This phrase cropped up again the other day. It bothers me. Similarly, there are signs on some motorways which shout confidently that tiredness kills and that I should take a break. Maybe it’s the analyst in me that won’t accept these statements at face value, but probably it’s the fact that such statements are well-meaning but misleading. I’m pretty sure that I’ve travelled at speeds in excess of 500mph many, many times, and that I survived the experience. (I suppose I could be dreaming, but let’s assume it’s not all in my imagination.) I’ve also been tired on more than one occasion and, although I have probably opined that I felt like death, it has never actually killed me.
Anyway, the titular phrase cropped up in a debate about – quelle surprise! – cycle helmets and road safety. Somebody was advocating the wider implementation of 20mph speed limits in certain areas; somebody else (post Bradley Wiggins’s comments the other day) was arguing for the compulsory wearing of helmets by those of us on bicycles. On the face of it, both of these ideas appear to be perfectly reasonable and beyond criticism. Surely they will improve road safety and reduce the risk of serious injury to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike. Surely I would be daft to question the wisdom of such thinking. Fortunately, I’m convinced that I’m not (yet) daft, at least when such matters are under debate. The statements should be scrutinised very carefully.
My issue with the speed thing is that it implies that speed is inherently dangerous. It is not. As my earlier comment confirms, it is possible to go very fast and survive. If you doubt me, ask an astronaut. It’s no different to guns, I suppose; the problems arise when someone pulls the trigger. My issue with the helmet debate is the assertion, heard all too often, that they will save your life. Well, as I understand it, a helmet may protect you from a minor injury and maybe even a serious injury, but it may also cause injury. Most likely is that it will make no difference at all. A common statement made by those with some knowledge of a cycling accident is that “the helmet saved my/his/her life”. Perhaps it did, but how do they know for sure without recreating the exact circumstances of the accident minus the helmet? If you are wearing a helmet, this effectively increases the size of your head, and this may have consequences in a fall. I had my eureka moment on this several years ago while working on construction sites, wearing the obligatory hard hat. For several days after first donning said safety device I banged my head on countless occasions. Nothing serious, but I banged my head time and time again until my body and brain figured out that I had to compensate for the greater dimensions of my head space and for the loss of the sensitivity to close objects offered by my hair. Rest assured, I am not anti-helmet; I’d just prefer to hear both sides of the argument, rather than assertions that those who choose not to wear a few hundred grammes of polystyrene on their head are in some way irresponsible and only worthy of our collective contempt. Incidentally, I’m no scientist, but as I understand it, the arguments comparing motorcycle helmets and car seat belts are not valid. These are proven to have a significant impact in accidents; cycle helmets do not enjoy such empirical evidence.
I’ve rather glossed over the question of speed, but it continues to bother me. Perhaps we could have a 20mph speed limit in some areas. In fact, why not make it 5mph? My view is that it is very dangerous to focus on a headline speed limit. Frankly, when I’m on my bike, my major concern is that I am not hit by another road user, whatever the speed. Tell some drivers that the limit is 20mph and you could well be removing their obligation to think about whether even this maximum is appropriate. I would far rather be passed by a car at 40mph, 12 feet away, than one at 20mph within a few inches. At risk of labouring the point, it is not the speed that will kill but the impact of the vehicle travelling at a speed inappropriate to the prevailing conditions. Here is the crux of the matter. Most drivers are simply not thinking about their driving; most don’t deliberately try to harm cyclists; most have no idea about how close they pass; most have done nothing about improving their driving after having passed their test, one, five, twenty or forty years ago.
I ought to digress for a moment, for reasons which should become apparent later. Perhaps it’s the latent hippie in me (although I was born about ten years too late to experience genuine flower power), but I fail to understand why we can’t just live happily and take care of those around us. Peace and love and all that, man. A few years ago, I was pondering the change to the law dealing with smoking in public places and wondered why we should have to legislate about such matters. It is barely conceivable that people are still unaware of the dangers of smoking and, more significantly, passive smoking. If you cared about your fellow man, why would you want to smoke in a place frequented by others? Imagine if I had a chronic flatulence problem. Would I park up every evening in my local hostelry and fart loudly and frequently like some malodorous, bean-fuelled gremlin? I’m pretty sure that most people in our society would find such behaviour rather unacceptable, even though extended exposure to passive methane inhalation is unlikely to be a cause of cancer (although I half expect the Daily Hate or the Daily Express to tell us otherwise fairly soon).
I think it is evident that speed doesn’t kill. Selfish, irresponsible, arrogant use of speed by those in ton-and-a-half metal boxes is the problem. I simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do everything reasonable to ensure the safety of fellow road users. Paradoxically, it would be deemed outrageous for a smoker to enter a non-smoker’s house or car and sit puffing on their 23rd Marlboro of the day. Can you imagine the kerfuffle this would cause? In other words, people do care about how their behaviour impacts on others, so why isn’t this applied to the roads?