And how they’re killing us.
Everyone knows Top Gear Dad. He lives among us. You can’t identify Top Gear Dad by skin colour or religion. He could be 70 or 27 or anywhere in between. Top Gear Dad could be rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin. He could be a builder, a baker, an I.T. consultant or a regional marketing and sales executive. Top Gear Dad is almost always a man but not always a dad. In fact, often the most serious Top Gear Dad is your dad’s single friend who spends the money he’s saving by not having kids on his car and on Panini football sticker albums. Top Gear Dad not only drives a car (or two) but considers himself a ‘motorist’. Most of all, the real unifying characteristic of Top Gear Dad is that he has some strong views on cyclists.
If after all that you feel that you don’t know any Top Gear Dads and you’re wearing jeans paired with a collar shirt right now, then this post is for you.
Note: For my international readers, Top Gear is/was a British TV show about cars. This post will focus on the laws and attitudes related to cycling in the UK, but will also be relevant in other English speaking western countries. In the phrase ‘Top Gear Dad’, I’m referring to Jeremy Clarkson era Top Gear, before he was fired having punched and verbally abused a producer for not bringing him a steak which, if I may say so, is a classic Top Gear Dad thing to do
1. Cyclists need licenses and bicycles should be registered
This is a good one to start with because I hear it a lot and also, on the face of it, the idea seems to have some credibility. I think the first thing to note is that the role of transport authorities is to work towards a system that is safe, easy to use and good value for money and not to play a game of tit for tat where prizes and punishments are awarded based on who complains loudest. There is a cost to benefit equation for licensing any type of vehicle where the personal inconvenience for operators, the allocation of government resources for testing and administration and the monetary expense for all parties must be weighed against safety and accountability.
At some point in the past the UK government decided that to operate a motor vehicle, you would have to pass a standardized test. For over a hundred years, transport authorities have had the opportunity to impose similar restrictions on bicycles but they haven’t. There have been many changes made to the testing and licensing process for drivers over time but at no point were bicycles included. Why? Successive authorities have decided that there is a significant difference between driving a large metal box weighing 2 tonnes, capable of speeds well over 100 mph and riding a self-propelled compact vehicle weighing less than 20 kg (1% of a car’s weight) capable of 25 mph with good legs on a flat road. In fact, there are multiple categories of drivers’ license and some are harder to obtain than others. You can ride a 50cc moped at 16 with minimal training but you’ll have to take a far more comprehensive test to drive a heavy vehicle like a bus or a lorry.
For cycling, the slim benefits of licensing cyclists would be hugely outweighed by the costs, not only financial but to public health, the environment and to public safety. Let’s remember that a driver with a license is still far more likely to cause an accident involving serious injury or death on the road than a cyclist without one, and the more barriers we put up to put people off cycling, the more likely it is they will drive instead, reducing road safety in the process.
Incidentally, I now live in one of the few countries in the world in which bikes are routinely registered under the rider’s details with the local authority. It may have some advantages if your bike is lost or stolen, but it doesn’t help much with accountability in accidents. Try reading a registration number printed on a sticker the size of two postage stamps as the rider flees the scene.
2. Bikes are for kids
You may think that this opinion seems to be directly contradicting number 1 and you’d be right, but that’s okay. Top Gear Dad has built his life around not having his assumptions challenged, so contradictions are to be expected. Back when I was working in a bike shop I often met dads who were determined to get their kids cycling as early as possible, but who would never consider cycling themselves as an adult, least of all for transportation. I find it interesting that a bike can be simultaneously seen by a single person as a toy in the hands of a child but as a dangerous vehicle requiring strict licensing and registration in the hands of an adult.
Bicycles arose in the late 1800’s as a means of transport. The bike industry only turned to producing children’s bikes to plug the shortfall when automobiles started to become popular in the 1950’s (you can read more about it here). That’s over 50 years in which the idea of a children’s bike was just a frivolous novelty reserved only for the eccentric upper classes while adult bicycles dominated the roads across all levels of society.
I think the real tragedy is that after seeing the success of kids’ bikes, the industry responded by making adult bikes into toys too. The boom of the cheap mountain bike to be ridden once or twice at Center Parks and then forgotten about came at the expense of sensible bikes for transportation. Only now is the industry finally starting to rediscover the potential for bikes in the transportation sector with an uptick in production of e-bikes and commuter hybrids. Even so, many people in the UK and in other western countries are still reluctant to buy a bike with a basket, and Top Gear Dad is at least partially responsible for this.
3. Bicycle helmets should be compulsory by law
This one isn’t only coming from the Top Gear Dads but also from some outspoken members of the cycling community. To make it clear, I don’t have a problem with people choosing to wear helmets while riding a bike. I wear a helmet if I’m in a road race or if I’m doing some kind of bike related sport like bike polo and I respect people who choose to wear a helmet for ordinary road cycling. What’s dangerous is the idea that bike helmets must be worn by everyone on a bike and that there should be fines and penalties to enforce this.
