Last week, as I walked into work, I was almost annihilated by a car driver as he drove straight through a red light. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not daft. Generally I expect the first driver approaching a red light to jump it. It’s just that the van at the front of the queue had actually stopped, so the car driver had to manoeuvre past him to then drive through the red light. That I don’t expect, and yet nobody batted an eyelid. I’m not sure quite how many traffic laws he contravened, but no-one around me seemed to notice or care.
The next morning, at the same junction, as I sat on my bike waiting for the lights to change to green, the driver in front of me got bored waiting and drove off through the red light, even though there was traffic on the junction. Again, no reaction from anyone. And I wonder, how did we get to this stage? Why do we put up with this behaviour from drivers, and in fact why do we barely react? How have we come to see the dominance of cars, and the appalling behaviour of drivers, as so normal that we just don’t register it?
Walk around any town or city and you will be continually stopping so as not to impede the progress of drivers. Attempt to cross a road and you’ll be faced with tons of metal screeching towards you at 35mph. The air stinks. Cities are noisy. And for what? We are expected to drive to out-of-town shopping centres. Our transport infrastructure, everything around us, is designed for the car. We think that 2 miles is a long walk and that it’s dangerous to cycle because of all the traffic and yet we suffer more and more from the problems of obesity. Is it really beyond our wit to realise that there is an alternative? We live hemmed in by fear but don’t think it’s problematic because we assume that the car is king and we must bow down before him.
One evening as I cycled home, a driver overtook me in a space too narrow for cars to pass, let alone wide enough for cars and a bike. There was clearly oncoming traffic and it was clearly unsafe. Yet he overtook anyway, braked as he overtook, forcing me to brake, and only made the manoeuvre without an accident because the oncoming car also braked. The road was narrow there due to the number of parked cars. And his manoeuvre was completely unnecessary for I caught up with him at the next set of traffic lights.
I told him exactly what I thought of him and his driving. Loudly. On this occasion there was no ignoring the situation. The passenger and driver in the car behind him gave me a round of applause, having witnessed his earlier behaviour. In fairness, I didn’t shout that much. In fact it was one of my pithier outbursts, aimed precisely at his lack of driving skills. There may also have been an unflattering comment on his anatomy, or parts thereof. He attempted to ignore me. This became more difficult once the lights changed as myself and a motorcyclist boxed him in, preventing him from overtaking again on the next narrow stretch of road. I said nothing to the biker and he said nothing to me – it was just the unspoken camaraderie of the two-wheeled.
It seems to me that this kind of action may be one of the only ways to make it clear to drivers that enough is enough. You’ve ruined the local environment. You’ve made towns and cities feel at best unpleasant and at worst downright dangerous. It’s time to fight back. But first, here are some of the things that car drivers have said to me, and here’s why I disagree with them.
1. It’s OK to use my mobile phone, because the road is quiet
How would you know? You’re not looking at it. For the record, using a mobile phone, either hand held or hands free, slows your reaction times more than being over the drink drive limit. If you are using your mobile whilst you are driving, you are as dangerous as you are when you are drunk. People who are texting or talking on their mobiles whilst driving are easy to spot. They can’t hold a line and tend to drift over to the kerb, their speed varies oddly. The peering down at the phone rather than watching the road is also something of a giveaway.
I don’t care if the road is quiet, for two reasons. First, conditions change very quickly on the road. It may look quiet, but how do you know someone won’t step out in front of you. And second, the fact that you are on your phone says to other drivers ‘It’s OK to do this’. Essentially you are just exonerating those drivers who will happily do 80 on the motorway whilst using a phone – because you are sending out a loud, clear message that driving is just part of multi-tasking.
See also “but I was pulling over whilst I was talking”. Yes, you pulled over. And you nearly took me out in the process because you didn’t even realise I was there. Just don’t answer the phone whilst you are driving. We did manage to exist for millions of years without the things. In fact it’s only the under 30s who are labouring under the delusion that when you put your mobile down, your ear falls off. You do not need to use your mobile phone whilst you are operating heavy machinery. It really is that simple.
2. What was the pedestrian doing there any way?
This one makes me want to stab people, hard and preferably fatally. The UK has no jay walking rule. This is because the roads are public highways. The clue is in the name. They are for public use. Pedestrians have a right of way on them and drivers should give way to them, what with the fact that they will kill them if they don’t. However, somehow on the UK’s roads might has come to equal right. We think the road belongs to cars because any pedestrian walking on them will get driven at and crushed, it’s not ‘safe’. The fact that it would be if drivers behaved themselves doesn’t occur to us, we hold up our hands in helplessness. We don’t fight the bullies, we move over so that we don’t get mown down.
I was forcibly reminded of this one day when crossing a busy junction at a pedestrian light. It is a long junction and when traffic is moving slowly, drivers do not make it all the way across before the lights change. Instead they sit in the middle of a pedestrian crossing, in a queue of traffic. The pedestrian lights change to green and the pedestrians must weave their way in and out of traffic. This is bad enough but on this particular occasion, as I passed in front of a stationary van, the driver decided that since the car in front had moved he should move too, and he drove at me. I pointed towards the green man, he swore at me. Given the amount of flak that cyclists have aimed at them for going through red lights, I found this gobsmacking. Why do we aim such opprobrium at one group of road users, yet ignore another set when they do exactly the same thing? Why are we so blind to what drivers do wrong?
