which would benefit all road users, is not a priority for government. A commitment from the police to tackle road crime would play a far more crucial (and cheaper) role in “protecting” the public from bad cycling (and driving) than any type of registration.

It is also worth putting the danger cyclists pose to others into perspective. Cyclists cause very little harm indeed - they are much more likely to be hurt in a collision than cause injury to someone else. In Great Britain, in 2012:

  • Cyclists and pedestrians accounted for 31% of road fatalities (420 pedestrians, 118 cyclists, 1,754 all road users).
  • Cyclists accounted for around 7% of fatalities and 13.5% of reported serious injuries (KSIs), even though fewer than 2% of trips were made by cycling as the ‘main mode’.
  • Out of the 15,463 incidents involving both cars and cycles (all areas), one car occupant died; 99% of the cyclists in these collisions were injured, but only just over 2% of car occupants were.

Motor vehicles are a much bigger threat to pedestrians walking on the pavement or verge than cycles. In fact, it is very rare for a cyclist to kill a pedestrian anywhere, in the road or away from it - that’s why it usually makes the headlines.

  • The vast majority of pedestrians killed each year on the footway or verge (36 in 2011) are hit by motor vehicles.
  • Similarly, the vast majority of killed or seriously injured pedestrians in urban areas - i.e. areas where pedestrians and cyclists are most likely to mix - are as the result of collisions with motor vehicles. In 2011, for example, 273 pedestrians died in single vehicle collisions in these areas, only 2 (0.7%) of them from being hit by a cycle.
  • Even allowing for the fact that car mileage is much greater overall than it is for cycles, cars are still more likely than cycles to kill a pedestrian in urban areas, mile for mile, than cycles (a little over twice as likely, in fact, according to 2011 figures).

Even if, despite all these arguments, the government persisted in registering cycles, currently it would not be able to. Under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 it is not possible to register either bicycles or cyclists because it only provides for ‘mechanically propelled vehicles’. In order to introduce registration, therefore, the law would have to be changed further – a convoluted and lengthy process that simply would not be worth the parliamentary time or expense.

On insurance, Cycling UK while not advocating compulsory third party insurance, does encourage it and provides £10m cover for all members. Making it a compulsory requirement is again a further barrier to entry to an activity which benefits wider society, and again falls foul of the hurdle of monitoring for groups such as children.

As Cycling UK will also show in a forthcoming piece of research, the question has to be asked why are cyclists treated differently to pedestrians when it comes to insurance? Given the low risk both present to other road users, the requirement for insurance is not borne out by the facts. Even the vocal insurance industry has never called for cycling and cyclists to have mandatory third party insurance, with their focus being on the much greater risk posed by the young, the uninsured and the untraceable drivers which are frequently cited as the cause behind high premiums.

Calls for insurance and registration in all its forms frequently originate from individual or anecdotal instances, rather than informed fact. Just as you would not expect the AA to defend irresponsible driving, neither will Cycling UK ever defend people who behave similarly while cycling. What we will call for though is the right infrastructure that will make cycling safe for all transport users. High standards of cycle friendly infrastructure actively prevent the causes of conflict which lead to knee jerk responses.

In the meantime, if you are ever put on the spot about such topics or asked whether cycling is too dangerous and on the way out, have a look at our frequently asked questions so you can you provide the right answer - backed up by fact, not myth.