Rules of the road aren't species specific
The founder of the safe cycling campaign 'Stayin' Alive at 1.5' has responded to a column by Fr Michael Commane published in this newspaper in which the latter outlined a new 'species' of cyclist as being 'one of the most dangerous' on Irish roads.
In 2017, Phil Skelton was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Road Safety Authority and the Leading Light award from the Irish Road Victims Association.
This year he was awarded an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Society of the Irish Motor Industry in conjunction with the RSA.
Mr Skelton is also a Cycle Right cycling instructor and following the publication of Fr Commane's column he said he wanted to address some of the points made by the priest in his piece, 'cyclists must obey the rules of the road'.
He said he was expecting Fr Commane's piece to be full of [the] behaviours unique to cyclists breaking the rules of the road.
However, he said that 'we are instead fed with tired old lycra, helmet-cam-wearing clown jibes relating to a "species" of cyclist'.
'As an added bonus, we get this whole "species" blamed for the actions of a single rider,' he added.
The latter point was a reference to Fr Commane writing about a 'man-cycle-racer' passing him with just millimetres to spare.
However, Mr Skelton said the tone of the column was such that it could inadvertently cause danger itself.
'That danger can simply lie in some driver's head until they encounter a cyclist and think "there's another one of that species; a lycra clown who disobeys the rules of the road, that Fr Commane was referring to",' said Mr Skelton.
'This can affect behaviour, leading to unsafe interactions on the road,' he added.
He went on to highlight that the Stayin' Alive at 1.5 campaign and the work of Wexford County Council has made great strides with regard to promoting road safety.
Mr Skelton said the work has been ongoing since two cyclists lost their lives within eight months of each other in 2012 and 2013.
'Through such efforts, Wexford is now in its sixth year without a cyclist fatality,' he said.
'It's taken a lot of hard, mostly voluntary, work to get to this point,' he added.
Mr Skelton said some of the comments in Fr Commane's piece have 'no role to play in an article about road safety'.
'Simply put, the notion of collective responsibility is just nuts,' he said.
In addition to being an avid cyclist Mr Skelton is also a car driver and he asked if he, or any other car drivers, should be held to account if a boy racer decides to do doughnuts or fish tails on a road on the Innisowen Peninsula.
'I think not,' he said, in answer to his own question.
'So why is collective responsibility applied to this "species" as Fr Commane call us?'
He acknowledged that the cyclist who came close to Fr Commane was a 'very selfish person' who behaved in a manner outside of the expected social norm.
However, he added: 'To compare it directly to a ton-and-a-half vehicle doing the same is far from a like-for-like comparison.'
'If the overtaking cyclist had hit the columnist, there is little doubt that they would both have taken a tumble but if instead, the car had misjudged the overtaking manoeuvre, then the only skin in the game would be that of the cyclist,' said Mr Skelton.
'He is, in all probability, one pothole or driver distraction from becoming another road statistic,' he added.
While not condoning the behaviour of the cyclist who passed Fr Commane, Mr Skelton said his point was to add some balance.
'To be clear, cyclists are no more likely to break rules of the road than any other road user,' he said.
'People make decisions to break rules, not transport modes,' he added.
He then suggested that real 'road harm' comes from those using motorised vehicles: 'Most real road harm comes from driving around motorised vehicles and making bad decisions when propelling a vehicle which can easily turn in to a ton-and-a-half projectile. We all know that at no other point in our lives do we pose a greater risk of harm to others than when we are driving a vehicle.'
He cited a recent report from the Australian Automobile Association which revealed that drivers are to blame in four out of five collisions with bicycles while 80 per cent of drivers admitted to speeding in urban areas.
'We all see distracted driving in the form of mobile phone use,' said Mr Skelton.
'Just take note of the extra time it takes when lights turn green for people to take their eyes off the ambient light beaming up from their laps,' he added.
He highlighted that 'only nine drivers' were prosecuted and three convicted under a law introduced almost four years ago to target motorists who text and 'access information' on their smart phones while driving.
