The Guardian, 9 March 2006

How many motorists have died while listening to the radio? That's what I've wondered as the aftermath of Patricia McMillan's horrible death has played out in the media and the places where cyclists gather. My community, while struck into a grieved silence at a fellow traveler's passing and largely united in opinion that iPods don't kill people, lorries do, has been vocal in their judgment of cyclists who sprout white creeper vines trailing from their ears.

“Just how dangerous is it to listen to music while you ride?” asks Matt Seaton (Listen to traffic, not your iPod, February 15), annoyed at a widespread blame-the-victim mentality but equally uncomfortable with “distracted solipsists on wheels” who seek to “insulate ourselves from our environment in a capsule of creature comforts.”

I don’t regard ‘iPod cycling’ as an escape into the self, but a pleasurable soundtrack overdubbing the urban experience. What’s more, I turn the volume up LOUD. Few of my compatriots would admit to deliberately disabling one of their more important senses; fewer still to cranking the decibels. This strikes me as the Bill Clinton defense: they don't inhale.

“There’s no way of knowing whether being able to hear the lorry would have saved McMillan,” writes Seaton, who argues that the ears and eyes are inseparable allies.

Most fatalities don’t happen as a result of collisions from the rear. Even if they did, hearing your approaching doom wouldn’t necessarily prevent it. Fortunately when I’m awheel I enjoy a panoramic view of my surroundings. The world as viewed from a saddle is a feast for the eyes, and I delight in taking it all in, from the subtle movements from inside a parked car that indicate a door might be about to be flung into my path, to the lovely sighting of a courier actually stopping at a red light.

Common advice is to treat everyone else on the road as if they are going to kill you. Fear supposedly sharpens the senses, all of which must be present and accounted for if you are going to survive the journey from A to B. If I thought this I’d never get on my bike in the first place.

My opening gambit isn’t completely fair. Motorists wear armour. They are protected from most encounters with their kind, and oddly enough from criticism, while we are naked except for whatever skills, experience and judgment we carry in our head and hands.

Seaton despairs that “Every individual becomes his or her own gated community: status-conscious, exclusive and forbidding uninvited intrusion.” The bicycle is potentially a more human and social vehicle than the car, and should be enjoyed like music itself: “live and unplugged”.

The medium isn’t the message in this case. Cycling is only as sociable as the cyclists themselves. Thanks to my head-banging hearing aid I’m even learning how to lip read. When eye contact turns to a friendly wave or more, it’s a simple enough procedure to unplug and tune in.

How many motorists have died while listening to the radio? This is an important question because it points to the cyclists’ apartheid, where we are held to a higher standard while being fed a steady diet of outrage, condescension and nannyish pats on the back: all for the sin of being self-propelled.

click here for the published version, which differs slightly from this one