Saturday, April 4, 2009

It's a war out there - but it needn't be

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 1.)

There was an excellent letter to the editor in my local paper recently about the problems cyclists have with motorists.

If you’re a typical driver you may be tempted to stop reading at this point, thinking here’s yet another precious cyclist whining about cars. But hang on.

The interesting thing about this letter was that although written by a cyclist, its tone was unusually conciliatory.

The writer [Brendan O'Connor, who contributes very good film reviews to the Wairarapa News] acknowledged that most cyclists had stories of near-misses or inconsiderate behaviour by drivers, but went on to express his gratitude to “the majority [of motorists] who treat us with respect”.

He especially praised Fonterra tanker drivers, who are thick on the ground in my part of the country, and a local firm of agricultural contractors.

I endorse the letter-writer’s comments. I’m a cyclist too, and it disheartens me to see cyclists and motorists so frequently squaring off against each other.

All that’s required of either group is that they show a little respect and consideration for each other, but in public debate, if not on the road, they often behave like natural enemies for whom there can never be any common ground.

Certainly, cycling seems to be one of those issues that pushes all the wrong buttons. I was intrigued a few months ago to hear Wellington journalist and commentator John Bishop, normally a man of carefully considered opinions, sounding off about bike riders during Jim Mora’s afternoon radio programme.

Bishop accused cyclists of flouting the law – for example, running red lights, riding on footpaths and not wearing helmets – and of impeding traffic by riding in the middle of lanes.

He didn’t want to run them over, he said, but he found it hard not to. Cyclists were arrogant and a menace, and should be banned from main roads.

This was not the mild-mannered John Bishop I knew, but the fact that he got so agitated was proof that there’s an issue here. Many listeners were probably nodding their heads in agreement.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard these issues aired. A few months before, on the TV news, an Auckland city councillor vented his frustration about cyclists clogging Tamaki Drive, riding three or four abreast and failing to show consideration for motorists and pedestrians.

Is it true, then, that motorists and cyclists are locked in an unavoidable conflict? Are their interests really irreconcilable?

I consider myself qualified to comment since I’m a motorist as well as a cyclist, and aware of failings on both sides.

I’ve had a few near-misses with vehicles myself, mostly caused by poor judgment on the part of their drivers (and once, spectacularly, by my own carelessness) rather than any intent to annihilate me.

The most common problem is that motorists misjudge cyclists’ speed and turn across their path, wrongly thinking they have plenty of time to complete the manoeuvre without forcing the rider to brake or take evasive action.

But there have also been times when I’ve encountered sheer bloody-mindedness. A truck driver recently pulled out straight in front of me from a farm gateway, though he had seen me coming from some way off. Only days later an elderly man – in my experience, the most lethal category of driver – cut directly across my path as he emerged from a side road. As he passed in front of me, close enough to reach out and touch (punch?) through his open window, he gave me the blank look of someone who was brain-dead.

Had he said “sorry” or given an apologetic wave acknowledging he was at fault, I probably wouldn’t have minded too much. As it was, I’m not ashamed to admit I let rip with a flow of invective.

I also recall two occasions in Wellington when drivers – one a bus driver – seemed to go out of their way to cut me off and force me into the curb.

On the other hand, I’ve had the driver of a big truck-and-trailer unit give a blast on his air horn from a couple of hundred metres behind me on a narrow highway, just to warn me of his approach. Now that’s courtesy.

Now, what of cyclists’ attitudes? I occasionally see them unnecessarily riding two abreast at a sedate pace in the middle of a traffic lane when they could have cycled single-file or at least kept further to the left. That’s just as bloody-minded as the motorists’ behaviour described above.

Some cyclists take the view that because the law allows them to ride two abreast, then they will, regardless of whether they need to. Such attitudes do nothing to promote goodwill between the two classes of road user.

It’s useful here to distinguish between different sub-species of cyclist. There’s cyclistus zealotus – typically a Greenie who is ideologically committed to cycling as a way of life, detests motor vehicles and will assert his or her right to occupy road space because it’s a matter of saving the planet.