Mr Skelton said that a plethora of real road harm reduction topics could have been included in Fr Commane's piece if road safety was really being highlighted including drink or drug driving, aggressive driving, dangerous driving, defective vehicles, unlicensed drivers and uninsured drivers.
Fr Commane made an association between cyclists wearing lycra and having cameras fitted to their helmets and those who use roads as race tracks.
In response Mr Skelton said most sports have discipline-specific clothing such as jodhpurs for horse riding, tight synthetic tops for rugby, and keokogi for karate.
'It's the same for sports cycling,' he said.
'I wear ordinary clothes for commuter everyday cycling but wear lycra for longer journeys; not because of vanity but simply for comfort.'
Mr Skelton also wears a camera when riding and said: 'I want my family to know what, or indeed who, caused my demise should the situation arise.'
'I hope it never does but having been hit on the elbow by an overtaking car that didn't stop in the past I'm not taking any chances,' he said.
'Just like a dashcam it provides conclusive evidence of some life threatening behaviour mainly not seen hithertofore.'
In the UK police force work on road harm reduction makes a distinction and separation between annoyances and dangerous behaviour.
'What happened to you with the rider would be seen as an annoyance but with the car driver, this would be seen as a road danger,' said Mr Skelton, directly referring to Fr Commane's piece.
'Based on this, many forces there [in the UK] conduct what is called Operation Close Pass,' said Mr Skelton.
This involves a police officer equipped with cameras dressed in various guises, lycra included, cycling along a piece of road way and radioing ahead reporting close passes to an awaiting police car.
The offender is then spoken to and depending on his or her attitude is either given a roadside lecture or a fine and penalty points. 'This model has progressed to a point where the police now have an online reporting camera portal where some of these real road harm behaviours can be reported via on board cyclist camera footage,' said Mr Skelton.
'Police in a different jurisdiction take camera footage seriously even if the author does not,' he added.
'This is probably a direction that we too will take in the future in Ireland; it is evidence-based and has helped reduce serious injuries and bicycle rider fatalities in the West Midlands by 20 per cent.'
Mr Skelton said hi-viz jackets are not the 'panacea of cycling safety' as drivers also need to be actively looking for cyclists and more importantly 'really care about the human being on that bicycle'.
'If these two elements are not in play, then you could attach your lit-up Christmas tree to your bicycle and it may not make a difference,' he said.
'Being seen does not protect you from the bloody mindedness of a small cohort of drivers,' he added.
He went on to comment on a recent study carried out on near misses by the Westminster University in the UK that found that almost a third of dangerous interactions between motor vehicles and bicycles were close passes.
In his column Fr Commane said a Dublin Bus driver told him that the camera wielding, lycra wearing 'species' of cyclist is the most dangerous on Irish roads.
In response Mr Skelton said he would hate to be a bus driver in Dublin and described cycling around the capital as being an 'unpleasant experience'.
'Buses and cyclists are expected to share a lane space and if you've ever had the experience of one of these hulking masses of metal overtake you too closely, this makes for a harrowing experience,' he said.
He also highlighted that Dublin Bus has an online complaint form which cyclists regularly fill in complaining about the driving standards of some of their drivers.
'A common one we see is a close pass followed almost immediately by the bus pulling in to the bus stop where simply waiting a couple of seconds for the cyclist to clear the bus stop would have made for a much safer interaction,' he said.
'We need to get busy creating infrastructure that largely eliminates the ridiculousness of the largest and the smallest vehicle having to share the same road space,' he added.
Mr Skelton said that based on statistics we can expect another four people this year to be killed while riding a bicycle and based on the Australian research the primary fault in three of those incidents will be driver related.
With regard to Fr Commane's column, Mr Skelton said: 'Hopefully your next road safety article will reflect this fact and go beyond victim blaming into the realm of road harm reduction; otherwise, let's leave road safety to those with the expertise in this area.'
However, he said he wholly agreed with Fr Commane on his final point: 'Good road behaviour saves lives.'