Talking about ‘danger’, again

Some thoughts about ‘danger’ and ‘dangerising’ cycling had been floating around in my head, following recent local discussion about whether talking about ‘danger’ puts people off cycling, and whether we should refrain from talking about it all.

This issue has reappeared today, with some comments from Anna Glowinski in the Evening Standard (that may or may not have been accurately reported).

Speaking as she prepared to race today in a pop-up street velodrome in Broadgate, Glowinski told the Standard: “I think it can be quite damaging to talk about how ‘dangerous’ cycling is. I really don’t think it is that dangerous. The reason I think women are getting hit by lorries is because it’s an assertiveness thing. […]

“I think it’s good that cycle safety is taken seriously and highlighted so it’s high on the political agenda, and people care about road safety and think about how to make certain junctions safer,” Glowinski said. “But constant highlighting of cyclist accidents can be a bit misleading. I get told all the time: ‘You are taking your life in your own hands, you are crazy.’ It’s misleading. It’s putting people off.

I’ve emphasised in bold the passages that I think exemplify the kinds of objections made by people who think we shouldn’t talk about ‘danger’. We’ve been here before, of course, and others have eloquently covered the same ground.

At face value Glowinski’s comments appear confused – on the one hand she thinks it’s good that safety is on the agenda, and that we are talking about how to make roads safer. But at the same time a ‘constant’ highlighting of these issues is a problem. Is it even possible or sensible to draw a line here? This leads me to believe she may have been selectively quoted, or was pushed for a quote on something she didn’t really consider.

But, more generally, I think an important distinction often gets missed here. It’s vital to stress that when people like me, who are interested in increasing cycling levels substantially in Britain, talk about danger – both in objective terms, and in the way perception of danger is a major barrier to cycling uptake – we are not arguing that cycling is an intrinsically dangerous mode of transport. We aren’t say that cycling itself is dangerous.

Instead, quite specifically, we are arguing that the design of certain roads and streets, and the nature of the motor traffic using them, presents an unacceptably high risk to people cycling on them. Cycling on a quiet residential street, with very low levels of motor traffic, is acceptably safe to anyone, but obviously very different from cycling around the Elephant and Castle, or Hyde Park Corner, or through Kings Cross, places where you have to make your way across multiple lanes of motor traffic travelling at higher speeds than you.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 21.09.02… Or through junctions where you are mixed with a high proportion of HGVs. Or sharing space with motor traffic travelling at the national speed limit on rural A-roads, or trunk roads.

Exposure to this kind of motor traffic is unacceptable. It continues to baffle me why, in a country that (quite rightly) takes Health and Safety very seriously, these risks continue to be tolerated. Certain kinds of step ladders have to be used in the workplace, yet it is apparently fine and dandy for local authorities to build new roads where people cycling are expected to mix with heavy traffic, travelling at speeds of 50 or 60mph, ‘negotiating’ their way into the middle of the road to get around roundabouts.

A new road in West Sussex. Cycle here.

A new road in West Sussex. Cycle here.

The only way these roads even appear to be ‘safe’ is because next to no-one is using them on a bike. (Despite this, cycle KSIs on these kinds of roads form a considerable percentage of the total, even if the number of trips being made on them by bike is 1-2% of the total.)

The reasons so much of the British road network is dangerous for cycling are established reasons –

  • speed differentials while sharing the same road space;
  • major differences in mass while sharing the same road space;
  • unforgiving road design;
  • unpredictable or uncertain layouts;
  • layouts that fail to account for human fallibility.

In short, all the attributes that are being designed out of Dutch roads and streets, thanks to Sustainable Safety.

Big differences in speed, mass and momentum means separation is a necessity.

Big differences in speed, mass and momentum means separation is a necessity.

Meanwhile Britain squeezes cycling onto roads that are simply not designed to accommodate it safely – with predictably tragic outcomes.

Does pointing this out really ‘put people off’ cycling? I think that’s a pretty far-fetched assertion. For one thing, we’ve been talking about road safety in general for decades in often quite vivid detail – in particular, car safety – without putting anyone off driving. And we have succeeded in greatly reduced the exposure drivers face while travelling around on roads and streets, by designing more forgiving environments for motoring, that tolerate minor mistakes, and reduce the seriousness of consequences when mistakes occur. (The problem is that cycling has largely been ignored in this process).

The implication of the ‘putting off’ claim, therefore, is that cycling is an especially fragile mode of transport, one that can collapse when people talk about the downsides of it; that exposure to risk and danger, and the perception of it, genuinely is a problem for cycling, compared to other modes of transport.

But even for the ‘putting off’ claim to stand up to scrutiny, there must exist some large cohort of the population that is willing to cycle on roads that have all the kinds of problems described here, yet will choose not do so simply because these problems are being talked about.

Is this really at all probable? Are they somehow blind to the hostility of these roads and the hazards they present, yet simultaneously so danger-sensitive that mere words will stop them cycling on them?1

The general public might not be particularly au fait with the principles of safe road and street design for cycling, but those principles will correspond closely with what we as human beings can instinctively judge to be unsafe. Faster motor traffic whizzing past us at close proximity feels unsafe. Being surrounded by HGVs feels unsafe. Junctions which present multiple potential conflicts and uncertainty about what other parties might be doing feel unsafe. And so on. These are the reasons most people don’t want to cycle on Britain’s roads.

I think most human beings are pretty good at assessing risk for themselves; they might not get it right all the time, but they can judge that it is safe enough for their children to pedal around in a park, or on a small section of pedestrianised street that rarely carries any motor traffic…

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 22.48.41

… while at the same time judging that allowing their children to cycle on the road with HGVs at the junction just yards away, in the background of the same photograph, presents an unacceptable level of risk.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 22.51.43

This is exactly the point that David Arditti makes in the post I have already linked to –

I think the advocates of cycling need to stop treating the public like idiots who cannot correctly judge what is or is not an unacceptably dangerous activity for them to engage in. I think they can judge.

The public knows that cycling itself isn’t dangerous. That’s why families will wobble around parks, and up and down trails, and in those places they feel comfortable. But they do know that cycling on certain types of road presents a kind of risk – even a feeling of risk – that they simply aren’t prepared to tolerate.

