Is the law an ass when it comes to cyclists?

There has been a nasty spate of cyclists deaths in the part of North London where I live with three people killed in the past month. Given that there are only around 25 cyclists deaths per year in the capital, that is a rather unfortunate concentration and suggests that numbers may be increasing.

Partly, of course, it is a reflection of the vast increase in numbers of cyclists. Certainly in north London cycling has become almost as established as it is in northern European countries, though we still have nothing like the infrastructure to support it. It is not uncommon to find half a dozen cyclists waiting at the lights together and at the Angel Islington, a key thoroughfare for people living in both Hackney and Islington, the hordes of cyclists at times outnumber cars.

All the victims in my local area were women and given that, strangely, women only represent just above a third of cyclists in the capital – an oddity in itself since, on the Continent, the ratios are normally around 50 – 50 – this suggests they may be suffering disproportionately from accidents.
Research by Transport for London found that most of the women casualties were killed by HGVs and there is a suggestion that this may be because they are more inclined to obey traffic signals than men. Many of the deaths are caused by HGVs turning left at junctions where it is very difficult to see nearside cyclists.

This raises a very interesting question. If it is safer for cyclists not to obey traffic signals, then why should they? Certainly, they are hardly likely to cause injury or death to anyone if they make a mistake and have an accident after going through a red signal. Although the issue of cyclists hitting pedestrians is frequently raised, in most years no deaths result from these types of accidents.

Therefore, this raises an even wider question. The road environment is not laid out for cyclists. It is designed for cars, in such a way that they are often encouraged them to go faster. Modern highway engineering practice is gradually changing this but there is an awful long way to go. Traffic lights would have little purpose if there were not so many cars, and, indeed, there is some consideration been given to the idea of allowing cars to turn left at red traffic lights, as happens on the continent which would, incidentally, increase risks for cyclists even further if they were going straight on and therefore had to stop.

Why, therefore, should cyclists obey red lights? There is much discussion within cycling groups about this issue. Many cyclists do, indeed, go through red lights. I do myself sometimes, particularly when I see that it would be far safer than actually waiting. It is very interesting that I can’t recall a single accident happening to a cyclist in these circumstances, even though going through red lights has become almost routine in London.

This a problem for the perception of cyclists. They are seen as lawbreakers by motorists though, of course, could any of these car drivers hold their hands up and say they obey the speed limits at all times? That perception should not be allowed to influence unduly the debate as it is too easy to suggest that all cyclists are simply lawbreakers who should be tarred with the same brush.

Given the growth in cycling, there is a need to have a real informed debate about this issue. Perhaps there needs to be legal changes. Possibly cyclists could be allowed to turn left or even go through the lights at pedestrian phases when all the lights are red for motorists. If cycling does increase at the current rate in the capital – and hopefully elsewhere – then there will be a need not only to change the lay out of roads, with many more facilities for cyclists, but also the rules governing their use.

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