Should one-way streets be two-way for cyclists?

Having spotted this recent piece on about a Brighton cyclist fined for cycling against the traffic in a one way street, my memory was triggered about a Department for Transport trial scheme in London to permit cyclists to do exactly that. I dug around a little.

The first story I found was a 2009 one in the Daily Mail announcing the trial scheme, and pointing out that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had recently been caught cycling the wrong way along a one-way street. The goal of the trial was to encourage more cycling by enabling cyclists to use the most direct routes to their destinations. The Daily Mail has a poll on the online story, the results of which can be interpreted as disappointing, with 84% of respondents stating the cyclists should not be allowed to cycle against the traffic. Of course, at least 84% of respondents are likely to be motorists who don’t cycle, so I think we can safely dismiss that bit of nonsense as not being relevant to the issue.

I couldn’t navigate my way through the DfT website to get an update on the trial but this blog story from BikeMinded last September warmed my heart because it’s clear that London is opening more and more of its streets to cyclists.

More London one-way streets are allowing cyclists to ride against the flow of traffic. When done responsibly, perhaps this is safer than having cars and trucks come up behind you?
More London one-way streets are allowing cyclists to ride against the flow of traffic. When done responsibly, perhaps this is safer than having cars and trucks come up behind you?

Brighton on the other hand remains in the cycling Dark Ages. Reportedly, Brighton police officer Elaine Welsh, said: “Cyclists travelling the wrong way in St James’s Street is the biggest complaint from local residents and business owners and can end in serious injury for both pedestrians and cyclists. We will be actively looking for those caught ignoring the one-way signs and issuing them with on the spot fines. I am pleased that Blaison’s (the offender) appeals were dismissed as he refused point blank to accept responsibility for his actions or almost hitting the pedestrian.”

Two things struck me about PC Welsh’s comments. First, her claim that cycling the wrong way along St James’s Street can end in serious injury for both pedestrians and cyclists is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Cycling anywhere there are pedestrians can do that. It doesn’t necessarily follow that cycling against the traffic along a one-way street is more dangerous than cycling along any other city street. Second, she felt that the cyclist should have accepted more responsibility for “almost hitting a pedestrian.” On that basis, shouldn’t we be able to prosecute all of the motorist that almost hit cyclists, or all the pedestrians who, on my commute into Bath, almost topple me from my bike by walking into the road without looking? If almost causing an accident is an offence, I’m sure Brighton’s streets could keep PC Welsh very busy indeed. She could probably notch up enough prosecutions to get promoted…so this could be just the thin end of the wedge.

The London experiment has shown conclusively that it is possible for cyclists to use one-way streets in both directions without increased risk to themselves or other road users, or pedestrians. It’s standard practice throughout most of Europe and expansion of such schemes in the UK has been encouraged by the CTC for many years. The most important thing is to ensure that we cycle responsibly and safely. At least when we’re riding against the traffic, we get the opportunity to look motorists in the eye, and to see where they’re looking as the come towards us. I think it’s time for a call to Bath City Council to see what they have to say on the matter…

Should the wearing of bicycle helmets be made compulsory in the UK?

I’m as sure as anyone can be that a bicycle helmet saved me from more serious injury, or worse, when I had a cycling accident in 2010. On a bright, clear, May morning, as I was coasting downhill on my Airnimal Chameleon folding bike, a jogger emerged from between parked vehicles directly into my path. He didn’t even cast a glance in my direction. As I swerved to avoid him, which I did reasonably successfully, I lost control of my bike. I hit the ground hard and slid across the road, only coming to a halt as the back of my head hit the corner of a raised kerb with enough impact to leave a deep dent about 3 inches long in the helmet and leave me unconscious on the tarmac. A doctor friend of mine who was riding behind me is also convinced that the helmet was a potential life save in this accident. None of the drama of a car crash, or getting caught in the left-hand blindspot of a lorry, but this simple accident, which happened at about 15 mph put me in hospital for two weeks and out of work for six. Unsurprisingly, I’m a very strong advocate of wearing a helmet when cycling. But then again I always have been, and perhaps it saved my life.