Talking about addressing those risks isn’t going to stop anyone from venturing onto those roads on a bike, who wasn’t already prepared to do so.

1. [I am vaguely aware that statistics suggest there may have been a ‘dip’ in London cycling levels following the six fatalities in quick succession in late 2013; but this is surely attributable to the deaths themselves, rather than the people making the case for changing they way roads are designed to prevent these kinds of deaths from occurring in the future.]

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66 Responses to Talking about ‘danger’, again

  1. rdrf says:

    A few points (in no particular order of importance);

    1. A reason why motor vehicular traffic poses a threat is precisely because the highway and motor vehicle environment has been designed to be forgiving to driver error.

    More to do with the substance of your piece:

    2. Whatever you think about highway design, there is an issue with (ab) use of motor vehicles which applies anywhere with cyclists (or other road users, pedestrians in particular). That’s why you have to look at affecting drivers in terms of other issues, such as motor vehicle design, law enforcement, and generally shifting the focus on to the source of road danger, namely (ab) use of motor vehicles.

    3. I think there are indeed issues associated with the talking about danger which are highly problematic and worthy of consideration. “Dangerising” is a real issue. Often , in everyday discourse, the use of the word “danger” and associating it with cycling is not (just) about danger to cyclists. It is implying that cycling is indeed (whatever you correctly think) intrinsically hazardous. It also involves the association of cycling with endangering others. Rational argument can and should be applied here, but when we are talking about commonly held beliefs, rational argument often doesn’t cut it.

    In that sense I think the woman interviewed has point. Also, a lot of us who don’t want to wait until all roads are re-designed are not happy with an idea which easily translates into a “you’re asking for it” trope.

    4. Linked in with this, some people want to cycle now and deserve support IMO. Getting confidence from the right kind of cycle training and other kinds of support (more easily accessible and suitable bikes and accessories, secure and convenient parking, a less discriminatory attitude from the police, improvements to the criminal justice system etc, etc) can help them do so. That doesn’t mean we have to accept danger from motor vehicular traffic. The discourse around “danger” can put inexperienced people off, as well as a genuine fear.

    5. I see absolutely no contradiction – abut a paradox or apparent contradiction – between, on the one hand recognising and opposing road danger, and on the other feeling it makes sense to cycle in (some) existing conditions, such as inner London and some country roads where locals are used to seeing cyclists.

    6. And on Safety in Numbers, see a shortly forthcoming post on

    I guess that some of the above might be what the woman in the piece was saying before copy editors got to it, although I don’t know – I don’t think that a reasonable assertive style of urban riding is or should be the preserve of mountain bike racing types like her.

    • 1) A forgiving environment for driving and a forgiving environment for cycling are not mutually incompatible, as your comment appears to imply. The Netherlands has achieved this; Sustainable Safety applies to all modes of transport.

      2) I make no comment about those other issues, but would stress that design is a way of reducing motor vehicle danger, principally by creating environments where it becomes more difficult to drive dangerously, and also mitigates the consequences of stupid driving, while reducing the exposure of unprotected human beings to mistakes and stupidity. Again – these aren’t incompatible aims.

    • “The discourse around “danger” can put inexperienced people off, as well as a genuine fear.”

      I’ve only just noticed how odd it is being told to rein in discourse about danger by… the Road Danger Reduction Forum. 🙂

  2. The Carlton Reid article appears to confuse marketing as used in selling in commercial products, and campaigning. There may be a ‘risk’ in dangerising cycling but the general public made its mind up about cycling generations ago, There is no ‘product’ to sell from the point of view of the majority of people for whom cycling is a niche activity. The gains to be made from the current discussions about cycling, i.e. the political agenda argued for in various forms of social media and by the ‘bloggers’, has probably been the greatest step-change in cycle campaigning in the history of cycling. The gains to be made from such discussions far outweigh any risk of ‘dangerising’. The turnout for the Space for Cycling demo ride in central London in May 2014 was massive:

    It is people reacting to the rallying cry like Space for Cycling and Go Dutch that we are hearing now that gives cause for hope and optimism. Pretending all is fine and dandy on the road is actually a much riskier thing to do as it’s counter-productive. More power to your elbow, Mark!

    • Words to express how wrong headed Carlton Reid is on this topic regularly fail me, but what causes an expressible sort of ire is his anxiety to appear in favour of better infrastructure, while at the same time lobbing verbal hand grenades at anyone who tries to seriously raise the issue of road design causing death.

  3. Both the links provided by David D are to people selling a particular point of view and are full of assertions with not one jot of evidence provided to show that a single person has been put off cycling by those who campaign against the sort of policies favoured by David D (the anonymous writer of his first link?) and our favourite historian, Carlton R (who should thus have an appreciation of the need for evidence).
    As the anonymous writer comments: ‘We could end up in a situation where this fear and hysteria snowballs’. ‘Hysteria’, yes, but not affecting those whom the writer imagines it affects.
    Bob’s comments (RDRF above) are in similar vein: “I think there are indeed issues associated with the talking about danger which are highly problematic and worthy of consideration. “Dangerising” is a real issue”. Interesting assertion, but where’s the evidence?
    What all three (four if David D is not the anonymous writer) have in common is at most a cool to antipathetic view about the role of segregated cycle networks. Accusing those who campaign for such networks of being responsible for restraining people (who would otherwise be straining at the leash to get on the roads and become proper vehicular cyclists) is too good a tool to ignore.
    The ‘dangerising’ theme is just another idea dreamt up by those who are defending traditional groupthink of British cycle activists’ & their dislike of Dutch style networks. Similarly, the groupthinkers invented the urban myth (now less prevalent than it used to be) that cycling on cycle paths is more dangerous than cycling on the roads.
    Funnily enough, we never hear the dangerising argument extended to suggest that those who claim it is more dangerous to cycle on cycle paths than on the road had the effect of putting people off cycling in the Netherlands.

    • The anonymous writer is David himself.

