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Hedge-blog: real and perceived dangers of cycling

6th April 2014

I started thinking about this subject when I was writing about Cycle Yorkshire's Tour de France legacy plans. One of their key objectives is to improve cycling infrastructure and facilities to address both real and perceived barriers to cycling.

It's great that there is a campaign to improve conditions for cyclists in Yorkshire, and there are some good ideas in the legacy document. This isn't a criticism of Cycle Yorkshire. But it's not the first time I've heard about perceived barriers, or perceived dangers. It's a favourite diversion tactic by politicians.

For example, on 21st March 2014, British Cycling reported on Julian Huppert MP, who had asked cycling minister Robert Goodwill about progress on implementing the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group report recommendations. Mr Huppert wanted to know if there would be spending of £10 per head, consistently, as suggested in the report. The reply he got from Mr Goodwill was a mixture of dodgy statistics - a claim that this government has doubled spending on cycling - and waffle. The waffle included stuff about perceived dangers. This is the quote:

'I think some of the media coverage particularly in London last year did give the impression that cycling was more dangerous than it actually is. It's actually safer than it's ever been.'

Anyone who rides a bike knows that Britain's roads are not very safe. It is blindingly obvious that cyclists are put in danger by a combination of impatient drivers and poor road design. 

This business of perceived danger is a very annoying red herring. When a driver makes a very close, fast pass, which doesn't result in me getting killed or injured, is this just a perceived danger? No. It makes my heart beat faster, it sends adrenaline rushing around my body, and it makes me feel (correctly) that my life is being put in danger. It is real danger, not perceived danger. Just because a risk or danger caused by another road user doesn't result in injury or death on a particular occasion, that doesn't make it an imaginary danger. Injury and death are not the same thing as risk and danger. 

As the Chief Medical Officer noted in her annual report on the state of the public's health in England, the risk of death when travelling 1km on foot or by bike is 17 times higher than when travelling by car; and the risk of serious injury is 16 times higher on foot, and 21 times higher by bike.

If these are the fact, whey do politicians insist on focusing on perceived dangers? 

Robert Goodwill is not the only culprit. (As an aside, what a disappointment Mr Goodwill is. Some of his comments in front of the Transport Select Committee in December 2013 were sensible, but even then he insisted on talking about perception. Now he seems to have been moulded by his department into making excuses for the lack of decent and consistent DfT funding for cycling). Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan were guilty of the same misdemeanour, going on about perceived danger, in November 2013, during the spate of cyclist deaths in London.

They do it because, if they admit there are actual problems, they must refuse to fix them, or commit money. The great thing about perceived danger, from their point of view, is that it's very cheap. 

We shouldn't accept this drivel from our politicians. Don't let them get away with it. They need to be challenged - in meetings, by email, and letters - until they understand that we won't have the wool pulled over our eyes, and they've got to do better.

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