Twice in the last 24 hours I have been involved in an incident while cycling from my home in Patcham in the Brighton suburbs to the town centre. In both cases I could have been seriously injured – the first time I got away unscathed, the second time I came off the bike but somehow walked away from a really nasty incident without serious injury. And both were at the same junction on Brighton’s Preston Road, with Harrington Road, on a route I use every day and where I feel comfortable and confident.
The first occasion was yesterday lunchtime. A woman in a blue Peugeot had pulled up at the double white lines and was talking on her mobile phone. As I went past she suddenly started forward – still immersed in her phone conversation – and I was forced to swerve and narrowly missed being struck by a passing bus. I’m still not sure how I managed to stay on the bike or avoid being struck – and I cannot imagine what the poor wretch of a bus driver thought. It was seriously unpleasant and I felt very shaken afterwards; as I pedalled on the woman in the car drove past, still on her phone. I was too shaken to get her registration number.
This morning’s was much more serious. I was in exactly the same place when almost the same thing happened; a man drove his car across the cycle lane forcing me to swerve out of the cycle lane into the main road. But at the same time a woman driving north along Preston Road decided to turn right into Harrington Road, without signalling or stopping, and was heading straight at me. This time I couldn’t stay on the bike and flew off, landing in the road in front of the second car.
It must have looked spectacular. I am not a small man and the passing dog-walking pedestrian who helped me asked whether I had ever had parachute training, so perfectly-executed was my roll (for the record I haven’t and it was pure instinct but it’s probably what saved me from breaking any bones). I hauled myself up, delivered a few choice words of good honest Anglo-Saxon at the woman behind the wheel before she sped off, and it was only once I had picked myself up that the pain kicked in. Once again, no chance to get the registration number.
I was lucky. I have painful bruising all down my right side, from my shoulder to just above my right knee. But I don’t appear to have broken anything, and it could easily have been so much worse. I wasn’t actually hit, although it was a near-run thing. And the bike was undamaged – fortunately it’s a beast of a road bike, 35 years old and steel-framed and would probably survive Armageddon. And I managed to get back on it and ride gingerly, slowly, painfully back home – it seemed important to do that. (Just to reassure the victim-blamers I was wearing a helmet – I always do – and a reflective blue jacket; visibility was good and there was no excuse for not seeing me).
A few hours later, a couple of thoughts. I am a careful cyclist; this junction is on my daily route and I have negotiated it hundreds of times. The sole cause of both the near miss and the actual accident was stupid, negligent driving – an in either case I could have been very seriously injured. On the second in particular I was extremely lucky. And yet cyclists who call motorists’ behaviour – even when, as in both these cases it is in the literal sense of the word criminal – are branded as extreme or strident. In fact it is about something very simple – the right of vulnerable road users to space on the streets. (I note in passing that in neither case did the driver deign to stop).
Second, this is an entirely unrecorded incident. I did not go to hospital and there was no police involvement; as far as official statistics are concerned, it did not exist. It’s a reminder that thousands of unreported near misses happen every day. If cars are involved in an incident there is a statutory duty to report and if insurance claims are involved, there will always be a record; the daily experience of vulnerable road users does not have the advocacy of statistics, because for the most part incidents will not involve a formal report.
Finally, a thought on language. We talk about death and injury and damage on the road in terms of “accidents”; as if they were somehow an unavoidable collateral of the benefits of mobility. They’re not; in almost every case they are the fault of people acting irresponsibly or negligently. It may not always be possible to untangle who is doing what, and there is absolutely no point in setting up a blame culture. But we do need a culture of responsibility, and our current language avoids that. And it means those who are least vulnerable stepping up to the plate and taking their responsibility for the vulnerable. The roads in Britain remain a sort of paradigm of neoliberalism: a devil-take-hindmost environment in which the weakest must expect, without complaint, to go to the wall. Britain remains a country where if you want to kill with relative impunity, you just need to get behind the wheel of a car (or, in particular, a lorry in London). It need not be like that, and I’ll be back on my bike on Monday morning to reclaim my right to road space.