Giving cyclists a bad name


Picture courtesy of road.cc

You may remember this story from last year.

An Iraqi Kurd whose initial claim for asylum in the UK had been turned down was allowed to stay because immigration judges in Manchester ruled that, as he had a British wife and two children, it would not be right to deport him and destroy that family. But 33-year-old Aso Mohammed Ibrahim is not the average asylum case: he had been convicted of a string of motoring offences, including failing to stop after an accident in which his car hit and killed a 12-year-old girl.

Amy Houston was hit by Ibrahim’s car in November 2003. She died six hours later in hospital after her family had to take the decision to turn off her life support systems. Ibrahim, who was not charged with causing the accident, had already been banned from driving and was convicted of fleeing the scene and driving while disqualified. But although he served a four-month prison sentence, there were no moves by the authorities at the time to have him removed from the UK. (He had arrived here in the back of a lorry in 2001, on the run from Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds.)

The initial story – the killing of the child – did not, for some reason, garner as much attention as the subsequent attempts to deport him some seven years later, which rapidly became a media storm.

A friend of mine – who is both a Kurd, and a motorist – was horrified by the behaviour of this individual, and wrote several letters to national newspapers, as the story hit the headlines last year, decrying him. She was worried about how his actions might tar the reputation of all motorists – good, law-abiding motorists like her.

No, of course not. She was worried how it might tar the reputation of all Kurds – good, law-abiding Kurds like her.

I don’t blame her. There aren’t many Kurds in the UK – only about 200,000. None of them is particularly prominent. So it was probably a bit upsetting that just about the only Kurd in the public eye last year was a callous bastard. It is therefore understandable that her response was to write letters pointing out that not all Kurds are like him, and indeed that the Kurdish community was just as horrified by his behaviour as the general public, even if it is only irrational people, or bigots, who might think otherwise.

To a lesser extent, this kind of logic works for cyclists. Among the people who get most upset by cyclists jumping red lights or riding on the pavement are the good, law-abiding cyclists, who worry about the effect the misbehaviour of these individuals is having on the reputation of cyclists more generally. There is an implicit recognition, in this hostile attitude towards cycling law-breakers, that there aren’t very many of us - and so the behaviour of these few individuals could quite easily tar the reputation of the rest of us. It’s a law of small numbers.

If the killer driver in Manchester had been – for instance – of Pakistani descent, or Welsh, I doubt any member of these communities would have felt the need to write letters to the national press, because the number of people who are Welsh, or of Pakistani descent, is sufficiently large to offset any potential assumptions about these communities as a whole. There are also plenty of prominent Welsh and Pakistani individuals in public life.

The same cannot really be said for cyclists. That’s why they tend to react in the same way as my Kurdish friend to the law-breaking of members of their group. Cycling forums are full of complaints about red light-jumping cyclists. We also see groups like Stop At Red -

Stopatred is a campaign to improve the status of cycling in the eyes of the public and policy-makers alike, and to tackle the attitudes of those cyclists whose behaviour perpetuates the image of cyclists as a low-status social ‘out-group’ on wheels.

Its specific focus is on the disregard of traffic signals.

It also has two general aims:

  • To encourage cyclists to show courtesy towards other road users and pedestrians.
  • To encourage greater compliance with the laws of the road.

Stopatred was created by concerned cyclists, alarmed about how the cause of cycling is being undermined by the reckless actions of an unrepresentative minority.

The primary motivation – as explicitly stated – is to improve the image of cyclists. But to me, attempting to achieve this through ‘greater compliance’ is as futile as attempting to stop all Kurds in Britain from committing crimes. A subset of all human beings will always be unthinking, or uncaring, or even malevolent. Some of these people will be Kurds, or bicycle users.

As I wrote earlier in the year, Stop At Red – and other cyclists who get angered by red light jumping – misdiagnose why cyclists continue to be seen as an ‘out-group’. It’s not because of the lawless behaviour of a minority of cyclists. Indeed, I am fairly certain that the proportion of law-breaking cyclists is approximately similar to the proportion of law-breaking motorists, despite the amount of column inches devoted to lawless cyclists. It’s because the vast majority of the UK population does not ride a bike, or even know anyone who rides a bike.

 Not many people ride bikes, while ‘everyone’ is a motorist. ‘Everyone’ has gambled their way through an amber light while driving, or glanced at their phone on the motorway, or been caught by a speed camera. These kinds of offences, because they are committed by ‘everyone’, are seen as part of the ‘natural’ make-up of being a road user, in a way that offences committed by a small minority – cyclists – are not.

