Twitter, tax and the right to use the road: A parable for our times

I’ve had an uneasy couple of days cycling but perhaps not for any obvious reasons. Last Sunday a cyclist from the Iceni Velo Club in Norwich was knocked off his bike. I live in Devon, I don’t know him and there’s no particular reason this should unsettle me beyond basic human empathy. The cyclist is relatively OK and although cyclists are sometimes injured and worse, cycling is a relatively safe form of transport. However, now when I ride I have an uneasy sense of driver hatred.

Toby Hockley  was on a sportive. He was pedalling along minding his own business when, according to him, a car travelling in the opposite direction took a bend too fast and came over to his side of the road. It knocked him and his bike into the hedge. By the time he was on his feet again, car and driver had disappeared. This is his account of a hit and run. However, he did not report this to the police. Instead, they went looking for him and for the oddest of reasons.

Shortly after Hockley was hit, someone who I will refer to as Jane Doe posted the following on Twitter, a micro-blogging site: Definitely knocked a cyclist off his bike earlier – I have right of way he doesn’t even pay road tax! #bloodycyclists

Yes, that really is what she said. With no knowledge of what had happened to Hockley, the Twitter cycling community took screenshots of the tweet and various others on Doe’s account. They questioned her and also alerted the police. Norfolk police then tweeted her regarding this apparent road traffic collision. First the cycling blogs got hold of the story, then the national press. Of course it could have been an idle boast (!). At this stage no-one knew if she had actually hit anybody. Then twyclists from the Iceni Club said no, one of their members had been hit.

So this is a young woman who thinks it is OK to hit a vulnerable road user, OK to drive off without stopping and so OK to do all of this that she can announce it in public. To be clear # are intended to make it easier for Twitter users to search on various terms. But Jane Doe was not internet savvy. She had mentioned her employers on her Twitter account and she had a Facebook page which was accessible to anybody. It was astonishing in its ordinariness. Flick through Facebook and there are a million Jane Doe’s. This was not some extraordinarily callous young woman with a history of violence but someone who, outwardly at least, seemed pretty innocuous.  And yet this ordinary young woman was expecting no redress when she boasted about hitting someone with a tonne of metal moving at speed. Possibly she expected people to agree with her. And in fact BBC Norfolk had the gall to ask if she had a point, should cyclists pay road tax.

At this point, all the polite words fail me and all I really want to do is swear. A lot. Moving on. Whether or not anyone pays any tax anywhere NO-ONE not even Jane Doe, the hare-brained selfish little nonentity that she is, deserves to get hit by a tonne of metal. Road tax does not actually exist although even the DfT for reasons I cannot fathom still uses the term as a colloquialism for VED. VED is an emissions tax. It gives no right to use the road, it is a tax on harmful emissions. If we subjected bicycles to VED they would fall into Band A, low emissions and so would not incur a charge at all. Thus we would spend millions if we were to bring bikes into the VED system. Anybody not knowing this is pig ignorant.

The thing is, for all Doe’s vitriolic idiocy, she is a very long way from being alone in her contempt and hatred for a group of vulnerable road users. Search on #cyclists on Twitter and threats to harm them are legion. One such came from a woman who threatened to ‘bonnet’ cyclists not on a cycle path. When questioned on this she frantically back pedalled (no pun intended) saying that she only disliked three cyclists in particular, the ones who had held her up when she needed to see her sick niece, and that she had only been concerned for their safety. Threatening someone and then saying you are worried about their safety is what the sickest of bullies do. It’s like waving a loaded gun and saying people ought to wear a bullet-proof vest. If you need to be somewhere in a hurry, leave earlier, don’t threaten to mow people down just because you are having a bad day.

Of course one could say that cyclists bring this on themselves by breaking the law. By cycling on the pavement, jumping red lights and cycling without lights on, cyclists, the reasoning goes, bring this on themselves. This is in fact putting the cart before the horse. Some drivers, frustrated at the difference between what driving promises and what it delivers, hate cyclists because cyclists achieve what drivers cannot – a pleasant commute relatively unhindered by traffic jams. So they look for a cause for their hatred and claim it is cyclists law-breaking behaviour rather than admit it is due to their own peevishness.

