Risk: do the authorities understand?

This article was published in 2008, in Newsletter 81.

The reception I’ve received from more than one authority recently makes me wonder if they understand the concept of ‘risk’. We all need to understand such things, and to learn how to assess risks in our daily lives. Someone who thought the world was so dangerous they wouldn’t get out of bed would be more likely to meet an early death, compared with someone who ventured into a wider world and looked after their health.

Also, society is far more tolerant of activities that, although ‘risky’ to the person concerned, do not create significant dangers for others.

In my younger days I used to go rock climbing. Some would consider this a dangerous activity, but even if I had made a misjudgement, error or even have done something stupid, it was highly unlikely that I’d have injured others.

Others I knew drove fast cars for their thrills, and remember this was before a 70mph limit. They were probably ‘safer’ than I was when climbing, but society was not so tolerant of the risks this posed to others, hence the law takes a dim view of such activities.

So what has this to do with cycling?

Like rock climbing, cycling can be dangerous. If you do stupid things you are unlikely to cause serious injury to others, but may not escape so lightly yourself. Some may beg to differ, but statistics support my arguments.

Driving a motor vehicle is different. If the driver makes a misjudgement, error or does something stupid, they may escape without a scratch but leave another dead. Again statistics support my arguments. Society should treat such incidents seriously.

What are the statistics that support my arguments? The Cycling Touring Club (CTC) has produced a briefing note that covers this issue:

  • In London between 2001-05 ten vulnerable users and three motor vehicle occupants were killed where a motorist jumped a red light. Two cyclists were killed by jumping red lights. No pedestrians have been killed either by a footway cyclist, or a red light jumper in any of the last ten years in London, yet 54 pedestrians have been killed by motor vehicles on the footway.
  • Nationally 3894 pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2000-04. On average nearly one pedestrian is killed each week by a motor vehicle on a footway or verge (we’ve had one such incident in Cambridge recently). Just nine pedestrian deaths involved cyclists, none of them on the footway. The remainder of these deaths involved motor vehicles.
The authorities need to take a fresh look at ‘risk’ and take crashes injuring pedestrians and cyclists more seriously

Perhaps the authorities need to take a fresh look at ‘risk’. Crashes where motorists injure pedestrians and cyclists need to be taken more seriously. We need to look at areas where the behaviour of motorists, such as inappropriate speed, or just the volume of traffic, creates risks for vulnerable users. Often this is to the extent that it restricts the freedom of the old and young because of the risks, created by others, that they now face.

Ticketing cyclists without lights, in a well-lit city centre street with severely restricted motor vehicle access, may look good in the pages of a local paper. It does little to make the lives of legal cyclists on busy roads safer.

Perhaps crashes that injure vulnerable users should score higher for remedial work, or perhaps areas with many such users just need to be treated differently as they are in so many other countries. If those who undertook dangerous activities that endanger others carried the legal liability, unless it was shown that others were negligent, perhaps they would behave with more care.

Cyclists and pedestrians are vulnerable road users. We are seriously disadvantaging them by comparing their errors and misjudgements with those of a bad motorist.

Jim Chisholm