Ghost Bikes - An appeal for protection and justice on the road
Betws-y-Coed ghost bike (picture: North Wales Weekly News)
Ghost Bikes have been a feature of roads in the USA and elsewhere for some time. They bear witness to a cycling road fatality. One has now appeared on the road between Llanrwst and Betws-y-Coed in the Conwy Valley. It commemorates the death in 2000 of Barry Cawley who was killed in collision with a car whilst out cycling. It is first and foremost a statement by a family or friends still grieving for a lost one. But ghost bikes are also seen as a protest against a society that pays lip service to cycling, but often denies cyclists even the most rudimentary protection and justice. The following is an article written by your editor Roy Spilsbury shortly after Barry died.
Barry Cawley and I never met. We are of different generations. A native of Llanrwst, and 37 years of age when he died, Barry made his name in Rock and Roll, whereas my knowledge of the genre was at a Queensferry Cafe in the 1950s. It always seemed to have a character on the juke box called Bill Hayley making a date with an alligator. With National Service in the army behind me, and accompanying friends from Merseyside, I was invariably heading for one of the youth hostels in North Wales with saddlebag stuffed with the basics for an adventurous weekend at Cynwyd, Lledr Valley, Rowen or some other treasured destination.
But when Barry died on Sunday 23rd July 2000 we were in close proximity. I was three miles away on the B5106 cycling from Conwy towards Betws-y-Coed. I recall it was a mild and sunny day - the sort where you feel it's good to be alive. I chanced upon a friend of old, Richard Hatton, also on his bike, and together we retired to the bar of the Ship Inn, Trefriw. It was good. We started chatting of mutual friends, and of the rich yet simple adventures we had each enjoyed over the years.
It was while we were reminiscing that the reality of modern life imposed itself. There was the now familiar sirens of emergency vehicles hastening to another road incident. Little did we know it was one of our own kind involved in the sort of happening that cyclists try not to think too much about as cars and lorries rush past with little or no thought for how vulnerable they leave us at times. Thirsts quenched, my friend and I set off together for Llanrwst, unaware of events up the road that had left Barry down an embankment, and under a car travelling too fast. For long afterwards Barry was not far from my thoughts.
I discovered he was a fellow it would have been a pleasure to have known. He was carefree, with lots of friends, and a full life ahead of him. In the music world he played a key back-up role with Catatonia, and with them toured Europe. As a member of Y Cyrff he ensured the Welsh language maintained a place in the world of rock and roll. When he was relaxing he must have been a familiar figure riding his bike around the local hills and vales. On his final journey his cycling jersey went with him.
At the time, my feelings of sympathy for Barry and his family and friends were mixed with another emotion - anger. Not because of the circumstances of that particular incident - the driver died and two families and their friends were left grieving. But because I was certain society would find its usual excuses for shrugging it off, and rationalising that this is the inevitable price we must pay for our hyper-mobile lifestyles. Seemingly it matters not that six children are killed on the roads of this country every week, and approaching three and a half thousand people die on the roads every year. This is in addition to the 300,000 plus who annually suffer injury, and the millions who share the traumatic consequences, including relinquishing their right to use the public highway other than in a motor vehicle.
Barry's death occurred on a road that should be safe for cycling. It is an attractive road, lightly trafficked, and a delight to travel along with a modicum of caution. It twists and turns, with gentle gradients, and for the discerning traveller this is its attraction. It's just the sort of road you might expect to see in a national park, Whether walking, cycling, riding horseback, or using a mobility scooter, the traveller is entitled to feel safe in the expectation that he or she would be respected by motorists.
But the reality is that this tragedy only added yet another piece of folklore to the outrageous notion that roads like this are primarily for people in cars, not for those who travel under their own steam as nature intended. To those who inevitably demand that such roads should be widened and straightened in the interests of safety, I would say that no road is dangerous, it is how we use them that is dangerous.
To give an example. In 1998 something like 43,000 pedestrians, and over 23,000 cyclists were either killed or injured on the roads of this country. Over 15,000 horse-related incidents involving motor vehicles were recorded. In the majority of cases vehicle speed played a part in the outcome. It is now a reality that but for the fact that more and more people are afraid to use our roads other than travelling in a motor vehicle, those figures would be much higher. Every single one of us should feel angry about that. We are all the losers in one way or another when our movements are restricted by the culture of the road that pays so little attention to those who choose to walk or cycle.
It has been shown that a pedestrian hit by a vehicle travelling at 40mph has only a 5% chance of survival. At 30% it is 15%. At a 20mph a good shaking is guaranteed, but the chances of survival rises to 95%, but what state that leaves the victim mentally and physically is anyone's guess. These are the facts faced daily by the police and emergency services on our behalf.
In 1997 the DETR in its Road Safety Strategy stated, 'The enforcement of speed limits is potentially one of the most effective ways of reducing casualties amongst vulnerable road users. Since the introduction of speed cameras there is little doubt that public awareness has raised considerably and positive progress has been made in reducing casualties, but how much this has been due to VRUs avoiding the roads is unknown.
With the introduction of speed cameras there was the predictable cries of 'Big Brother' and the claims that the civil liberties were being undermined. One is entitled to ask, 'What and whose liberties are under threat - those whose liberties have been removed by the tyranny of our road culture? What is it about journeys by motor vehicle that makes them more sacrosanct that we couldn't have started from home earlier, and ensured the safety of ourselves and other road users of all shades, but travelling at a speed more appropriate to the circumstances prevailing?'
I, for one, live in the hope that a time will come when I can set off in my car, on foot or on my bicycle in the knowledge that society no longer tolerates what is in effect a road pecking order, with the most vulnerable at the bottom of the pile, and that observation of speed limits as something to be avoided if no one is looking. My vision is to see town and villages giving priority to those who live within them, and not to those anonymous individuals who use our streets en route to goodness where, and for goodness knows what purpose, in the shortest possible time. And I want to see our country lanes treasured for what they are, a place for human scale activity, and a renewal of our faith in the healing properties that comes from a close acquaintance with our natural environment. And for us all to take responsibility for slashing the 70 deaths and 4000 injuries a year on North Wales roads. Is this really too much to ask from a society that demands justice in all things? After all, it could be us or a member of our own family making the headlines tomorrow.
(The author has left the accident statistics quoted above unchanged. Though in the intervening years there has been a certain reduction in casualties - probably due to the greater use of speed cameras - he feels his sentiments and arguments are just as valid today as ever they were.)
Travelling as nature intended: photo taken above Glan Conwy
A website devoted to ghost bikes and listing their locations world wide - often with background information - can be found at http://www.ghostbikes.org/