      I suspect you are right about the confluence of ‘cool to antipathetic views’ on cycling infrastructure and an eagerness to shut down discussions about danger. This paragraph from David is quite revealing –

      I sat outside the Yorkshire Grey pub yesterday evening with a mate and we counted the number of riders in the asl heading east. Every minute there were on average 30 riders waiting that’s almost 2000! riders in an hour at one junction, un-treated, non segregated, no aggro.

      [My emphasis].

      A quick glance at Crashmap shows that there have been three serious cycling injuries at this junction in just the last five years, and yet another just last week!. There were 17 reported cycling casualties at this junction in the period 2010-14.

      Quite clearly there are serious design problems with this junction; issues that need to be addressed to prevent people from being seriously injured in the future. I refuse to stick my head in the sand and ‘sell the positive’ about this kind of situation, not least because (as you say) there isn’t a jot of evidence anyone is being put off cycling through these kinds of junctions by these issues being highlighted.

    • Mark Williams says:

      The problem with evidence is that it might end up disproving one’s groupthink. Less risky to stick with the innuendo and mud-slinging…

      • pm says:

        Only the abstract seems to be accessible, but it doesn’t sound like that study shows very much. What are you saying it demonstrates?

        Most of all it seems as if all it measures is what attitudes people claim to have about cycling after being exposed to different kinds of campaigning. Why is that important, in your view?

        What matters is whether people (a) actually take up utility cycling and (b) then stick to it long-term even after discovering how stressful it is on roads as they are? It sounds as if that study didn’t even look a that, so I’m unclear what point you are making.

      • pm says:

        I might be misunderstanding your post, as I’m genuinely not sure what point you are making in citing that study.

        • Mark Williams says:

          Being a tight-fisted cyclist, I too have only seen the abstract and title, did qualify my comment about this specific study with `might’ and the general point remains incontrovertible. The title uses the `D’ word and the abstract talks about `safety’. A thesaurus lists them as mutual antonyms and in practice most activities will be somewhere between the two absolutes, so I’m reasonably content to stand by my interpretation until someone with access to the article (or data) can tell us otherwise.

          The first sentence and second half of fourth from the abstract appears to confound that particular assertion which is under discussion, i.e. that if only everyone pretends that cycling is perfectly safe then non-cyclists would be more inclined to do it—and, conversely, that if anyone were to mention the `D’ word then both cyclist and non-cyclists would be put off in droves. The remainder of the findings are nice to have confirmed, but are not novel.

          I note, parenthetically, that Andrew Gilligan used to trot out the same claim, sometimes pre-emptively, whenever one of his employer’s `innovative’ [smoothly flowed motor traffic] designs featured in the death of a cyclist. But not necessarily for identical reasons.

  4. KristianCyc says:

    I hope we can all agree that the more people discussing issues that affect the uptake of cycling, as with this discussion, is a good thing. However, I think it can be quite damaging to talk about how dangerous talking about cycling danger is. I really don’t think it is that dangerous talking about danger.

    I think it’s good that discussing cycling uptake is taken seriously and highlighted so it’s high on the cyclists and campaigners’ agenda, and people care about having the most effective campaigning message. But constant highlighting of the potential for cycling levels to collapse because of talking about cycling danger is misleading. I get told all the time: ‘You are going to put people off cycling and take us back to the dark ages when riding was a strange activity not a normal one.’ It’s misleading. It’s putting people off talking about how to boost cycling numbers.

  5. Colin McKenzie says:

    “I think most human beings are pretty good at assessing risk for themselves; they might not get it right all the time, but they can judge that it is safe enough for their children to pedal around in a park, or on a small section of pedestrianised street that rarely carries any motor traffic…”

    I disagree. Most people are demonstrably lousy at assessing risk. Otherwise no-one would play the lottery. People mainly assess risk by how scary something is, and by how dangerous people tell them it is. It’s easy to imagine the worst, but hard to understand how (un)likely it is.

    The point about dangerisation of cycling is not that it will put people off cycling. It already has, massively, and continues to do. For evidence, look no further than the catastrophic decline in children cycling to school since the 70s. Over that time, the roads have not got more dangerous for cyclists (actually they are safer), nor has the traffic got significantly scarier.

    The demographic of cyclists in London is another clue – groups with higher tolerance of risk are more likely to cycle.

    Cycling should be safer than it is. But in most circumstances it’s acceptably safe already. Where it isn’t, the source of the danger needs to be tackled: driver behaviour. Changing driver behaviour is also the best way to make cycling feel safer, principally by reducing close and fast overtaking. Segregated infrastructure also requires changes in driver behaviour, principally better observation and willingness to give way when turning. Without driver behaviour change, or signals at every single junction and driveway, segregated infrastructure does nothing to improve real safety.

    • David Robjant says:

      The point Mark made is that most people correctly identify more risky and less risky places to cycle- and that this is quite sufficient to explain why they don’t generally send their children to cycle to school along major roads, and why that might be entirely reasonable.
      That (as you correctly identify) these same people who are ‘pretty good at assessing risk’ in this specified sense might not correctly answer a question in mathematics, or might be unable to give any sensible statistical analysis of lottery odds- this has no bearing on Mark’s point, so far as I can tell.
      The supposed relevance of your observation trades on the view that the word ‘risk’ can only denote a mathematically expressed concept: an assumption which is simply false. ‘Risk’ and ‘Danger’ mean polar bears- not just the numbers used to express the outcomes of encounters with Polar Bears.

      Your second contribution, that ‘Cycling… in most circumstances [is] acceptably safe already’ is a grammatically interesting conjecture, given that it draws attention to acceptance by a person or persons unknown. You? I’m not clear. In any case, that cycling in the UK not ‘acceptably safe’ to ninety percent of the population of the UK is a statement of the bleeding obvious, and should not be greeted by you as controversial contention.

      Your third contribution, the assertion that the source of danger is not infrastructure but ‘driver behaviour’- this is I think silly. It is however possible to assert something sillier, which you achieve with ‘Without driver behaviour change… segregated infrastructure does nothing to improve real safety.’ Self evidently, the point of dutch infrastructure is to forcibly alter driver behaviour in some circumstances (where it is impossible to do 40mph around a roundabout when the turn radii and carriageway width is only just large enough for a vehicle at 15mph), and to make driver behaviour entirely irrelevant in others (no contact, conflict, no relevance of behaviour).

