Punishment

A few days ago, I was descending a hill towards a t-junction – a hill steep enough for me to be cycling at over 20mph. I could see a queue of ten or so cars already waiting at the junction ahead of me, waiting to join the busy main road – a habitual queue at this particular junction. Just as I begin to think about applying the brakes as the tail-end of the queue approaches, a dark, large BMW SUV appears on my right hand side. I shake my head slightly at this pointless overtake, and tuck in behind it. But before I even have a chance to dwell on this irritating bit of driving, another car appears on my right hand side – a grey-ish VW Golf this time – and as well as being pointless, this overtake is actually dangerous, into overcoming traffic, so close that the driver is forced to chop sharply back to the left, before immediately applying the brakes to join the queue.

This kind of behaviour is so familiar, it even has a name, and an abbreviation – Must Get In Front, or MGIF, tunnel-vision on the part of drivers who feel they simply have to overtake regardless of the road context, and despite the fact the overtake actually serves no purpose at all.

Naturally enough, a matter of seconds later, I am sailing past these drivers on their right, filtering to the front of the queue. I slow slightly as I pass the driver of the Golf’s open window – a driver who turns out be a young man – to say ‘well, that was pointless.’ I know that comments like this are rarely constructive, and so it proved in this case. Almost without missing a beat, the driver yelled after me

‘You should be wearing a helmet!’

By this point I was approaching the main road, some distance away, and the stupidity of the comment really didn’t suggest it was worthwhile ‘engaging’ further. I went merrily on my way, dwelling on the thought process behind such an outburst, and a response I could have made. As is always the way, the perfect response arrived a few minutes later, on a quiet lane a mile away.

‘Oh? So you care about my safety?’

Laden with sarcasm, because of course this driver didn’t care about my safety – if he did, he wouldn’t have engaged in a lunatic piece of driving that put him, the oncoming driver and most of all me in danger, yet gained him absolutely nothing at all. So why did he tell me to wear a helmet?

Because I was in his way. Because he was fuming about me, and because he was angry at me, and when you don’t like someone and what they’re doing – in this case, riding a bike on a road, in front of a driver who wants to ‘make progress’ – you look for reasons to object to them, and what they are doing. A lack of helmet was the most obviously objectionable thing about me.

Doubtless if I had been wearing a helmet, this driver would have told me to ‘pay road tax’, or to have a number plate, or to wear a bright yellow tabard. But none of these demands is actually about safety. It’s about punishing people cycling around, in the hope that they’ll get out the way, or go away completely. However much safety equipment I wear, however much tax I pay, however trained and competent I am – even if I’m displaying a massive identification plate with my name and address on my back – I will still be a source of irritation, and people will still look for that next restriction or rule to lumber me with, in the hope that I eventually disappear.

I was already coming to this conclusion – this post was already half-formed in my drafts the day after this incident – when the deluge of reaction to the Charlie Alliston case arrived. Note that this prosecution hinged fairly straightforwardly on the absence of a front brake. The prosecution case was that (rightly or wrongly) Alliston would have been to avoid the collision with a front brake. But the absence of a front brake is something which is already illegal, and will remain illegal. There’s no need to pass a new law requiring the riders of fixed wheel bikes to have a front brake, because… that law already exists.

So, to put it charitably, this doesn’t immediately strike me as fertile ground for launching a whole series of new restrictions and rules on cycling. Yet that has been the reaction from many quarters, an unseemly pile-on to legislate against ‘them’ (and it is always ‘them’, never ‘us’). In the words of CityCyclists – opportunistic grandstanding.

Whether it’s compulsory training, compulsory insurance, compulsory hi-viz jackets, or compulsory helmets, the Alliston case has been the trigger for an outpouring of of grievance, all aimed at punishing cycling in general.

To be clear, this isn’t about safety at all. There has been no indication that any of these things would have prevented the fatal collision last year – instead they rest on a stereotype that cycling is ‘out of control’ and that, by loading it with restrictions, it can somehow be brought back under control, or better yet, restricted out of existence.

Although he is perhaps the most extreme example of this mindset, it’s instructive to look at the writings of Nick ‘Mr Loophole’ Freeman in the wake of the Alliston case.

