What I’m going to say now is a move away from my usual tack, deeply unscientific and in no way backed up by any data for much of it, so make of it what you will. I’d be interested to hear your comments below.
I was watching a video a while back featuring James Cracknell cycling in London, and was struck by something that he said whilst riding – he gave a driver a thumbs up after being allowed to move out and commented ‘Give respect, get some in return…’ Waving and smiling at drivers is something I’ve always done, but this comment got me thinking about why I’d decided to do this, and what the possible benefits could be.
Often, when I raise the problem of bad driver behavior with drivers I’m friends with, their first comment is ‘yeah, but cyclists jump red lights/cycle on pavements…’ I certainly feel that when I’m riding on the roads somewhere where the drivers aren’t used to me riding, that I’m not given equal respect as would be shown by a car – this is displayed in the form of close passes, driving close behind with engine revving whilst waiting for a space to overtake etc (although noticeably less so over the last year, when Bradley Wiggins got hit there seemed to be a sea change in driver behaviour).
Personally, I think that the jumping red lights/pavement cycling thing is not the root cause of aggressive driver behaviour. Various sources seem to show levels of red light jumping to be relatively low amongst cyclists. Drivers regularly break what they see as trivial laws – making use of mobile phones, speeding, driving into cycle boxes at traffic lights or mandatory cycle lanes and drivers do not express anger at this behaviour, so it is not as simple as cyclists breaking the law.
It is clear from the rate of motorist deaths that driving is safer in the UK than pretty much anywhere in Europe, indicating a high standard of driving, but that the rate of cyclist deaths is noticeably higher, even than those countries which do not have lots of cycle infrastructure (e.g. France). This suggests that there is a problem with either cyclist behaviour, or driver behaviour around cyclists in the UK. I would suggest that although there is may be slightly more of a cycling culture in France, that cycling levels are similar (3% modal share, compared to 2% in the UK), and I cannot see a mechanism for cyclist behaviour being considerably better in France. Certainly anecdotally, the most likely follow up to someone beeping at you while cycling in France is someone shouting ‘Allez, allez!’ as opposed to what you might hear shouted here (normally completely incorrect advice that you’d be safer riding closer to the kerb…or just abuse). This goes hand in hand with bad, aggressive driving.
My view is that when people break out the ‘yeah, but cyclists jump red lights’ meme, they are trying to give justification to a feeling of a ‘lack of respect’ which is also often cited by drivers justifying bad driving around cyclists. Usually in everyday driving, there is a constant interaction between motorists – a wave here, a nod there, establishing a rapport. Often, cyclists are not confident enough to look behind them long enough to catch a drivers eye and acknowledge their presence, or take a hand off the handlebars to give a wave of thanks, so I think that this rapport does not exist as often between cyclists and motorists.
I wonder whether a movement by cyclists to make an effort to be seen as ‘more human’ might help further improve driver behaviour, and move us towards a safer road system. Chatting to motorists at the lights, waving to say thanks when a driver has waited in a considerate manner, a smile and nod to say thank you are all things that could break down the perceived barriers between motorists and cyclists (I say perceived, because most cyclists are also motorists!) and help make the roads safer for cyclists.