Cyclists are to be given “carte blanche to go sailing through red lights” under forthcoming changes to the Highway Code unveiled today. Except they’re not. But it’s an example of how some parts of the mainstream media seek to portray a tribalism among road users that simply does not exist.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps’ announcement today of revisions to the guidance for road users has made much of Fleet Street lose its collective senses, for want of a better expression.
“Fury over 'confusing' new Highway Code rules that give cyclists MORE rights than cars at junctions amid warning they will cause 'avoidable collisions',” ran MailOnline’s headline.
Their article included the quote, attributed to a spokesman for a pro-motoring lobby group, that appears in the header to this piece. It’s laughably inaccurate – there is no suggestion whatsoever that cyclists will be allowed to ride through red traffic lights – but it was published unchallenged.
Similarly divisive headlines – as if looking to provide greater protection to vulnerable road users including pedestrians – appeared in other outlets. But it’s an entirely false narrative.
If you’re reading this on road.cc, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re a cyclist. But it’s highly likely that you have a driving licence, too – the vast majority of adults who ride bikes do.
And research consistently shows that people who ride bikes are more likely than average to live in households with access to more than one motor vehicle.
So the whole “them versus us” narrative – the “war on the motorist” – is a myth.
Yes, for many of us, the bike is the main way we choose to get around. And in the interests of disclosure, I’ll say right now that I’ve never driven a car.
Partly that’s because I’ve lived most of my life in London, but I’ve also lived in rural Oxfordshire.
Jeremy Clarkson, who lived near me, found the idea of someone living in the Cotswolds without a motor vehicle rather hard to process the one time I found myself in casual conversation with him in Chipping Norton.
I thought his head was going to explode. Instead, once he’d calmed down, he switched into character and told me, “Work harder. Ask your boss for a pay rise. Buy a car.”
One of the problems of the opposition to initiatives aimed at promoting active travel adopted by much of the mainstream media is that they in some way take away motorists’ ‘rights’ – and that’s largely underpinned by the assumption that driving is the ‘norm’.
That simply isn’t true. In certain London boroughs that have seen the most bitter arguments over low traffic neighbourhoods over the past year, most households do not have access to a motor vehicle at all; it’s drivers who are in the minority there, but you will never see that acknowledged in most national newspapers.
And no-one – I repeat, no-one – is saying that people shouldn’t drive at all. What we are saying, is think about the most appropriate transport for your journey. Sometimes, that may be a bus or train. Sometimes, it may be a bike or on foot. And sometimes, yes, it may be a car or van.
We know that there are huge numbers of short journeys currently done by car that don’t have to be – and guess what, if you remove a lot of those by providing safe cycling infrastructure, or better public transport, or more attractive and direct routes on foot, fewer of those car journeys will be made, and congestion will ease. Join the dots.
One final observation. You can make as many changes to the Highway Code as you like, but if no-one reads it, driving habits aren’t going to change.
Everyone who has a driving licence will have read it and, in recent decades, been tested on the theory.
But you don’t have to spend too long reading below-the-line comments to a MailOnline article on the subject (not something we’d recommend) to realise that many will have forgotten what they once learnt.
The ideal, of course, would be to require people who have a driving licence to undergo periodic re-examination – every five years, say – but it’s difficult to see that ever happening.
Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I don’t the changes outlined today will have a meaningful impact on the safety of vulnerable road users unless they are accompanied by a major public awareness campaign via print and broadcast outlets and social media.
But again, that just brings us back to square one; the same newspapers we’ve seen rail against the measures announced today to improve the safety of the most vulnerable on Britain’s roads would no doubt be up in arms again, and that’s the cycle we somehow need to break.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.