Do cyclists think they’re above the law, and does it even matter?

I reviewed the book ‘Bike Nation’ a while ago, which is written by Peter Walker, a journalist who writes for The Guardian newspaper (amongst other publications). The Guardian published this vlog today (see below), in which Peter Walker addresses the question posed in the title of my post: “Do cyclists think they’re above the law, and does it even matter?”

Do cyclists think they’re above the law, and does it matter?

The provocative question is undoubtedly clickbait – especially for any cyclists reading it, or anyone offended by the actions of cyclists – but, if you watch it, the statistics presented do somewhat support the opinion implied by the question. Specifically, cyclists are responsible for such a small number of accidents, compared with other road users (i.e. those driving vehicles), that even those cyclists who do offend are not worth worrying about.

Before anyone gets too annoyed – thinking that this is the message portrayed in the video – it is not, and it is not the conclusion drawn either. Well, not quite. It just asks for a little more perspective: there is no excusing cyclists who break the law (the laws are there for a reason), but the media is rather too fond of highlighting dangerous cycling, mainly because it is relatively rare, rather than highlighting dangerous driving, mainly because it is so common (and hence doesn’t qualify as ‘news’, because of its narrow definition).

I see plenty of people on bicycles riding recklessly: mostly young people, and mostly teenage boys (often doing so to antagonise authority figures, or to show off, or because they think they’re immortal and won’t get hurt). But I also pass legions of people riding bicycles during my own travels by bicycle – both when commuting and when touring – who behave impeccably, and with consideration for others. The reckless are vastly outnumbered by the rational and the careful. I have yet to witness genuinely dangerous cycling (where the perpetrator risks the injury or death of another person).

The media would do well to recalibrate what they consider to be dangerous behaviour on our roads, and highlight the more significant problems presented by dangerous driving. But that wouldn’t be news, would it? And that would entail targeting a more significant proportion of their readership, wouldn’t it? I’m not going to hold my breath.

We also need to move away from using the all-encompassing term ‘cyclist’, when referring to anyone who rides a bicycle. There are people who ride a bicycle – commuters, shoppers, school children, retirees – and there are people who would describe themselves as true cyclists – road racers, mountain bikers, bicycle tourers – but labelling everyone who harnesses a simple machine for their chosen mode of travel as ‘cyclists’ is misleading, and linguistically somewhat lazy (e.g. there are different words in Dutch for each of the two quite different cohorts of bicycle users).

This is a viewpoint explored by Dame Sarah Storey – a British Paralympian cyclist (she is a cyclist) – in an article in The Guardian, a few weeks before today’s vlog by Peter Walker was published. Laura Laker – another Guardian columnist, who contributes to their bike blog – expands on this thinking in her bike blog post, published a day after Storey’s own article.

For the record, I consider myself a cyclist, because riding my bicycle is an activity I pursue for pleasure. But I also use it for commuting, while wearing my every day work clothes, and while travelling alongside all of those other road users who are journeying to and from work. I’m not a cyclist when I’m doing that, I’m simply a bloke using a bike to get from A to B (cheaply, efficiently, and with the helpful side benefit of maintaining my fitness). This might sound pedantic, but I think Storey and Laker have a point, and this view is explored in Peter Walker’s book as well (he arrives at a similar conclusion, if I recall correctly). Food for thought, anyway (and, yes, I know I’ve used the term extensively myself in this post, thus proving the shortcomings of our current terminology).

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