Danger from behind

There was an intriguing (and revealing) detail in the thinking behind Lord Scott of Foscote’s strange intervention during a question about cycling safety in the House of Lords last week.

Lord Jordan asked the Minister of State for transport, Baroness Kramer, about the Government’s assessment of a recent YouGov poll, carried out for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Lord Scott saw this as the perfect opportunity to chip in, not with a helpful contribution to the debate, but instead with an evident personal bugbear – people cycling with headphones.

Does the Minister agree that a cyclist’s main protection should be his or her own eyes and ears? The eyes are there to warn against impending danger from the front and the ears ought to assist in identifying impending danger from behind. I cycle regularly from my flat in Camden to Westminster—it used to be Lincoln’s Inn, then it was the Royal Courts of Justice and now it is Westminster—and I am appalled by the number of cyclists who bicycle with earplugs in their ears listening to music. If they listen to music, they cannot possibly hear any danger approaching from behind. There are regulations to ensure the use of lights on bicycles in dark or dingy weather. Should there not also be a regulation to prevent the highly dangerous practice to which I have referred?

I say this is intriguing and revealing because of the form of the response to ‘danger from behind.’

Lord Scott of Foscote’s preferred approach to dealing with ‘danger from behind’ is to bring in legislation banning people from using headphones, so they will have a better chance of… hearing it coming. Great.

Worse still, the mere act of listening to music itself is described – apparently in all seriousness – as ‘highly dangerous’. By the same logic, someone who is deaf daring to cycle on London’s roads would be ‘highly dangerous’.

The misdirection is extraordinary. Listening to music while riding a bike is in no way dangerous, in and of itself. Indeed, I’ve compiled a picture post of all the things Dutch people do while riding bikes that aren’t the least bit dangerous.

DSCN9946But these are activities that, in the UK, are framed as somehow ‘dangerous’, thanks to our lovely way of loading blame onto the vulnerable road user.

What is actually dangerous isn’t a pair of headphones – it is, literally, the thing that’s coming ‘from behind’, be it an HGV, bus, van or car.

What's dangerous here? Music, or thunderous motor traffic?

What’s dangerous here? Music, or thunderous motor traffic?

The proper response to that danger should either be to provide people cycling with their own parallel route, separate from those vehicles, or to limit the speed, volume and mass of that motor traffic on routes that are shared. This is called ‘Sustainable Safety’, and it explains why Dutch users of bicycles are far, far less likely to be killed or injured than their British counterparts, despite engaging in all kinds of allegedly ‘dangerous’ activity.

Rather than loading yet more responsibility onto the person most at risk, we need roads and streets that are designed to keep people safe, even when they’re engaging in harmless activities.

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25 Responses to Danger from behind

  1. Jim says:

    Good post.

    Also, maybe it’s just my earphones, but I’ve always found the sound of traffic tends to drown out the music rather than the other way around …

  2. bz2 says:

    If I couldn’t listen to music or podcasts on my way to work, I would stop commuting by bike. Being forced to listen to the wind whistling in your ears and traffic roaring past for an hour… try selling that to any motorist.

  3. Paul says:

    As a cyclist my primary responsibility is to avoid going into things in front of me. (pedestrians suddenly stepping into the road for example). Things behind me should likewise avoid going into me. (yes ; I do signal when turning right ).

  4. jeldering says:

    Of course, if ear phones are to be banned on bicycles, then, logically, also car radios should be banned, and maybe even driving with windows closed, since these similarly impede hearing traffic sounds.

    • Tim says:

      But this has nothing to do with logic. Cyclists are forced to use infrastructure which is inherently dangerous and unpleasant through no fault of their own, and because of that they are expected to meet the same high standards of behaviour as those posing the risk.

      And then, as you point out, they are expected to meet even higher standards because they are the ones at greater risk – they will be on the receiving end. Insult to injury, and completely backwards.

