OPINION - Call me a cynic, but I don’t see the Highway Code changes making cycling safer

·5-min read
OPINION - Call me a cynic, but I don’t see the Highway Code changes making cycling safer

Call me cynical, but do I expect the changes to the Highway Code to keep me safe on my bike ride to work? No I do not.

Readers may be aware there’s been some wilful misrepresentation of the forthcoming changes from members of the pro-motoring lobby.

No, they do not mean giving over our cities to “Lycra-clad lunatics on racing bikes” nor enabling “anti-car fanatics” to wreck the economy nor being fined £1,000 if you don’t open the car door with your left hand.

What they should mean is that the more vulnerable – pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders – get greater protection from those driving vehicles that kill more than 100 Londoners and seriously injure about 4,000 a year.

Well, that’s the theory – though I doubt things will change much in practice.

Let’s look at the latest statistics. There were 112 road deaths in London in 2021, according to TfL’s provisional data. This includes 54 pedestrians, 14 motorbike or scooter riders, 10 cyclists and three e-scooter riders.

The total was down from 121 road deaths in 2020 and 146 in 2019, largely due to the pandemic reducing the number of journeys.

The number of cyclists being killed or seriously injured is increasing – though the increase in those on two wheels means that the risk per journey has gone down.

Tragically, as I write, I’m told that a cyclist has been critically injured in a collision in Surbiton on Wednesday morning, with what appears to be a skip lorry, one of the greatest terrors on the road.

On my ride home from the office the other night, the hazards were familiar. A van driver swinging his door open without thought. Drivers racing through traffic lights, well after they had gone red.

Motorcyclists in the cyclists’ advance stop box. Vans and lorries parked blatantly on pavements and in supposedly segregated cycle lanes.

I’d love to know when these drivers last read the Highway Code. I’ll bet my bike on them having no plans to consider the forthcoming amendments, either.

I don’t want to give the impression that cycling is dangerous in London per se. It’s not – but you’ve certainly got to keep your wits about you.

I ride defensively at all times. I make myself as visible as possible, with high-viz clothing, a helmet and four lights. For my own protection, I still have to yell at drivers who somehow fail to see me.

My commute to the office follows every possible cycle route. In 25 years of cycling in London, I’ve fallen off three times, and it’s always been my fault (ice, clip-in shoes, misjudging a cycle superhighway kerb).

But there have been a few very close shaves, including with an Ocado van in Marylebone that still gives me the shivers. I wouldn’t recommend the ride for a child or a novice adult cyclist.

For me, the biggest road danger is speed, and the updated Highway Code can do little to tackle this.

TfL is reportedly seeking one million speeding fines a year.

It’s been denied by Sadiq Khan, but I say: Bring it on. The aggression on our roads is unmistakable.

Put a speed camera on every residential road and I’ll promise you this: Not a single driver who sticks to the speed limit will pay a fine.

The changes to the Highway Code are noble in their intent. Rule 66 says: “You can ride two abreast and it can be safer to do so” – and drivers should be allowed to overtake when safe.

Rule 125 warns: “Unsafe speed increases the chances of causing a collision (or being unable to avoid one), as well as its severity. Inappropriate speeds are also intimidating, deterring people from walking, cycling or riding horses.”

And, in response to a personal bete noire, Rule 140 states: “You MUST NOT drive or park in a cycle lane marked by a solid white line during its times of operation… You should give way to any cyclists in a cycle lane, including when they are approaching from behind you – do not cut across them.”

The attempts to prevent the deadly risk from “dooring” are good too.

I’ve written about too many cyclists who have died as a consequence of an opening door, among them Sam Harding, Professor Maria Bitner-Glindzicz, and Hilary Wilmer.

The reality is that it still takes effort to cycle safely in London.

There was the perfect example last week, when I tried to plan a safe route to the new City Hall, in the Royal Docks.

On Twitter, fellow cyclists made helpful suggestions – alongside dire warnings about the risk of being mugged on the Greenway or on the canal towpath.

Most bemoaned the lack of safe cycle infrastructure to a landmark venue, though London is in a far better place than it was a decade ago. In the end, I made it there and back unscathed.

The rewording of the Highway Code is one small step along the road to safer cycling, that includes the Mayor’s target of eradicating road deaths by 2041, an aspiration which sadly looks unachievable.

But the debate about the merits (or flaws) in the new code mustn’t detract from the bigger issues: the need to build more safe routes, and to enforce the law against dangerous drivers. All else is code for simply not doing enough.

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