Chris Tagg On The Potency (Or Otherwise) of Cyclists

15th May 2019

Chris Tagg On The Potency (Or Otherwise) of Cyclists

15th May 2019

Like lots of people, I drive a car, ride a bike and I walk to places. So, I’m a motorist, a cyclist and a pedestrian.

What I’ve always found hard to understand is that those three groups, which must overlap almost completely, appear, at least in print and on the web to dislike each other unconditionally and without reservation.

Pedestrians hate bikes, cyclists hate drivers, drivers hate everyone.

But it’s that tension between drivers and cyclists that is the most intense. On the internet it is very easy (and in my case, apparently, unavoidable) to find cyclists having a good old moan about the state of roads, the design of cycle paths, another close pass by a driver or a HGV turning into their path. Helpfully an instant, laser-guided driver will volunteer the solution.

These solutions always seem to be threefold: Firstly, that cyclists should use cycle paths; secondly, that they should pay road tax; and thirdly, that they should stop going through red lights. Maybe they should be forced to wear helmets.

What, I suspect, cyclists are expressing is not feeling safe on the road. If the road is potholed then it can be hard to control the bicycle. That is dangerous. If your cycle path is unsuitable or badly designed or full of broken glass, you won’t use it. Probably it doesn’t go where you need to go anyway. Which puts you on the road. With other road users.

If you do not trust other road users to have respect for your safety, you will not feel safe. If you do not feel safe you will either not go out, or you will seek to protect yourself, perhaps riding on the pavement (always illegal, always), perhaps by not giving other road users the benefit of the doubt, or doing them courtesies.

The drivers’ position seems to be that cyclists put themselves at risk, possibly just by being on the road, and that cyclists should take responsibility for their safety. If you boil it down, it seems to be a complaint that cyclists expect drivers to be better at roadcraft than they are, and to keep them safe.

But here’s the thing. The law expects that as well. In the law, there is a concept of ‘causative potency’, which is a lawyer’s way of describing something that we all know but might find hard to express.

Not all road users or their vehicles are equally dangerous. A pedestrian is not very dangerous, a pedestrian could walk into you and knock you over and you would be injured – it must happen. But the chances of you being badly injured are small.

Cyclists are, in reality, not very dangerous. I know that people have been killed by cyclists, I know that that is tragic, but it happens very rarely. I know that cyclists jump red lights and I know that cyclists ride on the pavement, but a bicycle is unlikely to hit you. If it does hit you, it may injure you but it’s unlikely to cause the level of injury that a car would cause. It can happen, but the risk is smaller than with a bigger vehicle. It is smaller and slower and lighter. A cyclist’s causative potency is more than a pedestrian’s, but less than a motorcycle or car. Significantly less. Whilst a cyclist hitting a car is very unlikely to injure the user, a car hitting a cyclist is very likely to injure them. In fact, it’s quite likely to injure them very badly. And a lorry, even more so.

The reason this matters is because you may see cases reported where a pedestrian and a cyclist are involved in an accident. Maybe they’re both to blame. Maybe a cyclist and a motorist are in an accident or motorist and a lorry driver have an accident. In those circumstances, with everything else being equal, the driver of the vehicle with the greater causative potency is likely to be more to blame; and this is because their vehicle has more potential to do damage and cause worse injury. Because your vehicle has more potential to cause injury it is more dangerous, and you should take more care.

So, the next time that you see a ninja cyclist with no lights zooming down the pavement, or jumping a red light, just remember that whether or not they expect you to be a better driver than they are, the law very well may. It’s a useful way of remembering the effect a vehicle can have on those around you, and the responsibilities all road users have.