It’s also why this parody of anti-cycling attitudes by Ian Walker is so absurdly funny -taking the language of anti-cycling prejudice and applying it to pedestrians highlights how ridiculous these attitudes are simply because everyone is a pedestrian at some point.

Those members of the public who whinge continuously about pavement cycling and red light jumping – and who simultaneously tend to ignore the concurrent law-breaking by other road users – are not going to be won over by a reduction in the numbers of cyclists who break laws, or even near-perfect compliance. For whatever reason, they hate cyclists; they are irrational morons, who draw conclusions about cyclists as a whole in much the same way that a bigot might leap to assumptions about the British Kurdish community based on the behaviour of one Kurdish criminal. They are not worth bothering with.

The only reason their attitudes get some traction in the local press and on the internet is because cycling is not seen as a normal, everyday activity by the population as a whole. When, if (God forbid), it is seen as such – when parents can let their young children cycle to school by themselves; when women can cycle into town looking as glamorous as they want to; when businessmen and women can turn up to meetings on a bike without being thought of as eccentric – their opinions will be laughed at.

So let’s ignore them, and concentrate on making cycling an obvious choice for everyone.

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9 Responses to Giving cyclists a bad name

  1. Rob Bushill says:

    If bicycles were seen as objects for transport and not as sporting goods it would go a long way to change perceptions. Even the industry regards bicycles as sports equipment, most fervent ‘cyclists’ hold this view too….Time for change…ebay and amazon all list bikes as sporting goods…not only is it inaccurate (most bikes (sports shaped or otherwise) are used for getting from one place to another). Perceptions need to change and the root of it is how the bicycle is perceived. Bicycle should be regarded as transport solutions not sports friparies. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/persuade-ebay-to-reclassify-bicycles-as-vehicles-not-sporting-goods/

  2. I’ve just come back from work and sat down and read this post. Alright I did the trip on my CF, streamlined road bike but it was still used as a means to commute from A to B. I also have a nice MTB that I do consider a fun bike and is used mainly off road. I have another bike though, a utilitarian, heavyish, pannier racked, mudguarded, hub geared, dynamoed lighted machine I can take out in all weathers and times. Despite the fact I do cycle for fun and ‘sport’ my main cycling is still utilitarian in nature. If I could only keep one bike it would the last one. I second Robs call that bicycles should be regarded as transport solutions not sports friparies (on the whole and as long as I can still ride for pure if I wish!).

    Oh, the picture above was from a BBC Inside Out programme back in early 2010 I believe. I made a little video at the time demonstrating it was not just the cyclist who was RLJing and wondered why it was only the two wheeled, non-motorised infringers who were being targeted. Feel free to use it if you wish.

  3. Couldn’t have said it better

  4. Henz says:

    #’s 3, 6 & 13 from the Driver Privilege Checklist! (https://scintillator.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/the-driver-privilege-checklist/)

    It is sad that some people (many of whom have cycled in their teens) find cycling weird and can’t imagine that other road users might also want some of the safety, space and privilege almost exclusively afforded to drivers.

  5. Mike Chalkley - Chair Bournemouth Cycling Forum says:

    Out of approx 4,000,000 registered full license holders in the UK, we get over 3,500,000 prosecutions each year for driving offences. That’s not to touch on the over 10,000,000 parking ones! That’s just people being caught.

  6. The bad behaviour of a minority of cyclists isn’t all bad: it gives me the opportunity to speak on the radio on phone-in questions like “Are we being tough enough on cyclists who break the law?” as I did on Tuesday on BBC Radio Surrey & Sussex. There was the usual poor lady who’d been knocked over by a cyclist in a car park, but most people phoning in were in favour of cycling as a mode of transport: especially since the previous topic had been how people are struggling to pay their motor fuel bills.

    There is a definite change in feel compared to similar phone-ins I took part in a decade ago, and not only because the presenter cycles to work now. The tide is turning :)

  7. Excellent article. Very good.

    A minor point: Mike Chalkley – I think you mean 40 million, not 4 million full license holders?

    Actually we can’t ignore them – and in fact this article is a good example of how to not ignore them. (If you really ignored them you wouldn’t write the article).
    In fact, saying, “OK, let’s look at who really is breaking the law” takes you into an area which is generally taboo: You get to see just how crap motorists are, and also how hopeless things like “the driving test” are at controlling what they do are.

    But you are absolutely right about the “out group” psychology works: I come from an ethnic minority and fear of persecution was behind a very strong cultural thrust to get all of “our lot” to be good people at all times. Not only is this impossible – but it is not the reason for the persecution in the first place- you really are ion a hiding to nothing if you go down this route.

  8. Pingback: There is no ‘us’ | As Easy As Riding A Bike

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