  6. “The point about dangerisation of cycling is not that it will put people off cycling. It already has, massively, and continues to do. For evidence, look no further than the catastrophic decline in children cycling to school since the 70s.”
    What’s the evidence that it was ‘dangerisation’ (i.e., the talking up of the dangers) that caused the decline?
    And how do you disentangle the causal effects of ‘dangerisaion’ and other factors that one might possibly notice having occurred in the four decades since the 1970s – let’s say, such as the vast rise in the number of motor vehicles on the roads (plus the increasing speeds & ‘nippiness’ of vehicles, including vans & lorries & buses)?

  7. Colin McKenzie says:

    (replying to Paul G) The evidence is that cycling is measurably safer per cyclist. Also, in urban areas, traffic speeds have declined with increasing traffic..
    Anecdotally, I know what it was like to cycle in a town in the late 60s. It’s no scarier cycling in London now. When I was 11, my mother let me cycle to school. 40 years later, she worried about me cycling to work.
    Rural cycling, I admit, is different, and may be more dangerous than in the 60s due to higher motor traffic speeds and volumes, coupled with much the same number of blind corners.

    • Clearly we have a different concept of what is meant by evidence. The case is made that talking about danger puts people off (has done so in vast numbers, you say). Citing measurements of decline does not establish that the the decline was caused by whatever you want to assert caused it.

      • David Robjant says:

        What Colin meant to say was that it wasn’t the *motor vehicles* that caused cycling rates to fall off a cliff in the 50’s and early 60’s. Oh no. It was the lamentable tendency of CTC stalwarts to *talk* about motor vehicles. If they’d have kept schtum all would have been fine.

  8. Some more comments on Colin’s comments (it’s either that or finally get round to doing my annual tax return).
    First, whilst I’m not aware of any evidence that alleged ‘dangerisation’ has put people off cycling, there is good evidence that awareness of dangers of an activity actually reduce the chances of something going wrong. For example, groups out in the UK mountains led by qualified mountain leaders seldom need to call out the mountain rescue (for their own group at least). Problems are predominantly among those who are ill-prepared and unaware of the dangers they face. You might also consider, Colin, that there is little evidence that things that are talked about as dangerous (drugs, drinking, debauching, etc.) are shunned by people, indeed there is some case to be made that ‘dangerising’ such activities only makes them more attractive to many.
    Secondly, Colin argues that segregated tracks will need the same sort of change in driver behaviour as would cycling on the roads. As he says: “Without driver behaviour change, or signals at every single junction and driveway, segregated infrastructure does nothing to improve real safety.” Clearly there is a level of exaggeration here, which is unfortunate when dealing with arguments about evidence and Colin weakens the impact of his argument by such exaggeration (lights needed on every driveway before there could be any safety effects, LOL). But this exaggeration should not mask the core weakness of Colin’s argument and its flaw: too many people have now been to the Netherlands and looked at Dutch cycle networks (and also looked at the comparable international safety statistics) and can see, beyond contradiction, that you don’t need lights at every junction (not even at every single driveway) to get improved safety, greater numbers of cyclists, a better gender and age profile of cyclists and, crucially, a much more attractive cycling experience. Colin’s argument doesn’t wash anymore because too many people have seen the Netherlands without viewing it through the distorting lens of British cycle activist groupthink.

    • Colin McKenzie says:

      That’s because Dutch drivers behave differently at all these junctions, partly because of a different legal framework, partly because they expect cyclists to be there.

      • Iain says:

        Although Colin may also agree this is poor cycling infrastructure, it clearly shows Dutch drivers driving poorly despite there being plenty of cyclists around. It seems the strict liability hasn’t stopped them.

      • David Robjant says:

        That Dutch Drivers are uniquely well behaved around cyclists when in parallel situations of conflict is simply untrue, and you offer no source evidence or reason for asserting it other than that it fits the conclusion you first thought of.

        You want to say that whatever the obvious safety difference between Dutch roads in the 1960’s and Dutch roads now, it CAN’T be because they’ve introduced a comprehensive safe cycling network in the meantime. That kind of irrationalism is just laughable.

      • Mark Williams says:

        But, mainly; it’s the infrastructure, stupid (and the whole list of aims and objectives which led to it being designed like that). You can observe this in practice by watching an habitual UK motorist briefly venturing onto typical NL highway infrastructure, without giving them a lecture on the law and their expectations first.

        Paul Gannon has masterfully demolished many of your anecdotal assertions and you have already self-contradicted many of your own claims. But you haven’t yet told us how you plan to bring about this `changing driver behaviour’, `reducing close and fast overtaking’ and `[reduced danger for] rural cycling’. We could do with some light relief…

  9. ORiordan says:

    @Colin McKenzie: in 1970 there were just over 10 million licensed cars on the road, now there are over 30 million. I don’t think the road network has increased three-fold over this time so there are simply a lot more cars on the road now than there was 40 years ago.

    While weaving through stationary or slow moving traffic in London may not be particularly dangerous, statistically speaking, I think it is fair to say that the majority of people don’t perceive it as safe or enjoyable hence opt to be on a bus rather than sandwiched between them.

  10. fonant says:

    Anna Glowinski is very wrong: when cycling in the UK you don’t take your life in your own hands, you put your life in the hands of (possibly distracted, probably frustrated) motor vehicle drivers.

    That is why cycling on UK roads is so frightening.

    The danger comes entirely from the motor vehicles. If we are to get ordinary people using bicycles for transport then this danger must be massively reduced first. To do that we need to talk about the danger. It’s not as if it’s a secret!

    • pm says:

      Yeah, exactly. Its not just that it feels dangerous, its that you know if anything does happen, everyone, quite likely including the motorist who hits you, and also the Uncle Tom type of cyclist who takes pride in their ‘cyclecraft’, will move heaven-and-earth to find reasons to say it was your fault.

      People get the message that if you aren’t a highly skilled expert at extreme sports, then you are irresponsible to be on a bike at all. Its very clear you are on your own out there and its your job to try and avoid the consequences of other’s mistakes/recklessness even though ultimately you can’t reliably do that (which is what all the guff about ‘cycling defensively’ amounts to).