The reality is that both cyclists and drivers often break traffic regulations and they shouldn’t. When drivers do this it is routinely accepted. No-one starts hating all drivers because some of them talk on their mobile phones whilst driving. Yet cyclists are hated and not because they break the law. If that were the case we’d hate drivers too. If you look at Doe’s reasoning it is entirely false. Road tax is a non-argument. Likewise the woman who threatened to drive into cyclists who weren’t on a cycle path was told in no uncertain terms that cyclists are not legally obliged to use cycle paths, that those paths are often inadequate and that faster cyclists are advised to stay on the road.

Drivers don’t hate cyclists because cyclists break the law. Those drivers who hate cyclists barely even know the law. But what these drivers need to realise is that we are all connected. A cyclist gets hit in Norwich and cyclists everywhere know about it. For all that the internet may have had negative effects on the way that we communicate it also has positives. Like it or not, we are part of a community both on the roads and on the net. The way we behave on the roads affects all of us. All that #bloodycyclists are trying to do is to get from A to B without harm and injury. And whilst they are doing so, whether within the bounds of the law or not, you should not wish harm on another human being.

And if and when you choose to tweet about #bloodycyclists try the following. Take out the word ‘cyclist’ and replace it with ‘human’. Take out the word ‘car’ or ‘bonnet’ and replace it with the name of any weapon. Read it again,  and ask yourself, is it acceptable to threaten another human with a lethal weapon, just because you think you can get away with it?

9 thoughts on “Twitter, tax and the right to use the road: A parable for our times

  1. A very well thought-out and articulate blog. I particularly liked this sentence: “Some drivers, frustrated at the difference between what driving promises and what it delivers, hate cyclists because cyclists achieve what drivers cannot – a pleasant commute relatively unhindered by traffic jams.”
    I think you may have put your finger on it there – it certainly explains why (as I have seen in London) some drivers pull in towards the kerb when a cyclist “threatens” to undertake them at 15mph.

    1. I’ve had that in Manchester too. Cars pull into the kerb at lights to try and stop me getting past. They just can’t stand it that their £10k+ car is slower than my £500 bike.

    1. I kept her name out of it for various reasons. Not that I approve of her behaviour, clearly I don’t. But I would rather that for the moment at least, the police deal with her case. I suspect she has not apologised under legal advice. And if people push too much against her, we risk a backlash against cyclists.

  2. An excellent post! Many, many good solid cogent points, and so much more informed than any of the TV news coverage. Newspapers seem to have done better and, maybe unspurprisingly, Sky News.

    The BBC has shown itself to be stuck around 30 years ago with it’s coverage or just attempts to whip up antagonistic sentiment from either “side”. We know there aren’t sides here, just ignorance. I covered Jeremy Vine’s BBC2 show with simple bullets here

    The only thing I’d add is around the cycling community. Yes, we are a lot closer together, although we do need to note that it’s core advocates that are in regular contact. I think I know several hunded and can be in regular contact. This means we can talk a lot amongst ourselves, but I don’t think that covers anything like the total cycling community. The rest of my family ride but wouldn’t know much about what we talk about. And tend to roll their eyes when I start talking about it!

    But one great thing, that I think The Times Campaign has a lot to do with, is that we do talk together. And, most important, anything serious does now get into the national press. Two years ago that would have been a dream.

  3. Reblogged this on Jaunty Angle and commented:
    Here is a lovely post on the recent #bloodycyclists story that has been the biggest story in UK cycling over the past week. If you don’t know what it is about, a woman driving a car tweeted that she had hit a cyclist and that she had right of way, because cyclists don’t pay road tax – there is no road tax. Well the police got involved and the thing went very viral.

    Helen Blackman has put together a very well written view of the situation that demands reading.

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