Headphones, Helmets And Hi-Vis. – Boris is missing the signals in road danger debate

In the capital this week, whilst the Met advised commuting bike riders to wear extra bright clothing in case ‘drivers weren’t wearing their glasses, a prominent London cyclist carried out a number of erratic moves during an LBC radio interview, which threaten to put his professional life at serious risk of harm. Bare-headed, dressed in a non-reflective dark suit and clearly wearing headphones throughout, he remained oblivious to the heavyweight issues thundering around him whilst he made his risky manoeuvres. He didn’t stop even though there was a red light clearly shining in the recording studio at all times.

I know there isn’t a quick fix to the problem of the many dangers which London’s cyclists face everytime they take to the road.

I know it’s more complex than just a rush-hour HGV ban, or segregated lanes on the cycle super highways.

I know that self-interest and self-preservation are enormously important aspects of urban road-use and that vulnerable road-users need to play their part in reducing the risks presented to themselves.

I also know that repeatedly reducing the debate to one about what the potential victims are wearing is about as big a blunder that the man in charge of realising the potential solutions could make. Frankly, I’m appalled.

We all expect the occasional gaffe from Boris. It comes as part of the deal with him. Wiff-waff, wet otters, high wires; the list is long and occasionally amusing. It’s part of his make-up and, I would venture, a reason that many non-Tories are relatively accepting of him. He bumbles where others act with apparent ideological malice. It actually can be quite endearing at times.

But his current blundering through the escalating mess that is playing out on our streets is making him look less quaintly naive by the day and instead presents an increasingly singular obtuseness which threatens to engulf him. Surely no-one is finding this endearing. Surely no-one is amused.

I actually agree with many of Boris comments: I always wear a helmet. I would never cycle with headphones. I don’t jump red lights or ride at night without lights. I stopped doing a 100 yard short-cut up a one-way street on my commute home a couple of years ago and now take the longer ride around a more dangerous route around instead. I don’t wear a yellow or pink Hi-Vis but I do wear a white jacket and reflective strips in the dark months. I ride pretty defensively and never under the influence. Do I think that any of this guarantees my safety out on the bike? Of course not.

So when Boris makes a big thing on radio this week about looking at banning cyclists from wearing headphones I get quite angry. This isn’t a one-off bungled comment in amongst pithy ideas and actual action about the real issues. This is a repeat of similar inanities and, for Boris, it’s in danger of becoming a mantra. ‘Cyclists aren’t doing enough to keep themselves safe. It’s their own fault.’ is the apparent sub-text. Horseshit. Even I, who have never attended a meeting on integrated transport policy in my life, and who doesn’t have an army of expert advisors feeding me balanced and informative reports from myriad interest groups, can see that a headphone ban is not going to solve the problem of human beings getting crushed by large machines. Nor is just using a helmet. Or wearing Hi-Vis. If any of these things were so fundamentally important to cyclist’s safety they would have drafted into law many, many years ago.

So why is Boris repeating them as if they are the solution. It increasingly sounds as if he would rather talk about anything except the blindingly obvious problem of Trucks, Buses, Cars and Bicycles all needing to use the same space at the same time.. It increasingly sounds like he simply Doesn’t Care. Hand-Wringing, Victim-Blaming, call it what you will. For a person in such a position of responsibility and power it’s dangerously close to being viewable as a total professional and moral failure. For person in an elected position it also looks like a full-on tilt at career suicide.

Apart from the enormous issue of trivialising the entire debate, the  trouble here is a fundamental lack of balance. I’d be quite to consider a ban on cyclists wearing headphones provided that all car and lorry drivers were legally obliged to disable their radios and music players and keep at least one window on each side of their vehicles open at all times so that they can hear a friendly “Ahoy there, driver” from a cyclist in their blindspot. That would seem fair. If hearing what is going on is so important why isn’t Boris suggesting that?

I’d be up for mandatory Hi-Vis for cyclists if all black and dark blue motor vehicles had to be painted shocking pink and have reflective stripes stuck all over them. I’d even be up for a helmet requirement so long as drivers had to retrofit exterior airbags all over their cars.

And here is the real problem of what Boris is doing. I’m making tit-for-tat jokes about cars being painted pink instead of engaging in a meaningful debate about the dangers that exist on our urban roads because that is where the debate has been taken. It is being simplified, trivialised and skewed against the group who are most vulnerable to being injured by it. And Boris is leading the way.

We are talking about people dying here.This debate urgently needs two things. Gravity and Balance. Sadly the Mayor is failing to deliver either. So a third thing is needed: New Leadership on the issue.

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