Luke Watson wishes cyclists and drivers could share the roads.

Luke-Watson blogIn recent weeks there has been a spate of incidents of people getting themselves into trouble on various social media sites, as a result of posting anti-cycling messages. In some cases they have gone as far as claiming to have deliberately caused accidents, which, whether it’s true or not, is completely unacceptable.

Personally, on our group rides in the Loughborough area, we are often subjected to verbal attacks, or frankly dangerous manoeuvres from cars passing. Now, I don’t want to turn this into another drivers versus cyclists debate, because tarring all drivers with the same brush due to the actions of a minority, is clearly wrong, just as it is wrong to assume that all cyclists are model road users! However, I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to look at the ‘issues’ that are often raised, as I’m sure that, with a little understanding and compromise from both sides, it is possible for both drivers and cyclists to get along and use the roads safely and conveniently, side by side.

The most common complaint is that “cyclists don’t pay road tax” and therefore should not be permitted to use the roads. While it is true that cyclists don’t pay road tax, nor has anyone else since the 1930s! What is commonly referred to as ‘road tax’ is in fact Vehicle Excise Duty, a pollution tax. This has no relation to the funds used to maintain & repair roads, which comes out of the general taxation budget, and is a charge which cyclists would be exempt from regardless, due to their lack of emissions. In any case, I’d wager that the vast majority of cyclists, myself included, are also drivers, and therefore do pay ‘road tax’…

The next most common complaint is that cyclists should not be riding two abreast as they cause an obstruction. According to the Highway Code, it is perfectly acceptable to ride two abreast, providing you do so in a considerate manner. Indeed, I would argue that for much of the time, on normal country roads in the UK, it is actually safer to ride two abreast. For one, it halves the length of a group of cyclists, making the overtaking distance shorter, but more importantly it makes it less likely that a car will try to squeeze between a group and the oncoming traffic – I know which side they would swerve if they realised halfway past that they couldn’t make it! Of course, there are times when riding two abreast is neither safe nor sensible – on narrow roads, through towns or on busy stretches. It is therefore important for us to use a little common sense at these times and ‘single out’ where necessary.

The other main complaint is of cyclists not using cycle paths (note that I’m talking about the designated cycle/foot paths, which often run adjacent to, but separate from, roads, as opposed to the cycle lanes which run as part of the roadways). In my experience, these paths are usually poorly kept, covered in farm debris or hedge trimmings, and with frequent driveway or road openings. In addition, while these paths may be suitable for leisure or casual cyclists moving at slow speeds, they are often busy, as they are shared with pedestrians, dog walkers and joggers.  I know who would get the blame if I were to hit a pedestrian at 25mph while training on those paths! It is important to note that it is not compulsory for cyclists to use these paths, despite what some drivers would have you believe…

Up until now, all I seem to have done is discuss drivers’ attitudes and misconceptions, so what are the practical things that we as cyclists can do to ensure that both parties can use the roads in harmony?

1.     If you’re cycling two abreast, be sure to single out when riding on busier roads, through towns, or where there is a double solid line down the middle of the road – there’s no point in antagonising the drivers because at the end of the day, it’s them who are in charge of a big lump of metal and you’re bound to come off worse in any incident! And never ride more than two abreast (that’s a law under the Highway Code).

2.     Make sure you stick to the basic rules of the road, don’t jump through red lights or ride down pavements to cut through traffic; again it’ll just annoy them and they may choose to take it out on the next cyclist they see – you wouldn’t like it if that was you, so let’s all look out for each other!

3.     Don’t cut down the inside of stationary traffic, especially for larger vehicles such as HGVs, or where there is a left turn ahead. You can easily get lost in their blind spot meaning they could pull off and simply not see you in time. It’s much safer to either wait in the queue, or to ride (carefully) down the outside of the traffic. Incidentally, in Loughborough we have quite a few cycle boxes (allowing cyclists to get to the front of a queue in a safe area at traffic lights), which are great; however they are often preceded by a short cycle lane encouraging you to ride down the inside. Unfortunately, this lane is liable to ending abruptly, leaving you at the mercy of the lanes of traffic.

4.     Make sure you are visible enough. The number of people I see riding round the town without lights and in dark clothing as dusk falls, or even in the pitch black is incredible. As I’ve said already, as cyclists we are much more vulnerable, so we need to give drivers every chance to spot us and pass safely.

5.     Don’t be afraid to challenge poor riding practices, a lot of people will tend to just follow the crowd, especially on group rides, but if these behaviours are never contested, they will never be changed.

Really it’s all about showing drivers the consideration we ask them to show us. As I’ve said before, it’s up to each of us to help each other, by obeying the rules of the road and using a bit of common sense at times, rather than blindly sticking to our ‘rights’. Hopefully with the current boom of cycling in the UK we can gradually change the attitudes of the minority of drivers who think they own the roads, and cyclists can gain the acceptance they deserve, as a valued road user, rather than simply an inconvenience, just as has happened in the more ‘developed’ cycling nations on Continental Europe.