From roadhogs to respect

Bryan Davies

Lord Bryan Davies is Labour's Shadow Transport Minister in the House of Lords.

We are a wealthy, populous country crowded onto a very limited land space. Transport reflects a great demand for space so it is hardly surprising that road users often seem highly competitive for what space exists.  Today we debate the steps the Government are or should be taking to rebalance the responsibilities of motorists and cyclists on the road.

The Lords comes to this challenging environment with obvious limitations.  Despite its wealth of intelligence and experience, a high proportion view traffic problems overwhelmingly from a London angle – it’s where they work and it’s where a large number live.  London produces the most difficult problems of traffic management and road competitiveness. Many Peers drive, a small number cycle but all walk, and London’s pavements often seem as competitive as its roads.

London houses the main organs of communication – so it’s not entirely surprising that when The Times launched its campaign to improve the safety of cyclists it was prompted by the tragic accident of one of its cycling reporters seriously injured in a London street. Indeed that accident, together with successive deaths on the same roundabout in Tower Hamlets, sparked huge anxiety about cycling safety.

Yet we need to retain perspective.  Cycling has increased significantly in recent years and is a time when the majority of the population is seeing a real decline in income with the rapidly escalating cost of other forms of transport, fuel, tube, bus and rail fares. Cycles have obvious virtues. They do not pollute, are easy to park, and their riders are acutely aware of road conditions. While slow and vulnerable they are responsive to their rider - hence the predisposition to take risk.  The number of cyclists is certain to increase.

Vehicles create huge problems when they are parked – ask any motorist in our large cities. When they are on the move the problems are even greater.  While modern vehicles can be highly efficient they create their own interior world of isolation from road conditions and other users.

In our cities and too frequently elsewhere the mix of these road users can be challenging. And cyclists are all too aware that a high proportion of drivers have never been on two wheels with the extra demands that makes.

In this hugely challenging environment what is to be done?  Road behaviour has to improve. Cyclists on pavements are a danger to pedestrians and are acting unlawfully. Those who flout the law, such as jumping lights, are taking risks. But cyclists need protection. The growth of accidents involving heavy goods vehicles blind to cyclists on their near side need to be rectified. We need effective mirrors and guard rails on HGVs.

Pedestrians are controlled by lights at many junctions and cyclists need the same specific treatment. Our major city roundabouts need special attention for slower moving vehicles.

Yet despite the greatly increased public concern in recent months, which needs to be allayed by constructive action and legislation when necessary, we should not be suffused with gloom. Road safety in the UK still compares favourable with most other countries.

In the pressing challenge which our crowded urban streets present we should refrain from emotive terms such as “the urban jungle”. Our roads are a competitive environment which requires detailed regulation, recognising that the vast majority obey the law. This should be some comfort to the Lords whose role, after all, is to help provide the necessary legislation to improve our good record on road safety.

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