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A Point-By-point Breakdown of The Daily Mail's Newest Anti-cycling Poll

Nothing can be said to be certain in this world except death, taxes and the Daily Mail lashing out at cyclists. But unlike their habitual opinion hit pieces, this latest crusade appears to be crowdsourced.

“A poll of more than 10,000 drivers conducted for the Daily Mail reveals widespread concerns that cyclists are treated too leniently”, lambasts the article.

The poll’s most significant findings are as follows. For the sake of levity and clarity, I’ll save you the percentage points for every query (they can be found here). Instead what I’d like to do is focus on the substance, or the underlying argument for each.

That said, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find that all of these points have been assessed positively by, at the very least, 50% of those polled:

  • New laws should be introduced to prosecute cyclists for a two-wheeled equivalent of dangerous driving.

  • Cyclists should be subject to similar legal requirements as motorists.

  • Compulsory insurance for cyclists should be introduced.

  • Cyclists should be required to wear fluorescent clothing.

  • Cyclists should be legally required to pass a road proficiency test, and wear a helmet.

  • Cyclists should have a roadworthy bike certificate – the equivalent of an MOT

  • Cyclists should have to pay road tax.

  • Cycle lanes designed to alleviate congestion and increase safety for cyclists have failed to improve traffic flow, or have made the situation worse.

Ready, set, go.

Full Speed Ahead

Before we jump head first into our analysis, several concerns about the poll’s legitimacy have already been raised, and should at least be mentioned.  

For one, the poll has been conducted by FairFuelUK, a campaign group launched in 2011, and funded by the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the Association of Pallet Networks. As notes in its coverage of the survey: “If this website has a pie-in-the-sky wish for 2018, it’s that the Daily Mail’s readership learns to question how the newspaper sources its information. “

Furthermore, the results of FairFuelUK’s poll seem to be in somewhat direct contrast to what Sustrans’ Bike Life poll found just a few months back. According to their own survey - conducted in seven major cities around the UK - “three times as many people would invest in more space for walking, cycling or public transport to keep their city moving than invest in more space for cars”.

Over ¾ of those polled by Sunstrans also said they’d support more protected cycle lanes “even when this could mean less space for vehicles”, a fairly direct rebuttal of some of the points made by FairFuel’s poll.

But onto the arguments.

Breaking it down

I’ve bundled some of the poll’s points together based on theme, relevance and the fact that the rebuttal rings similar for a fair few of them. Starting with:

New laws should be introduced to prosecute cyclists for a two-wheeled equivalent of dangerous driving.

I’ve written about the peculiar case of Charlie Alliston before, which has spurred this discussion in the first place. In 2016, a 44 year old pedestrian Kim Briggs was killed while crossing the road, when she was hit by a 20 year old cyclist.

The case has garnered nationwide attention not just because such a collision is rare, but because Mr. Alliston was eventually convicted of ‘wanton and furious driving’, a 150-year old legal provision originally intended to prosecute the drivers of horse-drawn carriages, not cyclists. But in lieu of a more adequate legally-prescribed offense, the judge was forced to improvise.

As I mentioned before, I have absolutely no problem with introducing new, contemporary cycling-related crimes. If a cyclist causes serious injury or death to a pedestrian, he should be fully (and properly) prosecuted, and I fail to see really any room for debate here.

What I do have a problem with is making these types of regulatory pivots in a vacuum. Every year, out of 400 pedestrian deaths, only 2 are caused by cyclists. The remaining 398 pedestrians (plus about 100 cyclists) are killed by motor vehicles, still by far the most dangerous traffic participant.

The myriad dangers posed by cars have yet to be adequately reflected in UK law, which is why cycling advocates have been calling for the introduction of presumed liability, a legal concept which would, in case of a collision, shift the burden of proof from the more vulnerable road user - pedestrian or cyclist (as it is in status quo) - to the driver.

Contrary to what some critics have said, nobody is immediately found guilty under presumed liability - fault would still have to be proven, except the onus would be on the driver to prove that he wasn’t at fault, instead on the pedestrian/cyclist. As Richard Gaffney, a personal injury lawyer notes, “establishing liability is often a difficult challenge, especially if the cyclist is unable to give evidence due to the nature of their injuries and/or if there are no independent witnesses.”

Only 5 countries in Europe have yet to implement presumed liability - Malta, Cyprus, Romania, Ireland, and the UK.

Presumed liability is one of the many issues with how road collisions are currently policed. Which leads me to a similar conclusion as the one made by Roger Geffen, Cycling UK’s policy director, when asked about the Daily Mail poll and the request for new cycling-related offences. According to cyclingweekly:

“Geffen said that although the organisation had no objection to the introduction of such offences, which he says would be used just once every five years, it would be a more effective use of parliamentary time to concentrate on harsher penalties for the thousands of drivers who kill or injure cyclists and pedestrians each year, with greater use of driving bans, tougher sentences, and a tightening of the loophole which sees thousand drivers claim “exceptional hardship” to evade driving bans.”

Cyclists should have to pay road tax.

This one just won’t die.

A fan favorite among UK drivers whenever they need an impromptu reason to tell off a cyclist, the ‘I pay road tax and you don’t’ shtick has been debunked a million times, and yet somehow perseveres.

Yes, cyclists don’t pay road tax. However, neither do drivers. In fact, NOBODY pays road tax because there is NO SUCH THING as road tax. I’ll explain (for the nth time).