Then there’s cyclistus pelotonus, who – unlike the Greenie – drives a car most of the time (and often an expensive one at that) but at weekends likes to dress up in lycra, climb on a flash racing bike and join his or her cycling mates in a peloton – that’s French for a bunch of riders – on a group ride.

These people, who are generally not too concerned about saving the planet, assert their right to occupy a lot of road space because … well, because there’s a big group of them, they’re often soaked with testosterone and they know motorists will make way because no one wants to end up in court charged with careless driving causing death.

Cyclistus pelotonus has a remarkable ability to irritate non-cyclists even when not on the road. A friend of mine bridles at the way they arrogantly swagger (his words) into the caf├ęs they occasionally stop at on their rides.

I can afford to sound self-righteous here because I belong to a third sub-species, cyclistus solitarius. I ride on my own because I value the solitude and the silence. Because I don’t have any companions to make conversation with, I can keep well to the left and not hold anyone up.

If I’m on a narrow road approaching a blind bend and I sense a car stuck behind me, I signal as soon as soon as it’s safe for the car to overtake. And when motorists behave considerately toward me, as they often do, I acknowledge it with a wave.

At the risk of sounding like a goody two-shoes, I believe cyclists who show respect and consideration for motorists generally get it in return, and vice-versa.


Truth Seeker said...

I've resumed riding my own bicycle after a hiatus of several years. The roads are wider and the traffic slower in my new area of residence.

There are bigots on both sides in almost every issue and this is just one more.

Lack of care and consideration by a thoughtless few is the problem - on both sides. We could just as well be talking about parking, walking on busy footpaths or queuing at bank machines.

In cycling or driving, as in life itself: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

John said...

I confess to making the odd intemperate remark about cyclists. Actually, more often than that – more like every day when I drive to work.

I also had a go at cyclists on one of my own blog posts earlier this year, when I wrote about six months of playing around with the Linux computer operating system. I said Linux user forums could be very helpful, with a caveat: “beware the arrogant, get-a-life geeks who also haunt these forums! Think proselytising city cyclists and you’ll get an idea of their charmless attitude.”

I drive into downtown Wellington via the Ngaio Gorge road and Thorndon Quay, and I see the ever-increasing numbers of cyclists doing daft things – particularly passing on the left and, down the gorge road, passing at more than 50kph on the wrong side of double yellow no-passing lines. Having a prang with one of them would ruin my day – more likely days. It might well ruin the cyclist too – in the Ngaio Gorge, ruination would probably be permanent.

City streets can be crowded places and few people would get through a driving career without a ding or worse. At city speeds, you're reasonably well protected in your car, but even a slight collision could push a cyclist under another car and night night nurse. I just don't want that level of responsibility thrust upon me by such arrogant jerks.

You say "It's a war out there - but it needn't be", but I say that depends where you are.
Bikes are fine in the country and on less crowded streets in smaller towns. They are _not_ fine on cramped city streets.

braenz said...

A few years ago I rode horseback the length of New Zealand - often along busy roads such as SH1, as sometimes there are few options, such as the Rakaia River Bridge and approaches.

I found the majority of motorists were absolutely fantastic. Riding horseback along the road is probably more risky than riding a bike as horses do have minds of their own (unlike bikes) and can react in quite unpredictable ways.

Truck drivers would often warn other truck drivers that we were coming their way (one rider and two horses) and most would give us a wide berth.

Scariest things were the application of air brakes (whoooosh) at short notice, but the horses soon got used to that, and a very small city-type car (lawnmowe engine?) containing two tourists, which on going past us and realising they'd seen something quite extraordinary for them, they came back in reverse gear, at what seemed at the time like 100 kph. You can imagine the noise!

I do think that our road designers should put more thought into the camber on corners - very difficult for cyclists and horse-riders. And isn't it crazy that cyclists must wear helmets, and horse-riders don't need to take any safety precautions in that area?

Jacqui Knight

Tauhei Notts said...

off topic but yesterday's comment about Crete in the Dom Post was brilliant.