3. If I‘m looking at my speedo, I can’t watch the road
That’s an admission of incompetence. You should know from the visual clues outside the car what speed you are travelling at. And remember, a 30 speed limit is not a target to be aimed at. You don’t have to drive along peering at your speedo making sure you are doing 29mph. You just have to be doing less than 30 and travelling at a speed appropriate to the conditions, which might be considerably less. If you cannot do this without peering at your dashboard, you are not a competent driver.
4. But I was only doing 39 in a 30 zone
Difficult to know where to start with this one, there are so many things wrong with it. I’ll go for the bit that doesn’t require a basic knowledge of physics. A limit is a limit, not a target. A 30 limit means it is always unsafe to go over that speed. It does not mean you keep brainlessly accelerating to 30 and then think ‘ah fuck it, what’s a 30% increase in speed between friends.’
Which leads me to the next point. It is not just 9mph over the limit. It is 30% over the limit. That’s like doing 80 in a 60 zone, except in some ways worse than that because you are unlikely to encounter pedestrians in a 60 zone and highly likely to encounter them in a 30 zone. That’s why the limit is there.
A pedestrian has an 80% chance of survival if you hit them at 20mph and an 80% chance of death if you hit them at 40mph. It may look like a number on a speed dial – it isn’t. It can be a life or death decision.
Which brings us to the physics of force and motion. The short version is that the impact force on a pedestrian does not increase in simple percentages. Instead, the impact force increases as the square of the impact speed. There is a more detailed explanation here, http://www.science.org.au/nova/058/058key.htm
Add to that the additional reaction time required at 39mph rather than 30mph. At the lower speed you are covering, by my calculation, 44 feet per second. At the higher speed you are covering 57.2 feet per second. For each second you travel you travel an additional 13 feet. Humans have not evolved to cope with such speeds – our eyes and our reaction times are not good enough. Even if you only take a second to apply the brakes, that second has taken you 13 feet nearer whatever caused you to brake.
5. I didn’t see you
That’s a clear admission of guilt, not a justification for what is, when you think about it, bad driving. I am sick to the back teeth of drivers telling me not to cycle in the rain because they cannot see me or not to ride a horse when the sun is low because the sun blinds them. Well in both those situations I can see the car. I am not impeded. If you cannot see, then why on earth is it OK to drive around blind? Would you actually say it’s ok for the blind to drive so long as everyone else moves out of their way? Would you like to try a Blunkett day, where the blind drive and the rest of us stay indoors? No? Why ever not? And if that is the case, then why do you tell me to stay off the road on the grounds that you cannot see me? I’m not small, it’s not a sparrow you cannot see, it’s a person. Either slow down so that you can brake in the space that you can see, or don’t go on the roads.
6. But lots of drivers speed
Oh dear god, it’s like being back at school. Remember those times when you would do something unutterably stupid and Miss Smith would ask why and you would reply ‘because Johnny said so’ and Miss Smith would ask ‘would you jump in front of a train if Johnny said so?’ At the age of five I was confused by that one. Of course I wouldn’t jump in front of a train if Johnny said so, it would be a stupid thing to do. And then eventually I realised that that was the point. You don’t do things because someone else says so, that’s just a handy excuse. You do something because you decide whether it is stupid or not. Step up and take responsibility for your actions. Don’t just point the finger and say ‘but they’re doing it too’.
Why have we enabled this? Why do we use these excuses? When I compare today’s cars with those I remember from the 1980s, they seem to do everything to convince you that you are not in fact in a car. 1980s car rattled. The seats were not all that comfortable. It was small. If you were lucky there might be a radio or a cassette deck. In the winter it was bloody cold and in the summer it was too bloody hot. You could attempt to moderate these problems by winding your window up or down. You could never deny that you were in the traffic – it was easy to see just beyond your window. There was always that sense and feel of being in a car.
Modern car tries to pretend it’s something else. It cocoons you from sound, its own and those beyond it. Its seats are plush, it’s too large to go through gaps readily or to park it. This gives you more room inside and correspondingly places you further away from the vulnerable road users just outside. It has CD players. TVs. Recharging points for your mobiles. Heck, they might have started singing to you. You certainly have little voices telling you where to go. It has air con and precision temperatures. It has windows that move at the touch of a button. It does everything to isolate you from your surroundings and from the sensation of being on the road. In short, it cuts you off from communicating with those around you and it seems to me to cut people off from caring about other people.
And we take this lying down. We’ve stopped caring about people around us. We just want to be snug in our own little bubble and woe betide anyone who dares to remind us that maybe, just maybe, we’re part of a larger system. Maybe our actions do affect others. Maybe we should concentrate on what we are doing and value those around us. Maybe we should have enough respect for other people to slow down, stop talking on the mobile, stop breaking the rules of the road and actually concentrate on what we are doing. For enough lives have been lost to people who use the thinnest of excuses to cover up what is in essence selfish and dangerous behaviour.