      Also, it feels dangerous in good part because it _is_ dangerous – its tiresome how some try to argue otherwise by pointing at accident figures that relate to a tiny self-selected sample. Accident stats don’t say everything about the danger, because those most likely to have accidents don’t get on a bike on the road in the first place. When I see cars travel at 70mph and regularly crash into street furniture or each other, there is no way I am going to see cycling on that road as anything other than a gamble.

      The danger isn’t equally spread geographically, I’d say. For me its largely about particular roads and junctions that are badly designed and where drivers drive like lunatics – but unfortunately its impossible to avoid all of those and actually get anywhere.

  11. rdrf says:

    In answer to Mark’s point 1 (in response to my point 1.):

    The Road Danger Reduction Forum is in favour of reducing danger to the motorised . But that should come from reducing danger at source in ways which don’t further disadvantage those outside motor vehicles (That’s why the slogan is “Safe Roads for All”). Unless cyclists (and pedestrians) are absolutely nowhere near any potentially errant driver, yet more idiot-proofing of the highway or vehicle environment for drivers will be bad news.

    The “what they did in the Netherlands” argument is something which works AGAINST the Netherlands example here, for which all you have to do is see Steve Melia’s book to see how bad inter-urban motor transport levels are (This is shown in Figure 11.9 and pages 120 -122.)

    • The fact that there is a large and extensive motorway network in the Netherlands has very little (in fact, nothing) to do with the discussion here. It’s not at all clear why you’ve raised this as an argument.

      Cycling simply isn’t “in competition” with motorway driving. As much as I love riding a bike, it simply isn’t practical for motorway distances. Trains/buses/etc are in competition with motorway driving; this bears no relation at all to the quite distinct issue of highway design.

      • Mark Williams says:

        Isn’t practical for you… I quite often cycle `motorway distances’, whatever they might be, sometimes slowly on a heavy roadster and other times on a fast ten-speed which gets me to my destination in less time than operating a motor car between the same end-points—primarily because the level of concentration which ought to be a concomitant with motoring is exhausting enough to put me to sleep for half a day afterwards. So please do not presume to speak on my behalf about that.

        Of course, the main reason RDRF brought up motorways and the `problem’ of inter-urban motor traffic is that he is far more anti-motoring than pro-cycling. He has this in common with most of those employees in highway authorities who are given the task of designing cycling `facilities’. His somewhat orthogonal perspective on dangerisation has to be appreciated in this context.

        • I too cycle ‘motorway distances’ on my bike.

          Perhaps it wasn’t clear, but I was speaking in general terms. We can see from the Netherlands – where cycling is designed for beautifully for both short and long distances – how cycling rapidly tails off as a mode of transport above 10km. This isn’t a criticism of cycling per se, just recognition that other modes of transport (be it train, light rail, bus, or car) will often be much more convenient and quicker for these longer distances. (Of course, the opposite is true for cycling for trips under 10km).

          • Mark Williams says:

            Yes, clarification happily acknowledged. It is probably a normal-ish distribution. The same is said to be true of other modes—with, for example, the number of walking journeys tailing off after 1km; motor busses: 5km; motor cars: 50km, etc. Yet some people still do LEJoG by each mode, so all the curves are tapering beyond ~1.6Mm.

            I suspect RDRF’s `problem’ with the dual network for motoring is that cyclists cannot be used as plausibly deniable motor traffic calming on one of them and that there are too few of them to be effective outside urban areas on the other one…

  12. rdrf says:

    In response to Paul Gannon: ” Bob’s comments (RDRF above) are in similar vein: “I think there are indeed issues associated with the talking about danger which are highly problematic and worthy of consideration. “Dangerising” is a real issue”. Interesting assertion, but where’s the evidence?”

    The area I’m trying to analyse is that of beliefs, ideas and culture (as used in the anthropological/sociological sense). I can’t give the kind of evidence requested because it is either difficult or impossible (depending on what philosophy of social science you adhere to). I’m discussing the ideas that people of a variety of backgrounds seem to have about cycling. I bet a lot of people reading this have been confronted by quite nasty attitudes towards cyclists from often otherwise reasonable and tolerant people – that’s what I mean by culture etc.

    My view is that the bigotry (organised around themes such as “not paying”, “not having taken a test”, “all jumping red lights” etc., etc.) is attached to notions of cycling as “dangerous”. Even those who may wish to cycle will tend have their perception of the amount of hazard filtered through this dominant car-centred belief system.

    Now I can’t actually prove how much this happens any more than I can prove how much negative attitudes for some groups or activities affect those groups/activities. (Or how much they bolster the status of dominant groups or activities). But I think it more than reasonable to argue that there is a strong effect.

  13. rdrf says:

    A bit off-topic, but responding to ORiordan

    @Colin McKenzie: in 1970 there were just over 10 million licensed cars on the road, now there are over 30 million. I don’t think the road network has increased three-fold over this time so there are simply a lot more cars on the road now than there was 40 years ago.

    Not by x3, but motoring has become far cheaper, driver comfort and reduction of danger to car occupants has increased, car parking at origins and destinations has massively increased etc. And the road network HAS increased in capacity, specifically through motorways and bypasses.

  14. rdrf says:

    Another Paul Gannon point: “…there is good evidence that awareness of dangers of an activity actually reduce the chances of something going wrong.” Indeed, it’s called risk compensation, and I wrote a book in which this is a core theme! (Shameless plug).

    The thing is, that applies to people who are already committed to it (like mountain walking ) or who want to be deviant thrill seekers (the drugs example).

    I am talking about Jo(e) ordinary who is thinking about cycling but doesn’t want to be a thrill seeker. I thought we all were.

  15. pm says:

    This just seems a no-brainer to me.

    As someone who didn’t cycle for decades because the roads I could see around me looked far too scary to cycle on – and who knows pretty much no other cyclists, just lots of public transport users, mostly – I just think fears about ‘dangerising’ cycling are puzzling and I just can’t help but think they must be coming from hard-core cyclists who aren’t in touch with how most non-cyclists feel about the subject.

    People already see it as dangerous, and one reason why I constantly consider giving it up is because it _still_ feels dangerous to me.

