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Why rules alone aren’t enough to keep people safe

The attitude of the wonderfully impartial UK press towards cyclists can be typified in a recent news story. A woman who was driving in London traffic eating a bowl of cereal balanced on her lap was shopped to the bobbies by a cyclist wearing a helmet camera. Rather than articles about the crass stupidity of eating breakfast behind the wheel, the stupefying press reaction to the incident was something along the lines of ‘Beware the cycling stasi’.

Now compare that to the Dutch owner of a hotel we stayed at in France when we explained the UK establishment’s anti-cycling agenda. She really couldn’t understand how or why this could be. That’s because, culturally, a whole different set of attitudes and values are at play, influenced not just by the rules in our respective nations, but more crucially, by how we interpret those rules – especially when they fall short of encouraging the safest behaviour.

Recent experiences prompt me to compare why this process happens and how it influences behaviour on the roads.

Cycling in the UK

It might be just my perception but now that cycling is fashionable I think that behaviour of motorists (and cyclists) might have improved. Either I’m deluded or now that more people are on bikes this really has changed behaviour.

In the UK, we know from the Highway Code that technically cyclists can be two abreast on wide roads. This does force drivers to treat the two bikes as a ‘proper obstacle’ not just an inconvenience to be slipped past as close as possible.

However, I have seen cyclists insisting on two abreast when this is plainly inappropriate and I suspect that they do this because the rules say that they can and that they know their rights.

Likewise I’ve witnessed a cycling time trial in progress on the A50. For those who don’t know this excellent A road this is the equivalent of riding a bike on a motorway with no hard shoulder. Yes there is ‘nothing in the rules’ to say that they can’t do this but the risk is well beyond what I would personally accept.

Cycling in France

Cycling is the national sport on the other side of the channel and the attitudes are completely different. French drivers tend to be faster and they will probably not slow down for cyclists but they will pass with plenty of room and won’t cut in. This is true even to the extent that in their haste to overtake and provide distance between themselves and the cyclist (goal conflicts) they will put themselves and other motorists at risk. I’ve get to see a negative item about cyclists in the French press or in their telly programmes.

Cycling in a large, slow group

Cyclist riding in front of a car
18 of us embarked on The Tour of Shropshire – this averages 10mph allowing for stops, getting lost, punctures etc. Much cake is eaten and I actually gained weight despite 330 miles covered.

Now, the Highway Code suggests that on wide roads this 18 person (politically correct – well there were 3 women present) convoy was technically entitled to crawl along in one long chain or even a shorter one, two abreast. In practice we only cycled two abreast when the road was visibly clear and the front and rear of the chain would shout warnings. But the crucial discipline was to separate into groups of three or four bikes with a good gap between the groups to give motorists overtaking opportunities.

Sticking to the letter of the law we didn’t have to do this but risk assessment and good sense (could this catch on?) indicated that we should behave this way to avoid some motorists getting frustrated and angry and carving up the chain.

Learning points for the workplace

Leaders: you get the safety culture that you demonstrate you want. People will respond to the manner in which safety is promoted and communicated.

Staff: working only to the safety rules isn’t always enough, sometimes it’s worth going the extra mile. The rules say I can access the machine once the guard is open because the proximity switch will stop it running, but maybe I’ll push the stop button in just to make sure. The rules say that I can do this job with safety spectacles, but maybe I’ll go for goggles or a visor.

Sometimes we have to take control ourselves rather than relying on rule-based safety.

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