Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Bikes can be hard to overtake - especially if they're faster than your car

It was one morning in December that I came across the driver who, because I wouldn’t let him overtake me, came close to driving over me instead. I had turned into a short, one-way street near my house when he swung in menacingly close behind. I felt no special worry, however. The road’s speed humps, which slow cars more than they do my bicycle, mean that, even when pulling my son in a trailer, most mornings I pull away from cars behind. I’m far more often stuck behind slower-moving cars in front.

But that was reckoning without this driver’s deep-seated need to overtake. Keeping his foot on the accelerator and the car in a low gear, he maintained his speed, unslackened, over the first speed bump, staying a metre or so behind me. I quickly found myself trapped in an urban cycling version of the film Speed. The road was so narrow, and so clogged with parked cars, that I couldn’t get out of the driver’s path. He was so close, however, that, if I’d slowed down to turn into the few vacant parking spaces, I could easily have gone under his wheels. Just as Keanu Reeves’ character in Speed has to keep a bus travelling at more than 50mph to stop a bomb going off, I had to stay riding fast enough for long enough, without skidding on the slippery speed bumps, that my pursuer wouldn’t hit me. He underlined his point by leaning out of his window to yell abuse.

A cyclist on Copenhagen's generously-proportioned
cycle lanes: the Irate Minivan Man of Brixton Hill
might not appreciate this charming Scandinavian city.
It’s one of motorists’ most common complaints about cyclists – along with the perennial (inaccurate) claim that we all ignore red lights – that bikes hold them up and get in their way. But my encounter highlights how some motorists feel something far stronger than a desire to avoid delay. My pursuer put himself close to me only by a deliberate, provocative, highly dangerous effort. It’s not hard to read into his behaviour – and that of quite a few other motorists and pedestrians I’ve encountered – a deeper set of reactions. It’s inherently unlikely, after all, that bicycles – vehicles that take up little road space and form a minority of road vehicles in most developed countries – are a genuinely significant cause of delay. I have certainly heard more cyclists complain about a journey’s being prolonged by the volume of cars than I have motorists complain about the same because of the volume of  bikes.

Cyclists, it seems, don't actually have priority on this
cycle path in Hyde Park,according to the sign.
But, well, why would they?
Some people’s existential irritation about sharing the road – or a cycle path - instead takes me back to my meeting with an embittered Protestant 14 years ago in a field outside Portadown, one of Northern Ireland's strongholds of Protestant loyalism to the United Kingdom. The man, who was protesting against the police and army’s blocking of a loyalist parade through a mainly Roman Catholic-Irish Nationalist area, described to me how, as a member of the Protestant majority, he felt downtrodden and oppressed by the Roman Catholic minority. The Catholics, who account for 40 per cent of the population, were getting more and more say in how things were run, he said. The province’s most influential jobs, I pointed out, remained in the hands of Protestants. Catholics remained, on average, poorer. Catholics, I also pointed out, had faced systematic discrimination until the 1970s, excluded from many jobs, from public housing and consequently from voting, which was restricted to householders. He hadn’t known anything about all that, he said. He hadn’t been aware of any problems.

His complaints were similar to ones I've heard from Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina about the country’s being controlled by Bosniaks, the country’s Muslims. A colleague once told me with distaste about how a white South African mining executive bitterly suggested to her that, given another life, he’d come back as a black woman. His theory – not, I suspect, based on a thorough investigation of women’s lives in the rough bits of Soweto – was that positive discrimination now made black women’s lives easier than those of white South African men.

All such complaints reflect, it seems to me, the powerful human instinct for those who belong to privileged groups to believe their status a reflection of their own group’s merit. If those privileges are reduced – or extended to another, excluded group – the reaction is often similar. The formerly-downtrodden – whether of a different ethnic group or simply using a different kind of vehicle – are seen as bumptious, difficult, undeserving usurpers.

Which brings me back to the Irate Minivan Driver of Brixton Hill.

 A bike lane on Southwark Bridge: many London motorists
have concluded, the Invisible Visible Man can exclusively reveal,
that the bike pictures in such facilities are a new form of pavement art.
It can hardly, they've decided, be as if cyclists should be given
all this road space.
I can only imagine that my pursuer, if he has been driving around central London for any significant proportion of the last ten years, has felt “his” share of the road shrinking around him. Cyclist numbers have doubled or more on many central London streets, meaning that he will increasingly often have to moderate his behaviour to cope with bicycles. There have been similar increases in other big rich world cities. The issues surrounding cycling are less all-encompassing than the questions that face Northern Irish Catholics or South African blacks. But, in many metropolises, drivers like the Irate Minivan Man feel, it seems to me, a nostalgia similar to that of the man I met in Portadown for the says before a resented, encroaching group started to get ideas above their station.

