It can be tough out there on the UK’s roads if you opt for two wheels rather than four. For starters there’s the odd assumption that you haven’t chosen to travel like that but have had cycling foisted upon you because you can’t drive or are too poor for a car. The Brits might have a reputation for being terribly polite; queuing; whingeing; whingeing about queuing (whilst being polite to the people they should actually be complaining to); keeping a stiff upper lip, and enjoying cream teas, but put them in a little tin box on wheels next to a bike and they appear to lose any sense, intelligence and perspective they might ever have had.
Of course, they’re not all like that. Pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers are often one and the same person. and there are many perfectly polite and careful drivers out there. But you only need to encounter one loony with a Clarksonesque attitude to road safety and you, and your bike, will be at risk. So with that in mind, here are a few tips for surviving on the roads in the UK.
1. The micro-second you sit on a bike on the road you become invisible. This phenomenon has yet to be replicated in a laboratory but there is plenty of evidence for it in the real world. That said, should you commit the cardinal sin of cycling on the pavement (please, please don’t do this, don’t actually hand people the ammo) every car driver in a 50-mile radius will suddenly be aware of your presence.
2. Assume that anybody on, or even vaguely near the road is a potential hazard. Also assume that they aren’t actually looking at the road and may in fact be nigh on oblivious to it, despite operating a ton of fast-travelling metal along it. Bear in mind that even if they are looking, they might not actually be seeing and if they are seeing it’s quite likely to be the bus in front of you, not you, that they actually register. And on a related note:
3. It is better to assume that all car drivers are kamikaze; slipshod; think that they really can text and drive; think that it’s other people who cause accidents; cannot locate their indicators (steering wheel and lights are often a bit dubious too, although generally they can locate the car horn); have no sense of speed or distance; no concern for anybody else’s life; have all the road sense of a dead hedgehog; think that speed limits are either some kind of minimum target to be aimed for or that they are for other people because they themselves are so skilled they couldn’t possibly be meant to go that slowly. Of course very few of them exhibit all these characteristics, but given the number who exhibit at least one, it’s just safer for you to assume that most of them shouldn’t be allowed beyond their own front door and have only learned to walk upright at some point in the last week or two.
4. Invest in the best lights you can afford and carry a back up set as well. Any lights have an irritating habit of turning themselves on miraculously whilst in the depth of your pannier so that by the time you need to cycle home, they are blinking at you anaemically. You might also want to invest in some fluorescent clothing. The jury is out on this one – it does make you more visible but wearing it places the onus on you to be seen rather than on the drivers to keep an eye out. Also bear in mind that you can be dressed head to toe in fluorescent clothing and look as if you are the product of one of those genetically-modified luminous rabbits having had sex with a Christmas tree, but if they don’t look, they still won’t see you. Aliens have used me as a landing beacon before now and yet car drivers have stopped me to say that they can’t see me (yes, you’re right, there is a logic fail there).
5. Remember that a car driver’s time is of the essence. It is vital that they get to the back of a queue of traffic before you do. The fact that you will then sail past them and the queue, so that they almost took your leg off for nothing, is neither here nor there. Do not question them on the logic off this manoeuvre since they will not be able to answer. However, it has its roots in various problems. Many car drivers can only focus on one thing at a time. If they see you cycling ahead of them you might, if you are particularly lucky, become the focus of that attention. Unfortunately at this stage they are limited to the following thought process ‘Cyclist in front, cyclist go slow, must overtake cyclist’. They will not register the 3-mile tailback 20 yards away from them but will instead overtake you, even though it may entail both breaking the speed limit and endangering your life. In some quarters this has become known as the ‘overtakey brakey’. It is odd that car drivers who are convinced that they can multitask well enough to both drive and talk on their mobiles cannot focus on both the queue ahead of them and you but such is life.
6. On a related note, much of the problem is the average car driver’s inability to understand traffic flow. As far as a driver is concerned, the faster they are travelling, the faster they will get to their destination. They have not worked out that this logic only applies on empty roads and quite definitely does not apply when everybody else is also trying to go fast. Think about the different ways in which drivers and experienced cyclists approach roundabouts. Cyclists will assess the traffic as far ahead as possible and will adjust their speed expertly so they can fit in without interrupting traffic flow. Some drivers also manage this but the majority will simply drive up to the roundabout as quickly as possible, jam the brakes on at the last minute, then look, then think about pulling out, thereby disrupting the entire queue of traffic behind them. Generally they won’t signal on the roundabout, or anywhere else for that matter, holding up traffic flow even more. It is this lack of understanding of the relationship between average speed and maximum speed that prompts them to overtake you, even though you will simply sail past them shortly afterwards.
7. Have some answers handy for the petty abuse that may get shouted at you, in particular ‘you don’t pay road tax’. Just reply ‘I do on my Rolls Royce’ or ‘I pay tax on my car I’m just not stupid enough to drive it in this traffic’.‘ Big car, small dick’ is your basic, all purpose comeback. ‘It’s inversely proportional to engine size’ is also handy. If you’re female try ‘I don’t care how much you rev your engine, I’m NOT going to have sex with you’. (Ok, I’m all for equal ops, you can shout that if you’re male too). Alternatively, if time is short and their windows are tight shut, you might want to opt for the kind of hand signal that you can’t make whilst wearing mittens.
8. Be particularly careful when there are high-sided vehicles around – even if car drivers have managed somehow to see you despite your magic cloak of invisibility, they generally cannot see through vans and do not expect you to emerge from behind one.
9. Take particular care if you are moving alongside traffic, especially at junctions. Car drivers often see no need to indicate left and are more than capable of overtaking you, only to slam on the brakes and turn left across the top of you. Also be wary if the car in front of you slows down drastically for no apparent reason – check that the driver is not letting a car travelling in the opposite direction turn right in front of them. OK so it’s nice that they let traffic out, but few of them think to check their wing mirrors before doing so. In fact some of them may well just have overtaken you before slowing down but will have entirely forgotten your presence. This is known as the ‘out of sight, out of mind’, school of driving.
10. On trying to turn right, you may find that the driver behind you kindly slows down so that you can pull out and perform this manoeuvre. However be careful – there’s every reason to suspect that the driver behind that will have entirely failed to assess the situation adequately and will be sitting there thinking ‘why’s that idiot in front of me slowing down, best overtake him, the twunt’ and then will take you out in the process.
11. Never take any notice of any other road users’ signals (your own of course are faultless). They will happily pull out from the roadside whilst indicating the precise opposite. Also, ignore everybody else’s lane positioning. Being in the left of three lanes never stopped anyone from turning right.
12. Basically, treat car drivers as you would any other aggressive, territorial, predatory species locked into a confined space. They would probably all be happier if they left the car at home and cycled to work, they just haven’t realised it yet.