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Switching to pedal power will make us all better motorists

Unthinking motorists frustrate the life out of cyclists, and cheeky two-wheelers test drivers' patience to the limit. How can we foster more considerate behaviour? Car owners need to get on their bikes, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Published 23/06/2016

Unthinking motorists frustrate the life out of cyclists, and cheeky two-wheelers test drivers' patience to the limit
Unthinking motorists frustrate the life out of cyclists, and cheeky two-wheelers test drivers' patience to the limit
Malachi O'Doherty

It was partly my own fault. I was overtaking a slow car in front of me, assuming it was going into a car park on the left, and I moved into a lane which was one-way in the other direction. There was no other traffic in that lane.

Then the car, now beside me, turned right and I slowed down, assuming that it was moving into my lane, too, as cheekily as I had done myself. But it kept turning.

Suddenly, it was right in front of me, almost fully side-on, and I experienced that little time-stop sensation that other cyclists talk of, too - you know that you are about to crash and there isn't a thing you can do about it.

Maybe if you had had SAS training you could break out of the freeze, take action and prepare yourself for the fall. But what usually happens is that all your systems shut down and momentum takes over. You whack the side of the car, or whatever, and you get flung like a rag into the air.

You don't even feel fear at that moment. Nature has probably decided that it wouldn't be much use to you.

I have often thought of cycling as a meditative, detached activity, but it is never more so than when you know you are about to come off your bike and that you are entirely at the mercy of Newtonian physics.

A moment later, I was in a heap on the Tarmac and looking around me. I have been cheated out of the memory of the actual trajectory of flight.

The driver said the sun was in her eyes. The first she saw of me was my flying over her bonnet. So, I was actually airborne for a moment.

It's an awful pity I couldn't have that memory, too, but between rising out of the saddle, feeling my hands let go of the bars and sitting up on the road to assess the damage, it's as if nothing actually happened to me. Or as if I wasn't there when it did.

Thankfully, the car stopped and the young woman got out. She was more flustered than I was, the experience having apparently had no metaphysical or quasi-mystical components from her perspective. She was just mortified and anxious.

I assessed the damage. One bruise to the elbow, one to the hip. A few scrapes on the bike, the handlebars skewed, though correctable with force. A rubber mark on the wing of the car where my tyre had slid across it.

And then you think you have to work out the legalities and the responsibility, which is like putting a different head on. The driver was taking the blame. I wasn't going to confess that I had been riding a bit cheekily. I wanted any possible shock to wear off before I made a clear decision about that, but next day I would phone her and tell her I was happy to forget about it if she was.

My previous scrape had been less dramatic and painful. I had been cycling up Ormeau Avenue in Belfast when a taxi stopped ahead of me on my right, that is, well out in the road, instead of parking. A rear-seat passenger opened the left-hand door. I hit its edge with my right forearm. Though jolted out of my seat, I managed to come down on my two feet.

A woman on the footpath came straight to me and said she saw the whole thing and was happy to be my witness.

I inspected the damage. A bruise and a scrape and an unreasonable welling-up of pity for the taxi driver whose idiot passenger hadn't looked to see if there was a cyclist coming up the inside. I took his number, but let it pass.

So, there are two small cycling accidents in the streets of Belfast in the past year that don't figure in the statistics, and I presume there are others.

I don't feel especially vulnerable on the road on my bike. I like cycling in traffic. I like the plain cheek of it and that I can get round town faster than any car at rush-hour. I don't know why they call it rush-hour when the only vehicles moving at speed are the bicycles.

And that cheekiness in some cyclists is what annoys motorists - the way they will ride on through traffic lights, cycle on pavements, roar along towpaths that walkers would rather have for themselves and their dogs alone.

Some of us behave reasonably well and many of us don't, and that turns drivers against us. Yet what driver fulminating about a bike blocking his way at traffic lights, up at the head of the queue in a reserved box like bloody royalty, wouldn't rather he would jump the lights and get out of the way?

Cycling feels like play to me; it feels like mischief. As car owners, we have been persuaded that we need to spend thousands of pounds a year to be mobile, that we need to have the carbon resources of a planet excavated and denied to future generations just so that we can spend half our lives in gridlock. As a cyclist, I feel I have outwitted the capitalist system.

Maybe that is why I take pity on drivers. They've got such a raw deal. Never in human history did the ordinary citizen spend such a high proportion of earnings on a mode of transport ,and never has that mode of transport been, at once, so sophisticated and so inefficient.

We need heat and entertainment in our cars, because so much of the time we spend in them is downtime. I wish I could be rid of my car. But, being a driver, I identify with other drivers and their perspective on cyclists.

From behind the steering wheel, the cyclist looks horrifically vulnerable. From that position, an accident seems more likely to happen than it appears to the cyclist glancing behind.

Yet some drivers negotiate the city streets oblivious to the cyclists - they don't even see them. I have had cars swerve out of side-streets in front of me as if I wasn't there.

I have also had cyclists zip past me on footpaths, as if being a pedestrian - and further still down the rankings of people who can claim Tarmac and oxygen - made me as invisible to them as they are to some drivers.

All of which amounts to saying that the best way for cyclists to be kept safe on the roads is for drivers to be better informed about the cycling experience.

They are not all going to get on bikes and take to the city streets (though growing numbers do), so they need to be enabled to identify with the cyclist through public safety information films, like the ones that have been so good at discouraging drink-driving.

The relationship between cyclists and drivers will improve - and they will become more aware of each other - when they are the same people.

Most cyclists drive. It makes us more considerate. So, on your bike - it will make you a better person.

Belfast Telegraph

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