Am I A Pedestrian With Wheels, or A Vehicle?

There seems to be some confusion about how people on bikes should be treated. The tradition (and legal standing) in the UK is that we’re a vehicle, and subject to the full weight of most of the highway code, road traffic acts, etc.

The trouble is, when this definition was settled in 1888, things were a little different to how they are now. In that year, cars of any sort were still very much in the “experimental” stage, with a petroleum powered four stroke engine used to adapt a horse carriage by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

The “Red Flag Act” (1865 Locomotives on Highways Act) was still in force, restricting mechanically driven vehicles such as steam traction engines to 4mph on the open road and 2mph in towns.

The fastest thing you were likely to encounter on the streets was a horse, while the biggest and most intimidating thing would probably be a horse-drawn tram.

Actually, that’s not true – the fastest thing you were likely to encounter was another cyclist.

A penny farthing with a 60″ front wheel would clatter along at 12-15mph with the rider pedalling at 85rpm. That’s more than six times the speed of motorised vehicles of the day, four times the speed of a gentleman promenading, and roughly equivalent to a horse’s cantering speed. And what kind of a bally cad would ride a horse at that sort of speed in the street?

So it seems reasonable in 1888 to class a bicycle as a vehicle.

But things have moved on a bit since then though, haven’t they?

In the 1880s, the population on the whole of the UK was only 35 million, and we now have around 31 million cars on the road.

To accomodate all these cars (and lorries and buses and vans and taxis) street space has been swamped. Just look at any residential street, and you’ll find it’s almost impossible to park easily. Cars are also a whole lot bigger – just look at the now bloated VW Golf and compare it to the original 1970s model, or worse still, BMW’s parody of Issigonis’ Mini.

As a result they don’t fit into the shoebox-sized garages that we have (and these are full of our consumerist society’s crap anyway). The upshot of this is that the street – the road – is no longer enough space to park them on. To preserve their wing mirrors drivers now seem to view it as perfectly acceptable to park on the pavements – behaviour that local authorities and the police in their pursuit of smoothing traffic flow have no interest in correcting.

Indeed, councils are increasingly collaborating in this automotive Anschluss by legitimising the practice. Grass verges and paving slabs that’ve been broken up by the weight of vehicles are replaced with tarmac as the hegemony rolls on unabated.

Cars are, and have always been driven by people who have a lot of other things on their minds – how to deal with the servants, those bloody kids on the back seat, or whether it was wise to have those last few sherries before setting off for home. They travel fast, and their drivers crash them either into the scenery, or other people.

The resulting death-toll has forced the government to legislate and implement innovative designs to roads, signage and the vehicles themselves in a bid to stop the carnage.

Those vehicles have metamorphosed from motorised hay carts into sleek pieces of science fiction. They cocoon their occupants from any sense of their speed and the outside world. Yet average engine power has increased twentyfold, while weight reductions have turned even the most basic car into a street rocket. In towns where there’s a default 30mph speed limit, around 15% of all traffic exceeds this at any one time and the average driver breaks the speed limit every single day at least once. The average moving speed of all cars on a 30mph road is around 24mph, which is about the maximum that most people on a bike could hope to achieve in a short-distance sprint.

Despite successful campaigns around drink-driving (which was once routine), significant numbers of drivers on our crowded streets flout other laws. Around one in fifty drivers you see will be on the phone (and most of these not hands-free – not that that makes any difference), rendering them as incapable of concentrating on the world around them as if they’d just come out from the pub after a few ales. Around one in twenty will be driving without insurance. The average driver will jump 87 red lights in their driving career, as well as doing things like applying makeup, eating and kissing (or oh, so much more).

And all this is while in “control” of a large, fast moving piece of machinery that’s being operated in a public space. Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many drivers “lose control” of their vehicles, or sometimes explain that they “didn’t see the cyclist“.

So I suppose the obvious question is, given the above and the huge cultural inertia that maintains this status quo of How We Behave When Driving, why on earth would I want to be classed as a vehicle when I ride a bike a bike?

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Posted in Bike Culture
6 comments on “Am I A Pedestrian With Wheels, or A Vehicle?
  1. Adam J says:

    In modern times, the ‘vehicle / non-vehicle’ distinction quickly gets illogical. If a bicycle is a vehicle, a wheelchair or a skateboard clearly are too. The most useful term we have is ‘vulnerable/unprotected road users’ – most of whom (bikes included) receive little more than negligent treatment by infrastructure planners.

    [Edit out the last two words. – Ed. ;-)]

  2. Simon Hewison says:

    Imagine if every road traffic collision, however minor, involved official investigations in the same sort of manner and detail that air traffic crashes? A road accident investigation board, if you will. A lot of paperwork, yes, a lot of work, yes, but I’d wager that very few drivers will have ‘lost control’ of their vehicle; most likely, a huge majority of them will be down to misjudgement by the drivers. If any such misjudgement led to lots of penalty points on driving licences, hence higher insurance premiums, then drivers will be a lot safer.

    How to deal with the minority of cyclists with poor or dangerous road skills, when cycling is a much lesser-regulated method of transport would be another matter. I’m not aware of any court order banning someone from riding a bicycle having caused a collision.

  3. Paul M says:

    I seem to recall recently reading one of the many sensible remarks to have merged from Chris Boardman (is he “Sir” Chris? If not he ought to be). To paraphrase: when I ride a bike, I am merely a pedestrian who has used a few clever engineering tricks to make my walking more efficient.

  4. Joro says:

    You ask “why on earth would I want to be classed as a vehicle when I ride a bike?”

    Before answering consider the alternatives: if a bike is not a vehicle it would be reclassified as a toy, or as an item of sports equipment. In which case bikes have no more business on the roads than a pair of roller skates.

    Our ancestors fought hard to have bicycles classed as vehicles, and we should be guarding that status, because if it’s lost we would quickly find bikes banned from roads.

    The other side of the coin is that bikes should obey all laws and the observe the Highway Code … it goes with the privilege of being a vehicle.

    Roads are made for use by vehicles. That’s why I want to be classed as a vehicle when I ride a bike!

  5. KarlOnSea says:

    Oddly enough, you’ve (in part) beat me to my next post on this subject. More on this later…

  6. townmouse says:

    @Joro – bear in mind that in the UK pedestrians aren’t banned from roads, and nobody’s describing them as vehicles. It’s our right to walk on any road apart from motorways and cross it where we please, subject to only the laws of physics and natural cowardice.

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