A story doing the rounds at the moment is the case of Andrej Schipka, who knocked down a man in central London while cycling through a red light, leaving him with a fractured skull. Schipka was found guilty of careless cycling and fined £850, plus £930 costs. The victim, Clive Hyer, is apparently unlikely to be able to return to his old job, which is a tragedy.
His wife had this to say –
I want the whole world to know that cyclists have a duty of care to behave like human beings. It’s about time people stopped worrying about cyclists being killed by lorries if they do not conduct themselves in the right manner. He nearly killed my husband.
The first assertion is obviously entirely reasonable, but the second is not.
A person who happens to have been killed by a lorry while riding a bicycle, entirely blamelessly and innocently, has no necessary connection to another person on a bicycle who might be behaving in a reckless manner. The only thing they have in common, for certain, is the fact that they are both riding bicycles.
This is symptomatic of the persistent failure to treat ‘cyclists’ as individuals. Why should my safety while I happen to ride a bicycle be contingent about the good behaviour of other individuals who happen to be using the same mode of transport? Nobody would claim that we should cease to worry about innocent pedestrians or motorists being killed, because of the widespread foolish and/or dangerous behaviour of a minority of people who happen to be walking or driving about. It is perverse to apply the same logic to cycling as a mode of transport.
Mrs Hyer can be excused, of course, because her husband suffered a dreadful injury at the hands of a person riding a bicycle, which can cloud clarity of thinking.
The same cannot be said for the news media, where the usual suspects have predictably leapt gleefully on a story which serves to confirm all their latent prejudices about dangerous cycling and ‘lycra louts’. Stephen Glover in the Mail writes
In the city where I live, Oxford, cyclists almost uniformly ride through red lights… What is so extraordinary is that if you politely point out their infringement, normally peaceable souls are liable to yell obscenities at you, contorting their habitually placid faces with hate-filled rants. Rather as the internet can turn usually polite people into howling monsters, posting vile or threatening comments or blogs, so bicycles can have a similarly transformative effect on the mild-mannered and law-abiding.
In other words, lawlessness and unpleasantness are presumed to be the exclusive preserve of bicycle-riding, who ‘almost uniformly’ break the law. The fact that these traits probably exist amongst the population of bicycle riders in equal proportion to motorists – indeed anyone else – is ignored.
The Telegraph has also covered the story prominently. This is quite extraordinary for a paper that has not covered a single other pedestrian injury this year.
Let’s put this in perspective. If we consult the accident statistics for last year, we will find that nearly 20,000 pedestrians were hit by cars in 2011, of which nearly 4,000 suffered serious injuries. Doubtless a good proportion of those injuries resulted from incidents in which the motorist may have been entirely blameless, but it is reasonable to suppose that there were at least several thousand serious pedestrian injuries last year caused by motorists. The same will be true for this year.
The Telegraph has covered a couple of pedestrian deaths since January – the case of the student dragged to her death by a bus in north London, and the case of driver who killed a six-year-old boy in a hit and run.
But not a single pedestrian injury, serious or otherwise – out of the hundreds that have doubtless been inflicted this year by motorists – has been reported by the Daily Telegraph. Only Clive Hyer, who happened to have been seriously injured by a man riding a bicycle.
There is a plausible explanation for this extraordinary bias. Pedestrian injuries at the hands of people riding bicycles are rare, and consequently newsworthy. Serious pedestrian injuries inflicted by motorists, on the other hand, are exceedingly common, and consequently not very newsworthy. (Indeed newspapers would be full of little else if every single one was reported).
Man bites dog, in action.
I dare say there was a period, early in the twentieth century, when cars were not very common, when injuries inflicted on pedestrians by people riding bicycles did actually outnumber, considerably, those inflicted by people driving cars; yet it is probable that those latter injuries featured rather more prominently in newspapers than those inflicted by bicycle-users. The car was new, and scary, and the damage it caused was newsworthy, unlike the background of ‘regular’ injuries caused by bicycles.
Is there anything we can do about this latent bias in news reporting? Almost certainly not. The general public’s perception of the danger posed by bicycles will continue to be skewed wildly by the way reporting works. It is sad and ironic, nonetheless, that the great rarity of injuries inflicted by bicycle riders on pedestrians is itself the reason for the disproportionate reporting of those few incidents that do take place.