Cycling is dangerous – so why get on a bike?

In such a safety-conscious society as ours, it is surprising that anyone is ever urged to do anything dangerous.

Scarcely a week goes by, however, without someone saying that the latest change to the transport system, however weird and irritating, is good because it will get people on their bikes. Or to put it in a slightly less ambiguous way, persuade them to take up cycling.

But cycling is indisputably dangerous. This is not just my view: confirmed cyclists are always saying so, and using that argument to try to compel drivers of motorised vehicles to slow down.

The danger, however, does not come just from cars, buses and lorries. Any regular watcher of the Tour de France will be aware that cyclists are likely to come to grief as a result of road conditions or indeed because of the behaviour of other cyclists – or, sometimes, spectators.

Cycling is dangerous of itself, because it enables you to reach quite high speeds in areas whether others are going at markedly different speeds, and you have very little protection.

So why encourage people to cycle? It’s supposed to be good for your health, though it doesn’t do much for knee joints. Is it healthy to cycle through gales, storms, ice and fog? I suspect not. In every case walking is much healthier – and safer.

How can we reduce the danger? Well, cycling evangelists are inclined to show us pictures of idyllic cycling scenes in enlightened continental towns. What they rarely point out is that the cyclists we see there are not Lycra-clad Tour wannabes with helmets, gloves and video cameras, hurtling along as fast as their 20 gears can take them. They are the gentler cyclists that those of us of more advanced years remember from our schooldays, when cycling on pavements (dangerous to pedestrians then and now) was likely to result in a sharp encounter with a local bobby, an official warning or a fine.

So why encourage people to cycle? Not because it’s safe, but because it’s fun. I suggest the problems we experience with some cyclists nowadays arise because cycling has been promoted as something morally superior – something safer and cleaner. As always, those who seize the moral high ground rapidly become obnoxious, because self-righteousness is no more attractive than self-justification.

Cycling is an indulgence, but that’s fine. In everyday life it can be useful; as a sport it’s undeniably exciting. But it’s not a religion, and it’s not politics. If we view it as either, we are opening the door to conflict. Going the wrong way up a one-way street and jumping the lights at the other end.