Getting defensive about taking the offensive

Getting defensive about taking the offensive

The argument goes like this: “Men are more than twice as likely to cycle to work yet women make up a disproportionately high number of those killed in collisions with lorries” (4 out of 5 so far in London this year).

The opinion is that,

women are thought to be more hesitant riders while men are more assertive. This assertiveness means they may wait directly in front of traffic at junctions, allowing them to set off first when lights go green and reducing the risk of coming into collision with a left-turning lorry.”

and back in 2009 and beyond we hear the same story,

In 2007, an internal report for Transport for London concluded women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by lorries because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver’s blind spot.

This means that if the lorry turns left, the driver cannot see the cyclist as the vehicle cuts across the bike’s path.

The report said that male cyclists are generally quicker getting away from a red light – or, indeed, jump red lights – and so get out of the danger area.

There are plenty of similar opinions about this out there, but what I’m going to run with is the idea behind it. Where segregated cycling infrastructure is not available, timid cycling puts you more at risk, and going on the offensive  makes for a more assertive and safer cyclist. Motorists don’t like it when cyclists take charge of their safety, and see this kind of behaviour as deviant and cheating the system, but don’t really understand the motivation behind it. That needs to change.

I don’t have time to give sufficient attention tonight to whether or not the following is actually, statistically, the case. I’ll possibly work on that for another day, but looking at London’s statistics over the last number of years and from my own experiences on the bike, I’m going to run with the premise that it is safer to ride offensively than defensively (within reason, of course).

This creates a rather complicated situation on the roads where cyclists and motorists are often view each other as the enemy.

For those people driving motor vehicles who sit somewhere on the sliding scale of “the road is for cars”, the more assertive the cyclist, the bigger annoyance they are. For the majority of people who feel somewhat ambivalent towards cyclist most of the time, the more offensive a cyclist is riding in front or around them, the less ambivalent they can become.

Imagine someone who would normally give a cyclist a reasonable amount of space when passing, gives way to them at roundabouts, and tries to do all the things that the law requires of them. Imagine that is you. Now imagine a cyclist who takes the lane when the situation on the road degrades to the point where that is necessary. This is slowing you down for a handful of seconds, and you are already late for work. How do you feel about that cyclist now? Imagine, further, that while waiting at the red light that you got to first, the cyclist filters up to the front of the queue. Not only that, but they sit squarely in front of the queue of cars. Still ambivalent? What if she jumped the light a bit – once the intersection was clear – in an attempt to exit the intersection before the swarm of cars catches her?

Now imagine that before any of this happened, you felt rather differently about cyclists. Imagine, if you need to, that cyclists don’t belong on your roads, and then any of the above takes place. Worse yet, imagine you are also in a position where your voice can reach thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people.

It’s no wonder some see this as a war.

So while cyclists take the offensive to protect themselves, motorists take the offensive to make a display of their dominance. Aggressive driving has the opposite cause that aggressive cycling does, but on the exterior they may both look like a simple disregard for law and order.

This is a real problem. This is something that people really need to understand, but it’s made that much more complicated because of a smaller proportion of cyclists that are actually blatant scoff-laws without a good reason for it (not, “I was running late”). Breaking the law and/or riding offensively without sufficient cause is selfish and dangerous and engenders hate from non-cyclists (as well as many cyclists), and, although it looks exactly similar to someone riding assertively, those riding assertively in order to increase their safety and visibility are lumped into the same boat as the idiots who blow red lights for sport. To borrow a line from every Scooby-Doo villain ever, “if it wasn’t for those pesky kids, we’d have gotten away with it”. The law should protect the vulnerable, and if it doesn’t, sometimes bending or breaking it in a safe and responsible manner is actually a more responsible thing to do.

A more thorough discussion of why cyclists choose to break traffic laws is worth the read. Emily Badger writes,

If some of us violate traffic rules to stay safe, would we be more law-abiding if cities created safer spaces for us?…. Infrastructure influences how we think about our own roles in public space (“the system isn’t looking out for me, so I have to do whatever necessary to look out for myself”).

Obviously, we need better infrastructure, and one where cyclists and motorists are segregated is preferable, but until infrastructure and the law can catch up with reality, what should we do?

One thing we could do is get a public education campaign going that goes beyond the mere, “cyclists may use the full lane” message. That’s just telling motorists what to do, not explaining why. Motorists need to understand why that is necessary, and what part they play in that. “Did you know that cyclists do X because too many of them don’t trust you to drive around them safely, or even see them?”

Like any good relationship, communication is key, and I think cyclists and motorists are failing in that department. We need more information and discussion, and less shouting and name-calling. In terms of the ill-will that people in cars have towards people taking measures to protect themselves by cycling offensively and behaving in a way that motorists perceive to be irresponsible and illegal, an understanding of why that is the case could help ease the tension a little (and that actually it’s sort of their fault).

It might not help at all, but it’s worth a shot. It couldn’t be any worse than all the campaigns that go no further than simply asking motorists to just be nicer to cyclists. People fear what they don’t understand, and throughout history we’ve tended to attempt to kill what we fear. Perhaps by shedding some light on cyclists behaviour at least some motorists won’t feel the need to figuratively hunt down and kill cyclists (eg. remove them from the roads as equals), and will have an easier time seeing things from their perspective.


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