 

 

Freeman has – consciously or otherwise – given the game away here in his choice of words. If we look up ‘epidemic’ we find –

Ah.

It’s therefore no surprise that if we examine Freeman’s witterings, they all involve loading restrictions onto cycling; restrictions that have absolutely nothing to do with the Alliston case.

Mr Freeman said due to widespread initiatives aimed at getting people out of their cars and using other forms of transport – coupled with rising fuel costs – there needs to be a change in legislation for cyclists.

In addition to abiding by all traffic signals, he said it should be made law for all cyclists to wear helmets and hi-visibility clothing.

Note that this is explicitly (and bizarrely) framed as a trade off – ‘my fuel costs are rising, therefore you should be punished too’. If we apply this to any other mode of transport the ludicrousness is transparent. Perhaps due to the rising cost of bus fares, there needs to be change in the law for motorists – that in addition to abiding by all traffic signals [hello ‘Mr Loophole’] it should be made law for all motorists to wear five-point safety harness and to coat their cars in hi-viz panelling.

These calls for ‘legislation’ make sense only in these terms – it’s an attempt to penalise someone else’s mode of transport, a mode of transport that is a source of resentment and jealousy (indeed, it’s notable that banning people from cycling past stationary traffic frequently crops up in these kinds of calls for legislation). It’s the crab mentality writ large – my mode of transport is frustrating, so your mode of transport should be too. Your mode of transport is increasingly taking up road space used by my mode of transport, so if we make it more onerous and unpleasant, that might even up the scales.

Just need to add some compulsory insurance, compulsory training, compulsory helmets and compulsory hi-viz jackets to even things up

These calls for legislation aren’t about safety at all. They’re about resentment and punishment, punishing a mode of transport that is unorthodox, that gets in the way of other modes of transport and is in conflict with them. We should see those calls for what they are.

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39 Responses to Punishment

  1. As, usual, Mark, your blog was much enjoyed and is spot on.

  2. rdrf says:

    Nice one! See my points here https://rdrf.org.uk/2017/08/21/the-charlie-alliston-case-the-real-story/ and in the follow up after the verdict later today

  3. graeme says:

    Great piece of writing as always. Nailed it. i’ve read and heard so much rubbish following the Alliston trial. Quite despairing the level of debate in some sections of the media. Think i’ll make it a point not to read any more about it. Not good for my blood pressure.

  4. yalleriron says:

    Well said. The Alliston case was, as wearily expected, the catalyst for an outpouring of anti-cycling drivel. There is also some trenchant analysis from The Cycling Lawyer http://thecyclingsilk.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/the-alliston-mis-trial.html

    The really dismaying aspect is that, yet again, the cheapness of a cyclist’s life when killed by a motorised road user is brought into sharp focus.

  5. Nicholas Fripp says:

    I can think of four other letters than l-o-o-p that describe the hole out of which Mr Freeman speaks. I am mortified to share the same first name and initials as him

  6. Steven Edwards says:

    Excellent piece Mark as ever.
    Amongst the media frenzy (that may even yet allow for some steam to be let from the ‘bikelash’…?
    I live in hope), even the Guardian’s article was headlined: ‘Ex-courier convicted for “m o w i n g” down woman on his track bike’.
    Thanks also to the excellent piece on the RDRF site. The starkness of perspective is highlighted perfectly.

    The tweeted remarks by the Nick Freeman character reminded me of a recent Private Eye cartoon, where someone prone to getting worked up, has taken their laptop to be repaired.
    The technician is seen asking; “have you been frothing into the keyboard”.

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  8. Guybike says:

    Any attempt to impose ‘punishment’ legislation on cyclists should be opposed – first by civil disobedience, and then should enforcement be sought, resistance should be by armed force.

  9. Matthew says:

    It’s always been about identity and class issues. Many drivers perceive themselves as being superior to people walking or cycling. It’s not a rational mindset, and the strange behaviours and rantings of these drivers is not rational. By the same token, rational argument isn’t going to change their minds.

    That’s why it’s important to build and maintain a political movement of people who support sustainable transport and safer streets. But as you have written, there will be enemies, people who attack you for no rational reason, and that’s a good sign of positive change.