The safety benefits of helmets for individuals are debated, but even if we take it that there is a minimal safety advantage to wearing a helmet, this benefit does not seem to translate to the population as a whole when helmet laws are implemented. In fact, in places where this has happened, cyclists are more at risk of injury than they are in places that have no such laws, or than they were in those same places before the laws were implemented. This is because mandatory helmet laws consistently and reliably reduce the number of cyclists on the road and reducing the number of cyclists on the road consistently and reliably reduces the safety of remaining cyclists. What’s more, some research suggests that wearing a helmet can increase risk taking activity and also that drivers tend to pass helmet wearing cyclists more closely than cyclists without helmets. Read this from Cycling UK for more info on the issue.
Even though helmet laws haven’t been enacted in the UK, the kind of attitudes that lead Top Gear Dads and others to shame cyclists who don’t wear helmets and blame them for any accident that they might be involved in regardless of established culpability has the effect of scaring the shit out of people who might otherwise want to take up cycling. Focusing on helmets makes cycling of any kind seem like a dangerous adventure sport that will only appeal to risk takers when in fact, according to the statistics, the fatality rate per km traveled by bike is slightly lower than for walking. Surprisingly, not many Top Gear Dads are seen wearing helmets while walking around on the streets, where they would be arguably as effective.
4. Cyclists should ride at the side of the road
There are two reasons that you might think that cyclists should ride as far to the side of the road as possible (on the left in the UK). The first is that you think being ‘out of the way’ is safer. The second is that you think roads are for cars and that cyclists should avoid impeding them in any way and at any cost. Top Gear Dad falls into the second category but both assumptions are equally mistaken.
Bikeability (Cycling Proficiency) in the UK teaches the primary and secondary riding positions. In the primary position the cyclist ‘takes the lane’, riding in the centre of the lane to deter passing. This should be adopted for several reasons, including if the road is too narrow for cars to pass safely, or if it would make the cyclist more visible. Even on a road with good visibility and plenty of passing room, cyclists are encouraged to ride no less than half a metre from the curb (secondary position) or more if the edge of the road has a poor surface. This gives them some room to maneuver in a dangerous situation. The main point here is that as a driver, you don’t have a right to overtake a cyclist unless it’s safe to do so and cyclists have no obligation to make room for you to pass if it will in any way reduce their safety. The roads are for everyone.
5. Cyclists should pay ‘road tax’
I’ve saved the best until last because this one is just ridiculous. In the UK there is no such thing as ‘road tax’. That tax you pay on your car each year is Vehicle Excise Duty. It’s an emissions based tax, so the lower your vehicle’s emissions, the less you’ll have to pay. Most electric cars don’t pay VED in the UK, so why would cyclists have to pay it? (read more about cycling emissions here) ‘But cyclists are using the roads’ says Top Gear Dad, ‘so why aren’t they paying for it?’ Well, they are. The majority of funding for road building is taken from general taxation, so if a cyclist is working, they’re paying for the roads just like everyone else. Despite this, the cost of building and maintaining good quality cycle paths is a tiny fraction of the cost of building and maintaining roads for use by motor traffic, so who’s getting the better end of the deal?
However you look at it, the financial benefits of encouraging cycling are enormous. According to research commissioned by the Cabinet Office:
‘The average economic benefit-to-cost ratio of investing in cycling & walking schemes is 13:1’
‘If cycle use increases from less than 2% of all journeys (current levels) to 10% by 2025 and 25% by 2050, the cumulative benefits would be worth £248bn between 2015 and 2050 for England – yielding annual benefits in 2050 worth £42bn in today’s money.’
This takes into account things like the benefits to health services, reduced spending on road infrastructure, reduction of detrimental environmental effects on agriculture and many more. So if you cycle, don’t let anyone tell you that building new cycling infrastructure is just too expensive, and if you don’t, please stop complaining that cyclists don’t pay road tax because they’re putting money in your pocket.
I started writing this post because I realized that for the last 3 years, living in Japan, I haven’t had to deal with Top Gear Dads on the road. It’s not that Japanese men don’t subscribe to the same kind of blinkered, macho persona that characterizes a Top Gear Dad; it’s just that they don’t tend to aim their frustrations towards cyclists. Anyone could be riding a bike in Japan. To a Japanese driver, a cyclist could be their mother or colleague, their child or their partner. There are bad drivers and bad cyclists and there are accidents on the road, but there is no particular animosity between the two groups and that allows cyclists to feel safe.
Top Gear Dad is both arrogantly cocksure, laughing in the face of ‘political correctness’ and also shatteringly fragile, sensitive to the tiniest of perceived injustices. He’s insecure, and he’s passing that insecurity down to the next generation along with the toxic masculinity he uses to cover it up. He sees the roads as a battle ground where the relationship between cyclist and motorist is deeply tribal, and like a battle ground, this tribalism costs lives. Thousands of cyclists are killed or seriously injured in road accidents every year in the UK and the attitude of motorists is key to making the roads a safe place. What’s more, that attitude is preventing others from cycling. In a world where sedentary lifestyles are killing as many people as smoking, and where our reliance on fossil fuels is trashing the planet, that’s a real tragedy.