  5. Yep his comments just smack of victim blaming and in a similar way to the signs that are currently outside the House of Parliament as you ride along “Cyclist beware site traffic turning left” erm what? I appreciate we have to look out for ourselves and it’s always safest to assume the idiot indicating ahead of you isn’t going to notice you or stop to let you pass before completing their turn, but surely the driver who is attempting to make the turn has a responsibility too?

    As for cycling with headphones being dangerous if we are going to ban them then my a logical extension all deaf people should be banned from cycling too. We should also consider the removal or radios and roofs in motor vehicles so their drivers also have a much better audio awareness of the dangers approaching from behind. The latter would also be useful as drivers could then hear me yell at them as they narrowly miss killing me….

    • pm says:

      Yeah, why no sign saying “site traffic – be aware of cyclists”?

      I’ve noticed a few posters appearing recently asking motorists to look more carefully at junctions – apart from the long-standing campaigns about looking out for motorbikes (I still remember the guy with the hammer and the squishy fruit) such things seem noticeable for their rarity.

      Its almost always ‘vulnerable party – watch out for my car because I’m not going to look’.

  6. David Cohen says:

    As you say, it’s the usual type of response that just backs up the biking culture in the UK – blame the cyclist.

  7. arie says:

    Is it forbidden to cycle in the UK when you are deaf? Older people with hearing aids?

  8. Chris R says:

    Quite unclear what I’m expected to do on hearing danger from behind. Get out of the way is, I suspect, the implication. Which isn’t exactly satisfactory.

  9. Har Davids says:

    There are a lot more accidents in The Netherlands because of people riding bikes while distracted by their music and smart-phones, making it more dangerous for themselves and others. I avoid having loud music on when driving a car, because I want to hear as much as possible of what’s going on around me, even with the windows closed. Don’t forbid the use of headphones, but people should use common sense. After all, you don’t blind-fold yourself when venturing out in the street, either.

    • Jake says:

      Where to start with this?

      Pedestrians, riders and drivers in the Netherlands benefit from a huge network of separated ways, so distraction of any of them is less likely to result in serious injury. That might explain why they are on their phones in the first place (search for a post on the use of Aero handlebars in NL).

      If we take a canard like this to the outer limits, we could argue that naked cycling should be compulsory, so that riders can gain the maximum information on their environment from air temperature, humidity and movement. Riders should also be banned from chewing gum or sucking a mint, because that will render them completely unaware of the warning tang of diesel fumes in the back of their throat.

      Perhaps we should make it compulsory for riders to fit mirrors on their helmet visors and drill a couple of holes through the backs of their heads so they can be fully aware of traffic behind them?

      Why would you limit your senses in any way in such a hostile, dangerous environment where your only defence is total awareness?

      • Har Davdis says:

        As long as motorists are allowed to rule, pedestrians and cyclists have to rely on themselves for safety, I’m afraid. When driving a car, I assume everybody is out to get me, when on a bike I assume the same. And I wasn’t joking when I mentioned distraction as a factor in many accidents.

        • pm says:

          As I said below though – how far do you take that ‘defensiveness’ and ‘risk aversion’?

          Most people take it to its logical conclusion and don’t cycle at all. As you, unlike the vast majority, have decided to draw the line before that point, on what basis can you declare that no-one can decide for themselves to draw it slightly earlier than you?

          Plus, if you truly ‘assumed everyone else was out to get me’ you’d not leave the house at all, or you’d at least get yourself a gun (though some sort of rocket launcher might be more useful for a cyclist). Certainly you would never cycle on the road.

          As we live in a society that is supposed to have rules, people can surely be forgiven for expecting at least a certain measure of care from others? Exactly how far any individual takes that is a personal issue surely?

  10. hannahc says:

    Thinking on it, I reckon there are three scenarios where headphones might cause danger:

    – Fiddling with earphones/changing song (particularly on a smarthphone or ipod touch with no physical buttons).
    – Making turns on quiet residential streets where parked cars completely obscure visibility around junctions.
    – Not realising that there is a vehicle behind you when moving out into the road.