    • Matthew Phillips says:

      Just been listening to an In Our Time on the radio on the late 19th century American populist movement: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tbf4g
      One factor in the strategy to defeat the populists, which were standing up for poor American farmers, was to drive a wedge between the poor black farmers and the poor white farmers by promoting segregation. If you were a poor white farmer you could think to yourself “well, I may be poor, but at least I’m not black”.

      Cars as an aspiration are a bit like white supremacism. Originally the preserve of the fabulously wealthy, cars have become cheaper, but still retain their allure as status symbols. You can see this from all the car adverts. You may still live in a grotty part of town and have a miserable job, but at least if you have a car and drive to work you’re better than that failure of a man who’s still travelling on the bus beyond the age of 26. Or worse still, riding a bicycle. You can be part of the in crowd, the vast majority, the privileged, simply by getting in that car. But like with the poor American white farmers, although it might make you feel good to identify with the wealthier car owners, it won’t lead to policies that make your neighbourhood a better place to live, and having a car won’t actually make you richer or happier.

  10. Paul says:

    Excellent article. Another point is that 80% of cyclists also hold a driving licence (source: Gov.UK press release “Drivers and cyclists agree “let’s look out for each other”” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/drivers-and-cyclists-agree-lets-look-out-for-each-other). Therefore if 80% of those cyclists who annoy motorists took their cars instead, the roads would be further congested, thus causing even more annoyance. Perhaps all regular cycle commuters should have an annual “drive your car to work day” to illustrate this point.

  11. Pingback: The Alliston case: after the verdict | Road Danger Reduction Forum

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  13. Foogirl. says:

    I don’t consider introducing mandatory training as punishing cyclists, surely it is about making them safer. More stringent training and testing for young new car drivers wasn’t seen as punishing them, why would it be so for road cyclists? At the very least, there should be far more initiatives to encourage cyclists who are non drivers to learn the Highway Code, and for cyclists who are drivers to be taught the safest way to navigate traffic. I’m not a cyclist and would have no idea what I’m doing but I could go buy a bike and cycle through a city. I wouldn’t feel “punished” as a driver if mandatory refresher training was introduced to maintain a licence – and I say that as a driver who has an pretty good driving record of over 25 years and having done several advanced driver training courses. We all fall into bad habits and having someone look at what we are doing every once in a while is a good thing. Training protects cyclists, why are so many against it?

    • Mark Williams says:

      Motorists not crashing into cyclists in the first place would protect a lot more than training, I’d hazard to guess. What makes you believe ‘so many’ [of ‘them’] are ‘against it’ anyway? The question is one of proportionality. Motoring tests were introduced as an absolutely minimum necessary response to the genuine epidemic of deaths and manglings at the hands of early motorists. Prior to that there were no tests—as our legal system is entirely reactive. When cyclists start killing 35‍ ‍000 innocent victims per year against a UK population of 70‍ ‍000‍ ‍000, we’ll reconsider the equivalence argument in that light!

      I might feel you were being sincere if you actually started seriously campaigning for periodic retesting of motorists—and much more stringent testing, to bring motor killings down by at least another order of magnitude. Until you’ve made some headway on that, I’ll consider your comment an example of ‘whataboutery’, similar to the helmet retort in the post body. And I say that as someone who’s only had one short [practical] motoring test on a grey Thursday afternoon many decades ago. Yet now, despite having no idea what I’m doing, I can go and buy a 7.5 tonne lorry and speed around a city to my heart’s content—and continue doing so until 70 years old (and thereafter by self-certification) without anyone even asking whether I’ve gone blind in the meantime, etc…

      • Foogirl. says:

        Small steps, but I worked with HR to ensure it was mandatory for the 400 employees who claimed fuel allowance at my last company. I am working with my current employer to do the same for our 2500 employees. I know it is becoming more common for companies to do it. I did raise it with the transport minister in Scotland in 2014 but was told there are no plans and that was that. It is actually something I feel is very important. Because of this, I do advanced driver training from time to time. It is entirely possible to be sincere about something without becoming a serious campaigner for it.

        The reason I believe so many are against it is, every single time there is an issue raised about cyclist safety, the finger is pointed absolutely everywhere else and it is a problem with motorists hitting cyclists, never cyclists going into the path of cars. Everyone needs to take responsibility but whenever training is suggested for cyclists, the immediate reaction is – oh no, it’s the cars who are bad. You reinforced my point beautifully.

