A common refrain from British cycling campaigners is that continental drivers respect and understand cyclists – that there is better behaviour towards people cycling, and general courtesy and civility amongst road users. This is either attributed to ‘culture’, or to the influence of policies like strict liability, or both. The implication is that we need to change our ‘culture’ in Britain, or bring in strict liability – perhaps, it is sometimes said, before we even start to think about physically changing the way our roads and streets are laid out.
Now of course better behaviour, and policies that favour that more vulnerable parties in civil claims, are good things in their own right. But the problem is that our perception of how people drive on the continent is far from objective. For a start, British people who are cycling on the continent are almost certainly cycling while on holiday. That means they are going to be cycling in calmer places, and at calmer times of the day.
By contrast, cycling in Britain is very often undertaken in towns and cities, and at peak times. Cycling in Britain (and especially in London) is very much commuter-dominated, with people cycling to work, and not much for any other purpose. British people are often cycling in congested areas at peak times. However, these same British people do not go on holidays on the continent and attempt to make trips through urban areas in the rush hour; if they did, they might form a different impression of how pleasant it is to cycle on the continent.
Indeed, it is probably the fact that Dutch people experience British drivers only when they are in Britain on holiday that has given rise to their impression that the British are more careful and law-abiding than Dutch drivers. These Dutch holiday-makers are driving in Britain at off-peak times, and in calmer areas, that are less congested. They are not commuting in urban areas.
In precisely the same fashion, British people almost certainly get a misleading and distorted impression of the nature of continental drivers due to the places they are cycling in when they are in Europe. A British friend of mine commutes in and out of Geneva by bicycle; he was knocked off and quite badly injured two years ago by a woman who drove into the back of him. I have accompanied him on one of his commuting trips into the city, and it was a far from pleasant experience. There is just the same degree of haste, impatience and lack of care that you might find on a commute in a British city during rush hour.
So, if we were aiming to make an objective comparison between driving standards on the continent and in Britain, we should be sampling the opinions of British people who are cycling to work in continental towns and cities, not just those who have been on holiday there.
Just last weekend I was cycling in the hills above Lake Geneva. There was – naturally enough – very little motor traffic on the roads I was using. As a result it would be quite easy for me to form a misleading impression of the standards of driving here. When roads are empty like this, it is very difficult to drive badly around cyclists. The opportunity for close or risky overtakes rarely presents itself. I wasn’t cut up on these roads, because there was rarely any oncoming traffic to create opportunities for stupidity.
This was brought home to me as I descended back down to the lakefront on a semi-urban road that I use quite frequently when I’m here. It’s normally largely devoid of traffic, but a combination of roadworks elsewhere in the town, and the arrival of one of Switzerland’s largest music festivals, meant that it was suddenly rather busy – more like a typical British suburban road. Instantly, the familiar impatience and risk-taking from drivers who were following behind me appeared, either squeezing past on bends, or without sufficient space. A road on which I usually experience what I perceived to be careful and courteous overtaking from Swiss drivers suddenly became a more hostile and rather more ‘British’ road.
This points towards a final variable that might skew our perception of how continental drivers behave. In general, the density of motor traffic on the continent is much lower compared to Britain, and England in particular. France, for instance, is a very big country compared to Britain, and yet has a similar population. That means if you are cycling in the countryside in France, you simply will not have as many encounters with motor traffic as you might do on an equivalent trip in Britain.
Now of course the Netherlands has a high population density, and rather a lot of cars per capita, but I don’t really believe that Dutch drivers – or the Dutch in general – are really all that better behaved or more considerate than their British counterparts. What creates the impression of courtesy on British people cycling in the Netherlands is design - design that reduces the number of interactions between drivers and cyclists to a bare minimum, and that limits the potential for stupidity when those interactions occur. Cycling in the Netherlands – even in urban areas – is the equivalent experience to riding along a quiet Swiss country lane. You are not going to be encountering many drivers, and when you do, they don’t have the opportunity to behave badly.