UK’s new dangerous cycling offence will achieve pretty much nothing | Peter Walker

In the six days since a law to prosecute dangerous cyclists was announced, somewhere close to 30 people will have been killed on UK roads, none of them struck by bikes. About 500 more will have suffered serious, potentially life-changing injuries, with pretty much all connected to motor vehicles.

Again, going on the statistical averages, over those same six days, slightly more than 1,600 people across the UK will have died due to illnesses associated with physical inactivity. Riding a bike cuts your likelihood of developing such conditions by about half.

None of this is to argue that having new offences of causing death or serious injury by dangerous cycling will necessarily make the roads less safe. The worry is simply that it will achieve pretty much nothing, beyond the venerable political imperative of “doing something”.

Such appears to be the wider state of Westminster politics when it comes to active travel: endless, fierce arguing around the margins, while nothing gets done which might actually change lives for the better.

To take one example: on Monday afternoon, MPs debated a petition calling for “an independent review into low-traffic neighbourhoods”. It is just two months since just such an independent review into LTNs, commissioned by the government, found that they broadly work.

And when it comes to cycling, we are seemingly back in one of England’s occasional outbreaks of moral panic about all things bike-connected. This was prompted by an undeniably tragic case: Hilda Griffiths, 81, died after being struck in Regent’s Park, central London, by a club cyclist who might have been travelling above the park’s 20mph speed limit at the time.

While there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the rider involved, the case throws up the apparent legal anomaly of cyclists being able to ride above 20mph limits while also not being subject to them by law.

What followed, however, was out of any seeming proportion to a means of transport responsible for about 0.1% of road deaths a year, both from the government and, particularly, parts of the media.

The new offence of dangerous cycling was swiftly added to a criminal justice bill going through parliament, ministers adopting an amendment from Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader. This is an idea that has been mooted for some time, but governments nonetheless don’t routinely adopt backbench amendments.

Meanwhile elements of the associated media coverage progressed faster than a Deliveroo rider on an illegal ebike, from over-the-top to hysterical to almost entirely unhinged.

The prize exhibit in the latter category was a story in the Daily Telegraph – trailed on the paper’s front page – which trawled Strava data to claim that a cyclist had ridden a 600 metre section of the Embankment in London at an average of 52mph. Cyclists are, the headline declared, “turning UK roads into death traps”.

As very large numbers of people pointed out, this is faster even than Chris Hoy managed at his peak, at a brief sprint, in a velodrome. The speed was almost certainly a GPS glitch, not uncommon with the running and cycling app, or else down to someone recording their progress in a motor vehicle. Despite the article being based on information that was almost certainly untrue, it has not been corrected.

An opinion piece in the Daily Express wrote about “Lycra-clad maniacs” and claimed there was “a real arrogance to these cyclists”. It ended by referring to people on bikes as “selfish monsters”.

Such out-grouping is nothing new, if rarely so blatant. And, to an extent, this is something we have seen before. Every year or so it happens to almost exactly the same template, even down to the way road behaviour in central London is seen as somehow representative of the whole UK.

There are perhaps two differences to note here. The first is that this outbreak has happened in the context of a government which, for the first time in decades, does not even officially want to encourage people out of cars and on to active travel.

The other is more cumulative. This is nothing more than displacement activity, and every time it happens – and during the gaps where nothing is done – other cities and countries are just getting on with building new infrastructure.

Near the end of the recent government-commissioned LTN report was a roundup of international evidence about their widespread and long-term use in other countries which sounded at times almost plaintive.

They reduce motor traffic. They create places “that are attractive for both residents and retail”. They boost local economies. They improve health and boost quality of life. All this might seem a good thing for governments to pursue. But in England, it seems, some people would just rather argue.

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