    I know, for example, that if I am walking home from certain friends and relatives they won’t insist I text them to let them know I got back OK. They do if I’m on the bike.

    Talking about the danger might have some tiny, barely-measurable, impact but really the level of fear of cycling can’t get much worse. Its not cycle campaigning that causes the fear, its people being able to see the reality right in front of them – people do have functioning senses and can see the roads for themselves. That’s far more important than any media campaign that people may not even notice.

  16. Chris says:

    Colin McKenzie: “The point about dangerisation of cycling is not that it will put people off cycling. It already has, massively, and continues to do. For evidence, look no further than the catastrophic decline in children cycling to school since the 70s.”
    paulgannonbike: What’s the evidence that it was ‘dangerisation’ (i.e., the talking up of the dangers) that caused the decline?

    For evidence ask those affected and those controlling them, ie the children and the parents. After a week of level 2 cycle training, ask the parents if they will now let their newly qualified child cycle on the road – “No way it’s too dangerous”. Ask the child – “My parents won’t let me, they say it’s too dangerous”. If you ask the child if they think they could safely do an appropriate on road journey plenty will say yes, so they don’t appear to have the same fear.

    Perhaps cycling appears dangerous to a non-cycling parent when viewed from behind the windscreen of a car as well as sounding so by hearsay.

    • But to support your assertion, the interviewees would need to reveal that they have been put off by talk of danger, not by observation of danger.

      • Quite. There is a quite general failure to observe the vast logical chasm between a) people listening to talk of danger while experiencing cycling as prohibitively dangerous, and b) people finding cycling prohibitively dangerous *because of* heard talk about danger.

        Frankly, I find the idea that impressions are formed by talk rather than the evidence of their own eyes quite shockingly absurd. I believe people take this suggestion seriously for the following reason only: it promotes a sense of cycling as an exclusive club with duties and a hierarchy within which power has definable rules. The Omertà and the Family reinforce each other; the lies we are supposed to articulate about our experiences (hey, trucks, I’m so used to them) function both as initiation rituals marking estrangement from the civilian world, and as the orthodoxy of power and punditry.

      • Chris says:

        True but don’t you think the prevalence of media hysteria – talk of danger – as an influence on parents far outweighs the prevalence of observed danger – since there are so few people cycling there is not much opportunity? And therefore the assertion has a strong element of truth? But I will endeavour to nail it more precisely in further “interviews”, it’s an important point.

        • David Robjant says:

          That’s like saying you can look at a pool filled with crocodiles, and have no opportunity to observe any danger there- unless and until the swimming club takes a dip.

          Very Silly.

  17. Eric D says:

    Without getting embroiled in the meta-arguments, there are more details on Anna’s interview on her FaceBook

    and a response from Charlie Lloyd of LCC

    The ES journalist, Ross Lydall, is usually sympathetic

  18. Most people feel safe enough to drive or be driven in a car, yet a lot of time, money and effort is spent on making the roads safer for motorists and more forgiving of bad driving than they already are. That’s fine.
    The problem that I see is that, despite cyclists being at a higher risk of death or injury due to someone else’s bad driving than motorists are, there is generally very little time, effort or money spent on making the roads safer for cyclists. In fact, some of the things which are done to make roads safer for motor vehicles, actively make them less safe for people on bikes.
    Someone needs to be shouting about the very real dangers so that people cycling get considered when roads are designed and road traffic rules are enforced.

  19. daviddansky says:

    As Colin pointed out scared doesn’t equal danger. The judgement here us nit from the view of a hard core cyclists but from the perspective of a cycle trainer speaking to many scared people who I meet to train and many of whom become significantly less scared as they learn how to control a bike better, learn that ‘cars’ are actually drivers that they can communicate with and learn they have equal rights to proceed along a road etc. Of course the road environment is important and needs to fit the function of a place prioritising walkers and riders over drivers. Limiting car use and access is crucial in achieving better places, whether my removing drivers completely (segregation if you will), or limiting the harm the can cause through speed reduction and calming…

    And one other interesting link if you have time to listen to a podcast

    • I agree that scared does not necessarily equal danger. Sometimes training will sort things out, sometimes it’s the opposite problem. Youngsters in particular don’t easily understand the hidden dangers and that they need to ride to allow for more than one relatively rare thing (that they may never have experienced) going wrong at the same time. Similarly, you can get used to the fact that drivers almost always pass without hitting you on a dual carriageway -but is “almost always” good enough? My judgement from being both driver and passenger is that it is not good enough given the high chance of subsequent death or serious injury. Many others feel the same and avoid such roads -which is why the numbers of KSIs are relatively low.

    • fred says:


      All the training in the world can’t compensate for bad or inattentive drivers. Say, for example, the lady who got furious that I was ‘taking the lane’ on Elgin Avenue (hooting, revving), and decided to overtake through a taxi rank, then cut back in so I had to swerve sideways to avoid her. Or the bus driver who passed me at speed with a couple of inches to spare as I was ‘taking the lane’ up Gloucester Place, to give two recent examples. This kind of thing happens all the time, even when one cycles visibly and assertively, and sometimes because one cycles visibly and assertively. The way to be safe (or as safe as possible), in this environment, is to be scared – always aware that anyone around you could do something stupid – and ready to react swiftly (so teaching people to be less scared may in fact be a mistake..). But being scared is stressful and unpleasant. Much better to create conditions where it’s not necessary.

    • David Robjant says:

      I think it’s worth pointing out that the bunch of people who present themselves for level 3 bikeability training are already pretty brave. There’s no way to infer what scared does or does not equal, from encounters with this demographic.

    • pm says:

      “learn that ‘cars’ are actually drivers that the can communicate with”?

      You can’t communicate with someone who isn’t looking (because, for example, they are busy texting).

      And communication doesn’t help for the small-but-deadly minority who simply don’t care if they kill you, and isn’t that great for the much larger group who would are aware that they _can_ kill you so expect you to show suitable deference, and who are happy to take risks with your life if it saves them a few seconds.

      There’s an underlying fallacy there, that everything can be resolved by ‘communication’. This just doesn’t work when there are real clashing interests involved.