        • marmotte27 says:

          Total whataboutery… you reinforce the point of the blog post beautifully:
          https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/dec/15/cycling-bike-accidents-study

          • Mark Williams says:

            Indeed. Not ‘everywhere else’: specifically and consistently at motoring. Which, as the objective source of practically all highways danger, is currently ‘absolutely everywhere’—and increasingly out-of-control. Clearly it must be touching a nerve, as no evidence is adduced for this claim of ‘them’ being ‘against’. Instead we just get a doubling-down on the whataboutery which we are expected to simply accept as truth.

            Foogirl asked the minister for non-‘mandatory’ (and also non-compulsory) not-notably-‘advanced’ motor training to be somehow officially encouraged in Scotland only, was rebuffed and then simply gave up? Now back to concentrating on comparatively tiny numbers at her employer instead? With such a track record, I’m hoping the motorist lobby will snap her up pronto as the lead campaigner for all their imagined cycling grievances!

        • Matthew says:

          With great power comes great responsibility.

          If a person chooses to drive a vehicle weighing thousands of kilograms or more, that person must drive it with the due care it requires.

          If that person is not capable of handling that responsibility then he or she should hand over the keys to someone who is.

          Quite simple really. The reason that training and licensing is necessary for motor vehicles is because they weigh hundreds of times more than any type of human-powered cycle. The kinetic energy generated by the movement of motor vehicles is proportional to mass, and is also proportional to the velocity squared. Motor vehicles weigh much more and move much faster than human-powered vehicles.

          Despite that training and licensing process, motor vehicle drivers kill and main tens of thousands of people per year in the UK alone. Therefore, we have a long way to go in terms of making motor vehicles safe and drivers accountable.

          Your attempts to deflect the conversation from the brutal killing and maiming of tens of thousands of people per year in the UK is nothing more than excuse-making and disgraceful on your part.

        • pm says:

          “Everyone needs to take responsibility”

          No, those responsible need to take responsibility. It’s not complicated.

  14. Ruth Wilson says:

    What if, before you could learn to drive a car/ motorbike you had to pass a cycling test. That would mean drivers would have a much better understanding of cyclists and a first hand perspective of cycling on the road.
    Also note to cyclists, pedestrians are softer than you and much more easily damaged so always have a care no matter what they do.

    • Foogirl. says:

      Nice thought, but where would it stop? Every driver having to drive every type of vehicle before they get on the road? Plus, not every driver can go on a bike. I’m all for awareness of other vehicles being given more importance in driving lessons though.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      “pedestrians are softer than you and much more easily damaged”

      Can you share with us some links to where this is shown to be the case, or is it something you just imagine to be true?

      Have a look at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/448036/pedestrian-casualties-2013-data.pdf

      and in particular page 3, but as a tl;dr for you, one bullet point says “Pedestrians and pedal cyclists have the same fatality rate. However the KSI (killed or seriously injured) rate for pedestrians is less than half of that for pedal cyclists.”

      which suggests that cyclists are the more easily damaged. Note the report is (correctly) talking about rate – in absolute terms more pedestrians than pedal cyclists are casualties because there are more of the former, but that isn’t the right way to look at it.

      Maybe you think that conclusion is biased because drivers of motor vehicles are creating most of the carnage? How about these…

      http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/cyclist-dies-two-days-after-8381743

      http://www.heart.co.uk/scotland/news/local/fife-cyclist-dies-after-pedestrian-crash/

      http://www.getreading.co.uk/news/reading-berkshire-news/cyclist-dies-after-crashing-pedestrian-12785475

      Seems to be about honours even among active travellers to me, though I haven’t heard of gangs of cyclists waiting to push pedestrians into canals. So a possible conclusion is, if you’re on a shared use path, perhaps have a care with cyclists around, no matter what they do.

