A careful analysis of risk? Commuting to work by bike

A young man, Lewis Balyckyi, was killed riding his bike home on 18 January 2011. He was 18 years old. 

His death made the news not because it was especially remarkable, but because he was about to embark on a likely succesful career as a pro cyclist in Europe. Cycling is on the up in the press, and among the populace. It is still the new golf. Indeed, I wonder when golf will become the new cycling.

Lewis is not the first rider to have been killed on the roads. A friend has sought RoSPA information, and discovered that around 16,000 people are injured or killed riding bikes on the road. Of these 2,500 are killed or seriously injured. That’s around 50 a week who go out and never come home, or come home a fraction of their former selves.

A good week for me on the bike is around 250 miles. If I kept that up for the year, that would be around 12,500 miles. That’s the average annual mileage for a car driver. And yet, somehow, what I do has much heavier conotations of risk.

Even in the pit6ch dark of winter, I aim to ride to and from work at least three times a week. It’s an hour each way. It helps keep me fit. But every car that comes near me causes my heartrate to lift slightly and bring it a dose of adrenaline. To mitigate against the risk of that split second of inattentiveness that may put me in the 2,500, I have an armoury of lights: a front lamp so bright car drivers flash me; one rear light on the bike, one on my backpack, one on my helmet; reflective wrist and ankle bands (themselves having lights); the bike has a rear reflector; m backpack has a dayglo and reflective cover.

Share the road is often a refrain heard from more vulnerable road users. It is no surprise – there seems to be a particular mental closedown that comes over normal people as they slide behind the wheel and immediately switch off. Driving is, in effect, too easy and too comfortable; its comfort zone is way too big.

The law requires that each road user owes each other road user a duty of care. Fall below that standard, and you’ll be at fault in the case of an accident. Only, how can allowing oneself to fall below that standard ever be accidental. Driving a vehicle is a choice. It isn’t just a choice on switching on the ignition. It is a constant choice of convenience over difficulty. And the price to be paid for that is permanent attention and care opf those around us. Is the journey to work really more valuable than someone’s life?

And yet, it is clear that the duties owed to cyclists (and bikers, horse riders and kids playing on scooters) are lower than those owed to other motorised users. The cyclist in particular is expected to go to extraordinary lengths to do the thinking for motorised road users in order to seek some equality of status in the event of a collision. And yet, in spite of that effort to take even greater care of myself and those around us, the value of that saftey prioritisation is only measured after the fact.

At this stage, the details of the death of Lewis are not yet known. Many will no doubt say he died doing what he loved. That is glib, and throws away the life of our fellow man in a patronising dismissal. I love riding bikes. I need to ride bikes. But I sure as hell don’t want to go out, early, and before I have enjoyed the glorious and shining beauty of each of my daughter and fiancee, and the great wonders of the world around us. I shall take as much care as always tomorrow morning, as I step out into the gloom. And I will think of Lewis.

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