      If training were so effective, how come it has had so little effect on the total numbers cycling, in all the decades its been tried?

      The second half of your paragraph I agree with, but it’s just that it rather contradicts the first half!

      PS I listen to that podcast a lot, I find it interesting (don’t think I’ve heard that episode yet), but I don’t always agree with it. Freakanomics comes from a very particular political stance (right-wing libertarian) and seems to have a tendency to present the contentious and unproven as if its established fact.

  20. rdrf says:

    “I know, for example, that if I am walking home from certain friends and relatives they won’t insist I text them to let them know I got back OK. They do if I’m on the bike.”

    Maybe have a talk with these friends?

    • pm says:

      It’s not something I’d want to explicitly raise. Just a pattern I’ve gradually noticed.

      Plus, the fact is I feel they have a point – walking is obviously safer than cycling.

      Generally I walk when I’m not feeling up to coping with the stress of dealing with idiot drivers. In particular, cars doing up to 70mph on a road I can’t avoid, where I have witnessed high-speed crashes right in front of me.

      Nothing is going to convince me I am ‘safe’ cycling alongside those guys, not when I see the windscreen glass and other accident debris left in the road, smashed in road-side fences and demolished bollards and knocked-down traffic lights on a regular basis (just last week there was yet another wrecked car blocking the pavement having demolished a garden wall, the week before that a traffic light had been knocked over – I’d say there was fresh evidence of a driver losing control of their vehicle about once a month on that road).

  21. Dermot says:

    This is a complicated issue, and I’m not sure where I stand on several aspects of it, but I do have a few comments.

    “I think the advocates of cycling need to stop treating the public like idiots who cannot correctly judge what is or is not an unacceptably dangerous activity for them to engage in. I think they can judge.”

    I cannot agree with this point as it’s stated. As someone has already said, this is not generally true of the public. Most people are very poor at assessing risk, or any other probabilistic phenomenon; famously so. And they’re wrong in this case too: cycling is not all that dangerous, by any metric. Ask David Spiegelhalter.

    I agree that most won’t be persuaded to cycle on the UK’s roads as they currently are, but that’s a different issue. In fact, there’s a slight disconnect in the way you write about danger. You write as if emphasising the dangers of cycling makes no difference, but you actually hope it does. One side hopes, without hard evidence, that trying to talk more accurately about risk will persuade more people to cycle. (Of course, one can also object to the way cycling and danger are usually talked about on the grounds that it’s misleading, rather than objecting to it being an impediment to a greater strategy of mass cycling.) But you hope that talking about danger will result in the adoption of Dutch street designs, which I think leads you to put a strategic emphasis on danger at times. (There are promising signs in London, so maybe it’s a strategy whose time has come, I don’t really know.)

    Incidentally, a previous time you wrote about danger/dangerisation:
    “I did short interviews with both ITV News, and with BBC London’s Tom Edwards, who asked me for comment during that sequence of deaths. I couldn’t reasonably say that cycling in London was fine, because it plainly isn’t. It is unnecessarily hazardous, and we know the reasons why, and have done for some time – I tried to put those reasons across in the interviews. I tried to explain, in particular, how we have junctions with large motor vehicles turning left, and people on bikes moving ahead, and the reasons why collisions occur. It would not have made much sense for me to talk about anything else.”
    It actually would have made sense, if the question was “how dangerous is cycling in London in the light of all these recent deaths”, in among the talk of the problem of cycling in London, to talk about how the spike in cyclists deaths of that time might be an anomaly and might revert to the mean, as did turn out to be the case. BBC Radio 4’s More Or Less in fact did carry an item that made this point, but then that is a show about numbers and statistics, rather than campaigning.

    • David Robjant says:

      I think you aren’t responding to what Mark has written- you are responding as if he has stated that the public are masters of statistical analysis, which he quite plainly has not. A key term in what he writes here is ‘unacceptably’. All he’s said is that people are able to think for themselves about what risks they are willing to *accept*- and that when they do so, it doesn’t follow from the fact that they have done this thinking outside statistical analysis that they have done so *irrationally*. If I contemplate a scene with fast trucks, and a scene with no motor vehicles, and conclude that I’m prepared to let my child cycle in the park and not on the main road, that does not make me an idiot.

      Besides observing that people who make this kind of commonsensical risk assessment are not idiots, Mark’s further point -and perhaps the fundamental one- is that if we are talking about *acceptability* in risk it’s entirely fruitless to tell people that they are idiots for using normal kinds of reasoning. And it’s not as if that normal reasoning is wrong, either. What kinds of risk are “acceptable” is NOT simply a matter of what stats say about prevalence- it also has to do with control, and with the accompanying experiences, gains and so forth. If the railways were as dangerous as driving a car, no one would ever board a train. And it would then be fantastically pointless to go around saying to these train-refusniks that driving is just as dangerous- yet this is the odd approach recommended in several comments on this blog.

      • Dermot says:

        I’m very interested to know where I said that the public were idiots. It’s only human to have trouble assessing risk. Even trained statisticians make fundamental errors at times. It’s far from idiotic.

        Plenty of risk assessment by the public falls below the level of commonsensical anyway. There are quiet suburban streets everywhere where children are not allowed cycle. It’s not just main streets with trucks. The same people are ok with driving on rural roads with children in the car. You see children on tricycles in the park with safety helmets. You see people going for charity walks in public parks wearing high-visibility clothing.

        In fact, I support the adoption of Dutch street designs. But I don’t support the notion that anything is risky because plenty of people think it’s risky. It might be, but it doesn’t follow. I also think that trying to leverage public perception that cycling is dangerous into support for changing street design may have unintended consequences, even if it doesn’t put people off cycling. Helmet laws, for example, can quite easily follow in countries where cycling is perceived as a pursuit for the risk-taking hobbyist.

        To take your final point, the public have indeed eschewed rail in the past after rail disasters. Big motorway disasters don’t seem to tend car use. And air travel declines after big disasters. A transatlantic flight is about as dangerous as driving a mile on UK roads. The former is a source of great anxiety for many, the latter for very few.

        Cars feel safe to people, on the inside of cars, I suppose.