      To give you what I believe to be a better excuse for cyclists taking care around pedestrians at the present time, consider that the Japanese have in the past 5 years started building more dedicated cycleways nationwide. The reason is not the relative injury-proneness of pedestrians and cyclists: it is explicitly stated that it is to spare older pedestrians (there being a lot because of the demographics) being frightened by teenagers on bikes, and teenagers are not always the most consistently thoughtful examples of humanity. But adults are expected to rub along. That I think is a reasonable argument – holding perhaps even more weight in the more aggressive Anglosphere – build more cycleways to stop close passes between active travellers, for subjective and social safety reasons. More on the latter at:

      http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2008/09/three-types-of-safety.html

      So, please help us campaign for more cycleway and footway separation.

  15. Yoav says:

    The correct response to “you should be wearing a helmet” is:
    “You should be taking the bus”.

  16. Andrew Foxcroft says:

    The pointless MGIF overtake, the last-second pullout from a junction, the dangerous and sometimes terrifying close-pass – all followed by ignorant disbelief from the driver when confronted. It’s all too familiar and all too disheartening that it continues and deaths on the roads continue. It’s sad to think there may be no improvement in my lifetime.

  17. AJ says:

    Great piece.

    The one area I’m more on the fence is compulsory insurance.

    Lots have insurance via their home and CC but many don’t – or don’t realise. Ultimately accidents do happen, but it’s really frustrating when you have to bare the costs of someone else’s recklessness with limited or no recourse.

    It’s something I’ve gone back and forth on for a while. On balance I it should probably apply to all individuals, but cycling makes you more likely to cause damage to others than a pedestrian or public transport user, and it’s therefore more relevant.

    Fwiw I drive, motorbike, and ride bikes – fixed & geared, in /out of cities.

  18. Al says:

    My comment to the “pay road tax” would be to ask them if they shout the same thing at electric car drivers

  19. GazChap says:

    I’m quite happy to sit behind a cyclist for miles if necessary in order to make sure that my eventual overtake is safe for both of us.

    Unfortunately not all of my fellow drivers share this outlook – the other week, I had a lunatic in a VW Touareg overtake me *and* the cyclist I was behind, on a blind bend. Fortunately nothing was coming the other way, but had there been anything approaching… well… yeah, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

    Increasing legislation for cyclists is obviously not the answer, it’s improving education and awareness for motorists (and some cyclists too, no doubt) – but with increased education comes increased costs, and “Government slaps more charges on already overburdened motorists” is not a vote-winning headline.

    • Sam says:

      Agreed. I have done the same – sitting at a safe distance behind a cyclist for even a few hundred yards will often irritate any motorist behind me, to the point that they will then attempt a dangerous overtake of the both of us to get ahead. I’ve often wondered whether me performing a slightly risky overtake of a cyclist would be worth it to avoid a reckless overtake by those behind me in the queue – but ultimately decide that no, it’s not.

      There’s an interesting take on the whole thing in the Guardian today – the comments are predictably anti-cyclist, but at least the article presents a somewhat balanced view.
      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2017/aug/29/is-the-uk-really-menaced-by-reckless-cyclists

      • Terry Ive says:

        As a cyclist of over 40yrs, a motorcyclist and car driver I am always aware of a queue of traffic building up behind me and out of consideration for other road users, will either stop or mount the kerb at a pram slope and when traffic has passed by, re-emerge onto the road. Just as I would have expected a electric Milk float or tractor to do.

        Is it SO much to expect (Ask in fact) ALL cyclists to do the same in order to help reduce the aggression felt by many motorists?

        To sit behind a cyclist for miles, waiting for the time that YOU decide is safe to pass is causing an obstruction, no matter how justified you feel. Rather than the argument that all motorists should learn to ride a bike I might suggest that all cyclists learn how to drive responsibly and in particular, how to pass a cyclist safely.

        Apart from children and casual riders most cyclists on the road today only require a VERY wide berth if being passed by a bus, van or lorry and most cyclists will not swerve in the path of overtaking vehicles so there is not really a need for huge traffic queues to form in most cases.

        • Mark Williams says:

          Yes, that probably is too much to expect. After all, not everyone has your fantastic ‘40yrs’ of cycling experience. Nor your amazing ‘pass a cyclist safely’ skillz or [crystal ball benefiting?] talent for discerning who is a ‘casual rider’… Perhaps an anger management course would ‘help reduce the aggression felt by many motorists’ better than pontificating about what you, wrongly, claim to be ‘an obstruction’ which travels ‘miles’ (a contradiction in terms, obviously)?

