Damned if we do; damned if we don’t

Janus in a bike helmet

Cycle campaigners are constantly torn between extoling the health and other benefits of cycling, but passing on news of yet another road tragedy. It’s a dilemma.

Cycling is safe but there’s a widely-held perception that it’s unsafe. And I’m often guilty of fuelling such a perception.

One moment I can be writing articles for newbies with my rose-tinted spectacles firmly strapped to my head, and the next moment I can be tweeting about some new bike v tipper truck bike death. I’m Janus, the Roman God of doorways who looked both forwards and backwards. (Despite what Bart said, this god’s first name isn’t Hugh).

I used to publish On Your Bike, a magazine for family cyclists. This was a fluffy-white-clouds, birds-tweeting, isn’t-the-world-wonderful publication. It was a polemic, a glossy bit of PR for the happy-clappy side of cycling. Lycra was banned; helmets were kept to a bare minimum; there were only smiles, no grimaces; the folks pictured were strictly normal, batty bicyclists were banned.

This magazine got lots of newbies out on bikes and stressed the overwhelming advantages of cycling. Danger was downplayed.

We all know that the roads will be more pleasant to ride on when there’s more cyclists using them, the safety in numbers argument. But it’s a chicken and egg thing. To encourage more cyclists we need to downplay the danger. We certainly can’t wait until every road has a segregated bike path. That will never happen. It doesn’t even happen in Denmark or the Netherlands. Cars and bikes have to rub along on roads. But too many drivers treat roads as race tracks. Too many motorists drive distracted.

And yet I let my young kids ride on roads to get to school. I don’t worry about ‘stranger danger’ but I do worry about a madman behind a steering wheel, or a yummy mummy in a monster 4×4 speeding around corners to drop her precious cargo at school in time.

Statistically, my kids are safe. Statistically, I’m safe. Statistically, I could slip in the shower and bang my head. Sadly, there was a case of a Australian semi-pro cyclist who did just that. He died. Had he been wearing his cycle helmet in the shower, he might have survived.

So, why are there so many campaigns to get cyclists to wear helmets – such as the skull one from the Department for Transport – and none to encourage use of head protection in the house or while driving? I don’t want to kick off a helmet debate. Really, I don’t. But I would welcome comments about how cycle advocates square the cycling-is-safe circle. How can we promote cycling as safe yet send so many people out on roads we know can be dangerous. Sometimes.

Of course, it’s not the roads that are dangerous, it’s the idjits that use them, but you get my drift. Can we have our cake and eat it? If some drivers are as mad and as bad as we sometimes complain (and, in reality, it’s just a tiny minority of drivers we need to be worried about) are we not being disingenous to encourage newbies to use those self same roads?