        • David Robjant says:

          The “notion that anything is risky because plenty of people think it’s risky” wasn’t asserted.

          What was said was that things are unacceptably risky if people will not accept those risks. This is just what’s meant by ‘unacceptably’. The coda is that their not accepting those risks is not the outcome of an *error* on their part.

          I do think you suggest (and that it is common to suggest) that people are defective reasoners about risk because they don’t do so in the way you ask them to. The substitution of ‘idiot’ for ‘defective reasoner’- well, what you are saying amounts to that anyhow. You are saying that people get it wrong about what to accept, through an intellectual failure.

          Well no- in this case they are neither getting it wrong, nor doing so from intellectual failure. A shorthand: they are not idiots.

          • Dermot says:

            “What was said was that things are unacceptably risky if people will not accept those risks. This is just what’s meant by ‘unacceptably’. The coda is that their not accepting those risks is not the outcome of an *error* on their part.”

            Imagine this proposal:
            “Vaccinating your child is unacceptably risky, if people will not accept those risks.” It’s not a legitimate definition of risky. “Risk” has statistical meaning, and it’s not synonymous with perception of risk. All that “unacceptably risky” in your initial sentence really means is that the perceived risk is too high. But the perception of risk is wrong (though see qualification below). Not always; some streets are very risky, but if somebody has the belief that cycling on British roads is overall much more likely to result in death per hour of activity than, say, walking, they’re just wrong.

            (To be fair, the bare numbers require qualification, since the disappearance of the children and very elderly from independent active travel in the UK makes the risk figures look rather better than they really are.)

            Again, this is probably an academic argument, as something has to be done to address the perception, and street redesign should be a major part of that, probably the major part, which I presume most posters here want to see. Done properly, it would have the advantage of addressing actual risk in the case of the not inconsiderable number of streets that pose a genuinely high level of risk.

            • pm says:

              That’s a terrible analogy.

              The risks vs benefits of vaccination can be objectively measured. The same is not true of the risks of unconfident, inexperienced, cyclists regularly using existing roads. We don’t have the figures to measure that risk because there is no dataset available.

              • David Robjant says:

                Nicely put PM.

                The consistent theme of contributions from Dermot is the contention that the words ‘risk’ and ‘danger’ cannot have intelligible meanings other than statistical ones. But that’s like saying that the first lorry wasn’t dangerous, but only became dangerous when a dataset became available, IE after people died.

                I think this sort of supposition is an abuse of the english language. ‘Risky’ and ‘Dangerous’ do have meanings other than statistical, and particularly in cases where no countermanding dataset exists, it isn’t irrational to make common sense analyses outside of statistical analysis. That sort of thing, after all, includes a guiding principle of Dutch sustainable safety: danger is a function of mass and speed.

                Don’t get me wrong- and don’t misunderstand Mark either. No one here is saying that the stats are trivial or unimportant in matters of risk- quite the reverse. I often have cause for gratitude to BBC More Or Less, given the prevalence of stats abuse in British public life. But just because stats abuse and general ignorance of science is rife in public discussions of risk, does not establish every ordinary sort of risk assessment involved in low cycling uptake in the UK (‘I wouldn’t let my child cycle to school on these roads’) must exemplify ignorance of statistical analysis.

                The closest Dermot comes to grasping the point is:

                ” this is probably an academic argument, as something has to be done to address the perception”

                That’s correct as far as it goes. What’s wrong about it is the implication that the perception is underlain by an entirely contrary statistical reality. To begin with there aren’t datasets for an United Kingdom with existing road layouts and traffic levels combined with children cycling to school on a significant level. Which is not the case with the MMR vaccine.

              • Jitensha Oni says:

                Yep. In addition, scaremongering did work to suppress the uptake of the the MMR vaccine. It took a bunch of ill children to bring perception in line with actual risk. However, this is different to cycling in that there are other – well established – ways for kids (and adults) to obtain the benefits that cycling brings (an alternative vaccine if you like), without going on the road. I doubt that telling those that take that course of action that they are wrong will cut much ice with them.

              • David Robjant says:

                We can still allow that there can be a difference between perception of risk and the reality of risk, even in cases of ‘risk’ that we can’t access well statistically. But the way that works is that we reason (or perceive) by observing things like relative speed and mass- and on these best available warrants the perceptions of parents are entirely rational. They aren’t idiots.

              • David Robjant says:

                Dermot’s concession that

                “(To be fair, the bare numbers require qualification, since the disappearance of the children and very elderly from independent active travel in the UK makes the risk figures look rather better than they really are.)”

                is formally incompatible with his implication that the perception of risk is underlain by a contrary statistical reality. My guess is, he’s perceptive enough to have realised that.

  22. Dermot says:

    tend car use -> dent car use

  23. Jitensha Oni says:

    So… …there must be a lot more scaremongering going on in Newham (13% ibid)?

    The latest discussion in the comments gets me wondering if there’s mileage in considering the problem in terms of a stacked set of sieves of varying mesh sizes, each representing an impediment to cycling. You put a population in at the top, represented by objects of different sizes, with the smallest being those most likely to cycle, and see which get to the bottom and end up cycling regularly on the roads.

    Thus, the dangerization sieve sounds like a fairly coarse one, letting a lot through – a lot more than the “I actually believe it is/perceive it to be too dangerous” sieve. The “lack of decent infrastructure” sieve may be finer, blocking a larger number, and the “be honest, it’s not really very nice cycling on UK city roads, is it”, or the “I’ll pass on being part of what is currently an out-group” sieves, finer still. In this context, training/education is claiming to make the population of objects smaller, with an easier passage through the sieve stack but it clearly has limited scope to do this.

    The bottom line of this specualtive ramble is that if you put the dangerization sieve below a finer sieve in the stack, it isn’t going to have any significant effect, and that’s maybe where we are. Obviously, though …wait for it… there are lots of holes in this argument.

  24. Pingback: ‘Dangerisation’: myth or reality? | cyclableblog

  25. Alfonsino says:

    Why is Britain so retrograde compared to other rich north European countries, such as Germany, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and so on?

    Is it a problem of innate narrow-mindedness? Like a collective disease or what?

    It looks as they could not put their money to good use.

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