          It wasn’t you in that VW-branded motor car described in the body of the post or performing the dangerous overtakes past Sam and GazChap, was it? The latter also in a VW-branded motor car, I note—have they become the go-to replacement brand for Hackneyed motor taxis when it comes to reckless manoeuvres?

          • Terry Ive says:

            So a cyclist riding on th road cannot possibly be viewed as an obstruction??
            Same go for Horses and Sinclair C5’s by your silly reckoning by any chance.
            Obviously ANY vehicle or otherwise, which hinders the smooth flow of traffic is an obstruction and it calls on common sense on the behalf of the obstructer to notice this but I guess you have only been a cyclist for a short while and as such believe that forking out £2-3k for your steed gives you the RIGHT to stick two fingers up at every motorist that happens to be put out by your petty selfishness.
            I bet you find a lot of aggression on the road.

            • Mark Williams says:

              Yes, a moving cyclist—or indeed a horsist, sinclairist or walkist—cannot, by definition, be an obstruction. Whatever your personal ‘view’. Go and check Blackstone’s on this one. I cannot help it that the law confounds your sense of entitlement concerning smoothly flowed [motor] traffic or professed fundamental human right to motor around where you like, when you like, how you like. You’ll no doubt be most ‘put out’ to learn that my fast (vroom, vroom) ten-speed bicycle was acquired by forking out the princely sum of £20 some 25 years ago. If it infuriates you further, I can also reveal it used to belong to a builder who chucked it over the nearest hedge wherever he was working rather than lock it up!

              I certainly observe plenty of aggression on the roads, almost all of it between motorists. Often while I’m indoors looking out, etc. Like most non-perpetrators do, probably. But unlike many, I also have some experience of operating motor tractors—and could tell readers here that you are completely wrong about those, too. I won’t bore everyone further by elucidating, because it would be off topic. Nevertheless, I would recommend them to anyone interested in a demonstration of the Jekyll & Hyde change in behaviour around different types of slow vehicle…

              p.s. The ‘two fingers’ thing is just us giving hand signals to you. Very considerate and law-abiding, you see.

              p.p.s. It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that you did not answer my questions.

          • Terry says:

            So a cyclist riding on th road cannot possibly be viewed as an obstruction??
            Same go for Horses and Sinclair C5’s by your silly reckoning by any chance.
            Obviously ANY vehicle or otherwise, which hinders the smooth flow of traffic is an obstruction and it calls on common sense on the behalf of the obstructer to notice this but I guess you have only been a cyclist for a short while and as such believe that forking out £2-3k for your steed gives you the RIGHT to stick two fingers up at every motorist that happens to be put out by your petty selfishness.
            I bet you find a lot of aggression on the road, don’t you. Lol

            • pm says:

              “Obviously ANY vehicle or otherwise, which hinders the smooth flow of traffic is an obstruction”

              So, pretty much all motorised vehicles, a large proportion of the time, then? And certainly all parked cars. Or are parked cars somehow transparent to matter in your universe?

              Certainly its the experience of sitting motionless behind a long queue of near-stationary vehicles clogging up the entire road far into the distance, while realising it would have been faster to walk, is why I gave up ever using buses.

            • pm says:

              Not to mention all those pavements and buildings. Just think how much more smoothly traffic would flow in London if we got rid of them all.

              It’s clear to anyone not blinded by ideology that the biggest obstruction to the ‘smooth flow of traffic’ is the private motor car, which takes up a hugely disproportionate amount of road-area for the number of people it transports.

            • pm says:

              If you want a ‘smooth flow of traffic’, do your bit by getting your car off the road. Thanks.

  20. Michael Kerr says:

    A great example of idiot car drivers that I am sure all cyclists have experienced. One that sticks in my mind – I was cycling behind a bus in London, easily able to keep up with it, so the cars behind me are all moving at the same speed as the bus. A BMW SUV is right on my back wheel being really pushy. When a chance presents itself, the driver roars past me – and is immediately having to slam on the breaks because there is a bus slowing EVERYONE down! Incredible!

  21. Carlos O. says:

    It is always a delight to read your posts.
    Thanks!

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