Yesterday I was at Holyrood for the placing of two Ghost Bikes outside the Scottish Parliament. There was also a Tombstone showing the numbers of people who have been killed while riding a bicycle on Scotland’s roads over the last five years (the tally on the Tombstone showed 35 deaths). Following the press call, the tombstone was moved to the Meadows, as this is probably the busiest cycle path in Edinburgh. What we didn’t know at the time of the press call was that the tally on the tombstone had become out of date already. Another person had died, bringing the total for this year to nine, which equals the total for 2012, and it’s only July. As a consequence, the following press coverage was sombre. However, it wasn’t long before the usual voices started blithely blaming the victims, rather than the real issues on our roads.
It should be remembered that changing mode of transport doesn’t necessarily make people more or less careful, but it does change the amount of damage that they can do to others. When you are in control of heavy and dangerous machinery , a moment’s inattention can be fatal, but not necessarily for the operator. One of the paradox effects of modern car safety design has been to convince drivers that they are invulnerable, and this has increased the risk to others.
The solution to this is to take a harm reduction approach: A) restrict speed (and therefore the risk of harm to others) where motor vehicles and more vulnerable road users are mixed (and enforce speed limits). B) provide safe space for vulnerable road users, separated from motor vehicles where speed and volume of motor vehicles can not be reduced. C) place the responsibility for safety on those most capable of doing harm and hold them responsible when they do harm. This third point is a very real problem, there is a grim joke that if you want to get away with murder, use a car. Of course most deaths on the roads are not premeditated, but a report by the insurance company AXA has calculated that there are over 800 deaths a year on British roads due to “disrespectful driving”.
If our roads are to be made safer, we have to change the culture of driving. This CAN be done, just look at France. Twenty years ago French drivers where notorious for their driving habits, and yet today ask anyone who has cycled in France recently, and you will hear glowing reports about safe driving. What brought about this change? The use of the legal system to change driver behaviour, the introduction of the strictest Strict Liability laws in Europe (note: the UK is one of only five countries not to have such a law), a law requiring drivers to give cyclists road space, and strict enforcement of the speed limits. All of this has combined to make France a major destination for cycle tourism (although not all cyclists think that French drivers are that safe).
Culture is something that can change and something we have to change to make the roads safer. There is also the suggestion that we can’t have mass cycling here because we don’t have a “cycling culture”, but there is no reason why we could not have a “cycling culture” here, we just need a safer road environment. This is not just good for “cyclists”, it is good for pedestrians too, and we are all pedestrians at some point.
Until this happens we are, sadly, going to see more Ghost Bikes appearing on our streets.
The nine cyclists who have died on Scotland’s roads so far this year are:
- Alastair Dudgeon, 51, Kincardine (A985) 6th January
- Alistair MacBean, 74, Inverness (A82) 22nd January
- Charles Aimer, 42, Errol (A90) 17th March
- Craig Tetshill, 21, Gorthleck (unclassified road) 16th May
- Kyle Allan, 8, Aberdeen (Great Northern Road) 21st May
- David Wallace, 52, Perth (West Mains Avenue) 12th June
- Douglas Brown, 79, West Lothian (B9080), 11th July
- Connor Shields, 14, Ellon (A975), 17th July
- Mary Brook, 59, Drumnadrochit (A831), 22nd July
When will this madness end?