I’m a London cyclist. I stop at traffic lights, I wear a helmet, and I even have an embarrassingly luminous jacket. After reading about the deaths of countless other twenty-something female cyclists, I hang back behind HGVs.
And Transport secretary Chris Grayling opening a car door without looking is bloody terrifying.
It’s happened to me before. I’m one of the slowest cyclists around, but even so, when someone opened the car door within a metre of me it was all I could do to shout and swerve out of the way. I thought immediately of a friend in Canada who wasn’t so quick, and ended up with severe injuries. The man who had opened it looked at me with some confusion, as if he couldn’t understand why I was so scared and angry.
The video that has emerged shows Grayling emerge from his ministerial car in the aftermath of the accident on a congested London street. According to the Guardian, the car door had opened and sent the cyclist, Jaiqi Liu, crashing into a lamp post (a spokesman for Grayling called the incident an unfortunate accident and said the minister apologised).
Liu says that Grayling got out of the car to check he was OK, but couldn’t resist also giving him a sermon on cycling too fast (Liu says he wasn’t). The video emerged after the passing cyclist who filmed it read about Grayling ticking off cyclists for running red lights and criticising cycle lanes.
Of course, there are cyclists that break the rules, and there is a testosterone-fuelled Lycra brigade that frankly I could do without on my commute home. But if the rules are reasonable, and keep you safe, most cyclists obey them. Just look at the traffic at a red light on a popular cycle route home.
Every time a cyclist dies, somewhere an angry driver somewhere shakes his head and thinks of the guy who didn’t have a helmet last night. But it is verging on offensive to suggest that cyclists breaking minor written or unwritten rules are somehow responsible for the dangers of injury or death. Cycling accidents overwhelmingly occur at junctions, in the daylight, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The most common reason for a collision with a motor vehicle and a bike is simply that most human of errors – “failed to look properly” – and in a slight majority of cases it is the driver’s fault.
I remember how much I resented being lectured by a policeman on my loose helmet about five minutes away from the notorious Elephant & Castle roundabout, where HGVs have ploughed down cyclists for years. Yes, it’s good to protect your head, but last time I checked, that doesn’t protect you if a 26-tonne lorry turns onto a cycle lane. To join in with a culture of blaming cyclists reveals a startling complacency about the patterns behind cyclists’ deaths.
The fact is, if a cyclist skips a red light, or is in the wrong lane, or just cycles “too fast” (despite being under the speed limit), and an accident happens, it is the cyclist who dies. And if a truck skips a red light, or is in the wrong lane, or is over the speed limit, and an accident happens, it is also the cyclist who dies.
And the solution is not “give up your bike”. Successive London mayors have encouraged cycling is not because they are fluffy green bunnies or climate warriors, but because the public transport system is overloaded, and cars already clog up the road. The same could be said for the centre of Bristol, or Edinburgh, or Manchester. In London over the past five years, this pragmatic leadership has transformed my experience of cycling. It is now possible to cross central London using almost exclusively cycle lanes, and I no longer have any hesitation in encouraging others to take up the habit.
However, this transformation would not have come about without the unpaid work of volunteer cyclists who propose junction ideas, teach others to cycle safely and give feedback when accidents happen. If the Transport secretary learns anything from this encounter, it should be that next time an unfortunate accident occurs, he asks the cyclist what went wrong, and listens to them.