To ride or not to ride: The dangers of cycling
Anyone regularly cycling in London knows how dangerous it can be to get in the saddle instead of taking the tube. We talk to those trying to reduce the risks
Following the death of six London cyclists in less than two weeks in November, a fifth of riders in the capital stopped bike-commuting, according to a BBC poll.
Who’s to blame? We spoke, among others, to former Liberal Democrat councillor turned road safety campaigner Donnachadh McCarthy.
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Operation Safeway criticised by locals
In November the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Safeway. Extended into early January, it saw 2500 Metropolitan Police officers patrol at 166 key junctions where they issued fixed penalty notices to people breaking road safety laws.
In addition, officers were giving advice to anyone seen putting themselves or other road users in danger. Cyclists were encouraged to invest in helmets and high-visibility jackets, neither of which is compulsory.
The aim, according to a press release at the time, was to “reduce the appalling number of people who die or are injured on London’s roads each year”.
“Every road death is a needless tragedy that wreaks devastation for the victim’s friends and family,” said Operations Lead Superintendent Rob Revill of the Safer Transport Command.
However, at the time the scheme was running it received some local criticism.
In an email interview at the end of last year, David Shannon of Islington Cycling Club said: “Operation Safeway does have some useful aspects. However, as for the advice given and enforcement for cyclist red light jumping and pavement cycling, I am deeply unconvinced that it will reduce cycling fatalities.”
He was skeptical of the efficacy of the police’s approach. “Wearing a helmet does not reduce the number of collisions a cyclist will have. How could it?”, said Shannon. “Helmets are pretty much ineffective at preventing death in a collision with a HGV. A squashed pelvis or torso is what does for most of those. Likewise, wearing a high visibility jacket does not help a cyclist who positions himself in the blind side of a HGV.”
“Helmets are pretty much ineffective at preventing death in a collision with a HGV. A squashed pelvis or torso is what does for most of those.”
The Met has said, however, that while it was aware of research that suggests helmets and florescent jackets may not be of much use, “we are also aware of comments from victims of cyclist collisions who emphasise that if it had not been for them wearing their helmet, they would not have survived”.
Calls for change
On one November day more than a thousand cyclists from all across London gathered outside the TFL building on Blackfriars Bridge to commemorate those who were killed on the City’s roads in 2013.
Donnachadh McCarthy, 54, one of the organisers of the gathering on 29 November, condemned Operation Safeway as “the equivalent of a bedroom tax on cyclists”.
“The Met should put all that money into doing a proper investigation into road safety. This scheme is nothing more than a short-term fix.
“Only very few cyclists who are dying on London’s streets are doing so because they’ve disregarded traffic laws. The problem lies with London’s infrastructure, namely Boris’s so-called superhighways.”
“The Met should put all that money into doing a proper investigation into road safety. This scheme is nothing more than a short-term fix.”
Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury, said: “Whilst it is encouraging to see some action being taken on this, it is perhaps wrong to be targeting the cyclists instead of actually making London’s roads safer.”
Meanwhile, Colin Bowen from Haringey, who was involved in a near miss collision with a lorry earlier last year, praised the operation as “a big step in the right direction”.
“During peak times, it’s easy for people to get frustrated on the road and break the law, especially if they’re running late for work or whatever. I was nearly knocked off my bike because an oncoming driver was so busy fiddling with their CD player rather than looking at the road in front of them.”
Islington has experienced a cycling boom in recent years, with bicycles accounting for a quarter of all rush-hour traffic in central London, according to a survey by Transport for London. The report also states that the capital’s growing appetite for cycling is almost at the same level as that of Amsterdam, where approximately 85% of those living in the inner city own a bike.
As the number of cyclists dying on London’s streets continues to rise, more and more so-called ghost bikes are appearing at junctions across the city.
Marking the spot where a cyclist has fallen, these decorated white bikes aim to act as a warning to passersby about the dangers on our busy roads.
Follow Emma Volney on Twitter: @1emmavolney