What drivers refer to when claiming they pay their road dues is the VED, or Vehicle Excise Duty, a charge even freaking Wikipedia says is also known as ‘road tax’. There are just a few problems here.

First, the VED is calculated based on the vehicles’ emissions, so even if cyclists were forced to pay VED, the amount owed would still be zero. Furthermore, given that around 90% of British Cycling members also happen to be drivers, it’s safe to say that most cyclist already pay for VED anyway.

But the most important reason why it makes no sense to refer to VED as ‘road tax’ is because VED doesn’t even pay for the roads - at least not directly. As bbc explains:”All of it goes into the pot of general government taxation.”

Now, granted, roads - along with many other things - are funded through general taxation, but that also means that pretty much everyone pays for them, while the VED itself is also used to fund a plethora of other governmental services apart from the roads.

In London in particular, roads are funded by the TfL, London boroughs and Highways England. To quote the bbc again: “So who pays for London's roads? The answer is just about everyone - taxpayers, fare payers, businesses.“ And yes, cyclists.

Cycle lanes have failed to improve traffic flow, or have made the situation worse.

This is not the first time the Daily Mail has tried to push this narrative. More than a year ago, Guardian’s Peter Walker was befuddled by the frontpage headline in the Mail that read:

”Cycle lane lunacy! The new blight paralysing Britain”

“My first thought was: ah, good, the Mail finally agrees it’s lunacy we have so few decent bike lanes.”, jokes Walker. He quickly found that not to be the case: “This was another example of what you might call post-truth journalism, which has leaped the fence from the internet to the mass media.”

Let’s focus the core of our argument on London, where the congestion is most egregious, and road traffic seems to constantly be worsening.

It’s difficult to see how one could even begin to blame cycle lanes for such development, given that they make up only about 3% of all roads in London’s centre, and even that could be considered massive compared to the rest of Britain. According to Sunstrans: “In six of our cities where data is available, only 19 miles of protected bike lanes on roads physically separated from traffic and pedestrians exist. This equates to 0.2% of the total miles of roads in the same six cities (9,351 miles in total).”

On the other hand, the sheer number of vehicles in the capital has flourished in the recent years, due to a variety of factors including more people, new technology (Uber, online delivery vans), more construction traffic etc.

But ignoring all that for a second, cycle lanes still manage to produce a net positive effect for London’s traffic.

Take the recently opened East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways, for example. These cycle lanes take up 30% of road space, yet move 46% of traffic participants at peak times. “Overall”, says Sunstrans, “looking at all modes of transport two weeks after opening, these superhighway corridors were moving 5% more people per hour than they could without cycle lanes. This suggests reallocation of road space to cycle lanes is making these routes more efficient.

It should be no surprise, then, as mentioned already, that almost 4/5 of residents support building more protected cycle lanes, even when this could mean less space for other vehicles. And ⅔ of residents said they would find these routes very useful to help them start cycling or cycle more, a massive benefit both for public transportation and public health.

Overall, there seems to be little to no evidence that cycle lanes actually slow traffic, let alone make it worse. Whereas most other points raised by the Daily Mail poll are opinion-based and therefore somewhat debatable, this one’s just statistically wrong. All of that, by the way, is completely ignoring the documented health and safety benefits promulgated by protected cycle lanes.

Cyclists should be forced to X

Finally, this one’s an amalgamation of several points raised in the poll, all of which share a common thread - making it more difficult for people to get on a bike. This includes calls for compulsory insurance for cyclists, introducing a mandatory road proficiency test, requiring cyclists to wear hi-vis and a helmet etc.

Various counter-points could be raised here.

When discussing compulsory insurance, for example, one could mention the discrepancy in potentially hazardous behaviour between cars and cyclists. As Richard Gaffney notes:

“There's a reason why third-party insurance costs so much for drivers. While around six people die every day on our roads and more than 60 suffer serious, often catastrophic injuries, cyclists very rarely kill or seriously injure people. Compared to people killed or injured by drivers, the numbers killed or injured by cyclists is miniscule.“

When debating mandatory road tests, it could be worth invoking the stat from earlier that about 90% of British Cycling members are also drivers, bringing into question the overarching efficacy of such proposal.

When campaigning for mandatory helmets and high-visibility clothing, I could refer you to a previous article of mine breaking down those particular concerns, to further illustrate the fact that this is hardly a black-and-white issue.

But perhaps the most universal argument against all of these measures, is that it would almost undeniably deter people from cycling in the first place. As Paul Walker put it in one of his anti-regulatory tirades:

“Cycling's appeal is that it is gloriously simple and impulsive, a habit usually acquired in childhood. It's been shown time and again that even compulsory helmet wearing reduces cyclist numbers. Imagine what would happen if you introduced a registry of bikes and riders, which you'd need to make any licence and insurance scheme viable. Only the truly committed would trek to the test centre, fill in the forms for number plates and screw them onto the frame.”

This could have end up having devastating consequences in a variety of volatile and consequential public areas, including health, urban transportation, and even the local environment.

Getting into cycling in Britain is hard enough as it is. The proper infrastructure is scarce, current road policies are hardly bike-friendly, and the social stigma involving cycling seems to be getting worse (as the Daily Mail’s poll itself suggests). Introducing additional hoops for cyclists to jump through hardly seems like a sensible solution to address any and all of these concerns.

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