Are Women Cyclists The New Women Drivers?
Remember all those hilarious jokes about women drivers?
They were the staple for comedians right up to some point in the ’80s, and revolved around the perception that operating a complex machine like a car was beyond the simple minds of the fairer sex, who were better suited to cooking dinner, producing heirs, and getting a coctail ready for the hard-working man of the house when he got back from the office.
Even now, this perception persists:
But the thing is, if you look at insurance premiums, women tend to pay less than men, which sounds like a pretty good indicator that they’re actually better drivers. Like all statistics, there’s more to this than first meets the eye - one explanation I’ve heard for these apparently contradictory opinions about women’s driving skills is that both perceptions are right. Women tend to have more low-speed crashes (parking, shunts at junctions, that sort of thing), while men tend to have fewer crashes, but at higher speeds. The sort of crash which gets reported in the paper with the phrase “lost control of the vehicle” somewhere in the text, along with “no-one in either car survived”.
Anyway, over the last couple of years, there’s been a whole lot of coverage about women cyclists, often with tragic ends to the stories. Articles like this one , this one , and this one . I’ve often been suspicious of the media’s or politicians’ ability to focus and sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to statistics (remember knife crime? Anyone out there want to write me a short essay on the relative risks of getting stabbed compared with getting run over?)
Last week, I saw a woman cyclist approach a roundabout, hugging the kerb on the left, and then turn right, staying at the very outside edge of the road the whole way round. I wanted to stop her afterwards, and offer some cycle training, but figured that my desire to help might come over more like just another know-it-all bloke, or some sort of stalker.
I make this point not because I believe that women are worse on the roads than men (I’ve seen men do pretty stoopid things on bikes - stoopid things that are analogous to those high-speed wipe-outs that they have in cars. And I include myself in this list), but to illustrate that we see what we expect to see. We read on a regular basis that women are hesitant, nervous riders, and so our subconscious goes looking for examples that confirm this. All other data tends to get ignored & filed under “not very relevant”.
Being a confident, assertive rider will keep you out of harm’s way a lot of the time . . . but sometimes there’s just no accounting for the unbelievable stupidity of people behind the wheels of the vehicles around you. They do things like talk / text with their phones; have ‘just one’ drink before heading home; secure parts of their vehicles with coathangers; get impatient; think that they can just barge past; run red lights (ever seen a car stop on amber? Amber means “stop”, not “accelerate to get through because this is your last chance for about 30 seconds”, but most drivers seem unaware of this). A lot of the time you can predict this sort of behaviour, and proper cycle training can help a lot.
But ultimately, you’re susceptible to the consequences of others’ mistakes. You have no airbags, no ABS, no crumple zones, no side-impact protection, etc, etc.
Governments all around the world say that they want more people to ride their bikes, and spend a fair amount of money on schemes like Paris’ Vélib. These make cycling more accessible insofar as if you don’t have a bike, you can simply hire one for a short period at a very marginal cost. But without real, dedicated, vehicle-free infrastructure, these schemes are just window-dressing:
So politicians and traffic engineers - if you want to do something to protect these women cyclists who keep hitting the headlines, you need to do the sort of things that would protect us all. Because there’s nothing different about them - they have bones and soft-tissues, and blood and brains like the rest of us. Segregate cyclists from vehicular traffic AND do what it says in the Manual for Streets in giving pedestrians & cyclists priority over vehicles and you’ll make walking & cycling safer and more convenient than driving.
And I guarantee you that’ll do a whole lot more to reduce traffic & congestion than any other scheme you could spend money on.