    Now, the first situation is dangerous because you are distracted. One hand on the handlebars, eyes on the device, absolute recipe for disaster in terms of crashing into the back of a parked car or another cyclist, or indeed hitting a pothole. However, it’s no different from danger from fiddling with your bike GPS, or indeed for a driver changing the car radio, eating a sandwich or smoking a cigarette. And anyway, there isn’t exactly an epidemic of bikes crashing into parked cars or kerbs.

    The second situation is dangerous because of parked cars. ‘Hearing’ your way around a junction is very dangerous in and of itself (you won’t hear Priuses or other bikes, for instance), and wearing headphones might actually increase safety by forcing you to stop and look. Never mind that a car making the same turn doesn’t have a hope in hell of seeing or hearing around the junction for other cars/bikes/pedestrians. There’s a solution to the problem, but it’s sensible parking restrictions, not headphone-banning.

    The third situation is dangerous because numpties swerve out without looking or signalling. This is a classic characteristic of less experienced and child cyclists, who can’t quite balance to look around and don’t really understand that they are but one user of a much larger road/cycle path. Is this the type of person that really is able to accurately and safely judge the distance and speed of an approaching vehicle by sound alone? Probably not. Instead, best spend your time and effort on bikeability and other training, and cycle infrastructure so that the tiniest mistake by a cyclist doesn’t end up with them flattened by an articulated lorry.

  11. Simon says:

    If someone is relying heavily on their ears, they will eventually come across a psycho in a Prius.

    • D. says:

      Isn’t that situation *exactly the same* as when we (cycling) complain about pedestrians who just step out in front of us because they couldn’t hear a car engine and so (wrongly) assume that the road is clear?

  12. This Lord’s comments are odd, because of the way he assigns blame compared to the social norm.
    When reading the following, who do you immediately assign blame to?
    “She was driving along the road, when he drove into the back of her car”.
    It’s obvious. The car behind is to blame. No mention of whether the lady driver was concentrating, changing radio stations, looking at the road, on the phone or looking in horror in her rear view mirror.
    The driver who rear-ended her is to blame. He should have left a safe gap, only attempted to overtake when safe, etc etc.

    So why does this buffoon think it’s any different for riders who are forced onto the road?

  13. Oh, and I’m deaf in my right ear, which sucks for hearing traffic in this country (it’s a lot noisier in France!). But don’t tell the PCSOs on Op Safeway that or they’ll take my bike off me.

  14. Jim Moore says:

    I presume Lord Fusscock would be OK if cyclists were listening to death-metal.
    Badum tish! I’ll get my coat.

    PS Good post, much appreciated as usual.

  15. Mike says:

    I know, I know, there’s a huge amount of victim blaming going on here and yes, the counter argument about banning car radios does hold some water. But none of that removes from cyclists the obligation to be the best we can. Be alert, use your senses, don’t aim at the lowest common denominator.
    It may not be fair, it may not be a level playing field but we shouldn’t let such inequalities mask the need to ride defensively. More years ago than I care to remember, my father, who was a betting man, instilled in me the need to shave the odds in my favour. Wise words indeed.

    • pm says:

      Well, yes, but the most defensive stance of all is to not get on a bike to begin with, and get a car (or take the bus).

      You presumably aren’t prepared to be _that_ defensive, so others can draw the line at a different point, no? I don’t listen to headphones (on the road) and I do usually wear a helmet, but I don’t wear high-viz, for example. Almost everyone I know goes further in being ‘defensive’ and opts for taking the bus as their preferred form of safety measure.

      I don’t know any of us can say our particular position is the ‘correct’ one for everyone, surely its better to concentrate on changing the transport environment?

      • pm says:

        Having said that, my main reason for not using headphones is less not hearing what’s behind me, and more just that I believe it would affect my concentration. I believe its been shown that listening to music does make it harder to concentrate on tasks (which maybe says something about drivers and their car stereos as well).

      • Mike says:

        I didn’t suggest we lived our whole lives defensively pm, instead I thought we should ride defensively. The riding is, at least for me, essential.

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