Meanwhile the arguments for an against compulsory helmet wearing rage on, some supported by “scientific” papers and others by anecdote or “common sense”. The most recent CTC campaign brief (which by its very title suggests that it comes from a position of bias) is called “Cycle helmets: An overview of the evidence.” It pushes the same tired old arguments we’ve been hearing for years and even throws in some statistical equations to bolster its credibility. You would have to devote months of study to really get to the truth about the quality of most of the evidence presented and I am sure there will holes in the methodology and/or conclusions of most the papers referenced. And don’t forget, when giving an overview of any evidence, you can be selective in exactly which evidence you choose to review. How much of the evidence in favour of wearing helmets ended up in the waste bin under the reviewer’s desk? It’s not unknown for a researcher to respond to the question, “What do you think the result will be?” with “What result would you like?” The CTC has a clearly stated position and it’s not going to publish evidence that contradicts that position. To be fair, this most recent paper does cite 140 references to others, in case you’ve nothing on your plate for the next couple of years. But, having reviewed a random sample, the relevance of some of these papers to the arguments presented do seem rather tenuous and a large number of them are for studies conducted outside of the UK, where cycling conditions are often totally different to those encountered on our roads.

Cycling helmet
Is it really not worth £50 to reduce your chances of injury in some cycling accidents?

Despite my advocacy for helmet wearing, I agree with the conclusions of a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics last year (2012) that argues convincingly against the imposition of a legal requirement to wear a cycling helmet, except perhaps in the case of children. In a paper entitled “Liberty or death; don’t tread on me“, authors Hooper and Spicer provide a very coherent case for civil liberties to be to taken into consideration, whilst acknowledging that helmets do provide a degree of protection against head injuries in some instances (as concluded by the BMA’s research). If over 30,000 smokers die of lung cancer and tens of thousands die from alcohol related diseases, why should we legislate for the 200 or so deaths and 2000 or so injuries that are inflicted on cyclists each year, particularly when most of these outcomes would not be prevented by helmets, when we don’t prevent people causing themselves serious harm in other ways? (By the way, if somebody cycles for 50 years, don’t the numbers become a bit more scary: 10,000 deaths and 100,000 serious injuries over that period.)

I will always wear a cycling helmet because I believe I have benefited from that practice and may well do so again in the future. I would much rather that somebody took up cycling than be put off by a legal requirement to wear a helment, and we all have a duty to our children to do everything we can to protect them. I’m in the fortunate position that the cost of a helmet does not deter me from cycling at all, but I recognise that for some it probably does. I would rather they cycled without a helmet than not at all, so long as they understand that the head is a pretty important piece of kit, and of far greater value than the price of a helment. It’s also the heaviest part of the body and striking the ground with it is more than a little risky.

When I see others cycling without helmets, I don’t consider them to stupid. However, I do think that their decision is unwise and I will  encourage them to reconsider. In this controversial matter, doing what we believe to be right does not mean imposing our opinions on others through legislative process. I just wish the CTC would stop clouding the issues with irrelevant data, and start promoting helmet use in a positive way. Or maybe the organisation is frightened of giving the government a stick to beat them with: “You think it’s important for cyclists to wear helmets, so why shouldn’t we compel them to do so?”

After the accident I mentioned at the start of this post, I was very ably supported by the CTC’s legal firm in gaining significant compensation from the jogger for the injuries I suffered. (Incidentally, the guy at no stage during my extended and painful recovery ever bothered to enquire about the state I was in, or even if I had survived the fall – despite the fact that was unconscious on the ground after the event.) The final irony of this story is that I was advised by Paul Kitson, the CTC’s legal eagle at Russel Jones & Walker, that if I had not been wearing a helmet, I may have received a lower level of compensation due to contributory negligence. How do you square that with the CTC’s neutral stance on the subject?