18 April 2019
Dumb and Number
Licence plates for bikes would be a mistake.
By Frank O’Nomics
Challenging the views of one of the UK’s most respected peers is dangerous. Lord Winston, the pioneer of IVF, is highly regarded and sought after for his views on all things medical. Given that he is such an intelligent chap, it is not unreasonable that we should sit up and take notice when he opines on anything, yet his recent “rant” (Chris Boardman’s description not mine) on reckless cyclists and the need for them to sport licence plates not only raises the prospect of increased costs for all, it would also go against the tremendous health benefits that cycling has generated – the very things to which Lord Winston and other scientists devote their lives. Rather than discouraging bicycles there are other measures that could increase the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists.
Lord Winston’s recommendation came after an altercation with a woman with whom he remonstrated for cycling on the pavement. There is no defence for her behaviour – she grabbed his phone, threw it away and started kicking him – and it is quite understandable that Lord Winston would want her punished. The problem is that, even with a bystander prepared to support him, it would be near impossible to identify the culprit. Even when the police stop cyclists, the offender only has to give a name and address which, without supporting identification, may be false. At present, beyond some police intervention for speeding (increasingly possible as most of London has a 20mph limit) and jumping red lights, prosecution is based on the archaic law of “wanton and furious riding”, which was originally designed for horse riders rather than cyclists.
The suggestion of number plates would then sound like a reasonable idea. Traffic cameras could identify those speeding, jumping lights or cycling recklessly, pedestrians could take note of their assailant’s number and the police could be more confident that they are being given the correct information. The idea is not a new one, with Jersey having recently given serious consideration to a £50 registration fee for all cycles with a £5 annual charge, the idea being that the money raised would “cover damage to cars”. Such schemes have existed in other countries such as Switzerland and parts of North America. The problem is that, in general, they do not last for long.
The big problem, as ever, is one of cost. Setting up, monitoring and enforcing the registration of bicycles is expensive and the figure would have to be set at a prohibitive level to make it economically valid. The result would be to effectively criminalise a large proportion of the population, or to force many cyclists off the road. It is this latter point that is crucial. There are many who find cyclists an irritant and would be happy to see the back of them, arguing that if people want exercise they can go to the gym or take a long walk. Last month a report from Monash University in Australia found that 50% of the motorists they surveyed regarded cyclists as “not completely human”. However, among the very real benefits of encouraging people to get on their bikes are the reduction in road congestion and consequent improvement in air quality. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 40 towns and cities in the UK have exceeded their air pollution limits. In London alone 440 schools are in areas that exceed safe legal pollution levels. The benefit to the health of both pedestrians and cyclists of cleaner air is obvious, and the economic benefits from a more efficient road system and a reduction in healthcare costs are potentially enormous.
The case of Charlie Alliston, the 20-year-old cyclist jailed for killing a woman in a collision when he had no front brakes, highlights just how serious the issue of deterring reckless cycling is. In 2017, cyclists killed 4 people, 130 were seriously injured and 372 slightly injured (this number must be a lot higher as many would go unreported). However, there are other ways to create greater safety. The Bikeability training programme (the modern equivalent of the Cycling Proficiency Test) administered by the Department of Transport, does provide a free environment to promote safe cycling and even covers some training for adults, but such initiatives need a great deal more promotion. Studies have shown that the average ‘hazard perception and appropriate response ability’ of those who engage in the scheme is 60% higher than those who do not. For cyclists themselves, the compulsory wearing of helmets would help, and many countries have adopted the policy although, outside Australia and some parts of the US, mostly just for children. When Transport for London started its cycle hire scheme one company tried to give away free helmets at docking stations, but was actively discouraged from doing so, and many of the companies organising cycle tours of London do not offer participants a helmet. It seems that, without legislation, people just won’t wear them.
It is understandable that Lord Winston and others should want cyclists to be accountable for their actions. He is considering bringing a private members bill to force cyclists to wear licence plates. It is very unlikely that such a bill would have any success. Cynics ask: “where should we stop?” Do prams and Zimmer frames need them as well? The point is – there are other ways to encourage safe cycling, particularly by training and educating children. What is needed is more people leaving their cars at home and getting on a bike. They will be healthier – and so will everyone else.