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 –
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.
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.