Even for those drivers I genuinely force to slow down, however, it is rare for a delay to stretch beyond milliseconds into seconds. I have, as I have detailed in a previous blog, been abused by an angry motorist because I had delayed her arrival at the end of a traffic jam. The sheer numbers of motor vehicles – which really do cause congestion – have risen sharply in recent years in many big cities at the same time as cycling numbers. The vehicles, both parked and on the move, have also grown steadily larger, exacerbating their congestion-causing effect. In a rational world, my minivan-driving hunter would have been just as angry with the parked cars, the real reason it was unsafe to let him pass. Any doubts I might have had about motorists' attitude on this matter were dispelled when I read a comment on a (since deleted) post on the excellent Cycling Lawyer blog. The commenter complained about how s/he particularly worried about passing the biggest, fittest cyclists because they tended to outpace his or her car up hills.

Clapham Common: pedestrians can get
just as angry as minivan drivers
Yet an incident a couple of years ago on Clapham Common, a couple of kilometres from where I encountered the Irate Minivan Driver, suggests the real root of some of the resentment. I was cycling across the common, on a designated cycle path, when I encountered a man, with his back to me, pushing a baby buggy. I slowed down and, because he was turned away, rang my bell several times, to no effect. “Don’t worry – I heard you,” he eventually shouted over his shoulder, refusing even to look round. There was a whole common for me to cycle across, he suggested. He wouldn’t get out of my way.

London's Paddington Station: The Invisible Visible Man's bike is in
here somewhere (though, predictably,  not visible). Network Rail,
the station's owners, seem as reluctant as others in London
to give bikes the space they need.
The parallel pedestrian path, nevertheless, was only a couple of metres away. There was only one designated cycle route the way I needed to go. The man seemed as infuriated at the devotion of space to a cycle path as Irate Minivan Man was at my taking up space on the road. It is one of several similar incidents I’ve encountered on paths across the Common.

On a road just by the common, meanwhile, I pulled in one Saturday to the space devoted to bikes at a set of traffic lights. I was pulling the Invisible Visible Boy in a trailer and pulled towards the centre of the road to let the Invisible Visible Woman into the area with the Invisible Visible Girl and her trailer bike. Incensed by my using the space for its designated purpose, a well-spoken, middle-class motorist pulled forward beside me, rolled down his window and said, with an air of deliberate threat: “If you stay at the side of the road, you won't get hit.” When the lights turned green, he accelerated away so fast his tyres squealed. Interestingly, pedestrians generally avoid obstructing the several roads that cut across and spoil the Common the way some feel compelled to do on the cycle paths.

Yet such bizarre, ingrained attitudes aren’t immutable. It was once held axiomatic that very little could be done to reduce drinking and driving – a problem that has been sharply reduced in many countries through consistent, unequivocal public information campaigns. Only a few years ago, prejudice against gays and lesbians went unchallenged. Before that, broad generalisations about blacks or Asians were accepted in polite society.

Such progress looks some way off for cyclists, however. Until it arrives, I’ll have to hope encounters with the likes of Irate Minivan Man end as relatively harmlessly as that one eventually did. After around 150 frantically-pedalled metres, a long break in the cars let me pull over. He accelerated past me and screeched off round a junction. He was, I imagine, frustrated. It requires self-discipline for any group to tolerate ceding territory to another. But nothing I did could have cost him more than a few moments. Had I slipped on one of the speed bumps or otherwise lost my nerve, the consequences of his driving for me could have been many, many times further-reaching.

30 comments:

  1. The worst haters seem to be the ones barely in the privileged class. Especially those with unrelated anger issues.

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    1. Steve A,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I don't like to disagree with my commenters (especially valued first commenters such as your good self). But I wouldn't say that the Irate Minivan Driver of Brixton Hill or the man who offered to "mash my camera" when I tried to take a picture of him on Friday were members of the privileged class. Indeed, they'd have reasonable grounds to claim I'm doing a bit better than they are.

      You are, nevertheless, bang on about the strange man with the baby buggy and, to a lesser extent, the man who noised up the Invisible Family at the lights (we British are very aware of class distinctions). Baby buggy man might even, in Clapham, have been a member of that currently profoundly despised group, the bankers.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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    2. You are correct about the reality of the class, but that Minivan driver did appear to feel you were infringing on his road "entitlement." Neither of us claim it is a rational attitude. It is akin to the oft stated nonsense in the US about how the roads were built for cars or how cyclists can have a right to the road when they follow the rules and get taxed. As if somehow cyclists' property taxes are excluded from road construction or the roads are not quite really for all of the public.

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    3. Don't worry, Steve A, I'm not really disagreeing. You are quite right about this road entitlement stuff. It's one of the ironies that one sometimes sees people complaining about cyclists' sense of entitlement as if it were an outrage. But we are entitled.

      Invisible.

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  2. I'm with the Invisible Visible Man on this one. A few years ago on a quiet lane, a JCB I was following at some distance slammed on the brakes on a straight stretch of road for no apparent reason.
    It caused me to hit it's rear digger arm, fracturing a collarbone and crushing a knuckle. But before I was barely off the deck, the digger had roared off.
    For various reasons to complicated to deal with here I have no doubt it was a deliberate act of violence intended at least to scare, if not harm. However, with no witnesses, I had no redress.
    On a bike, we have no choice but to treat every vehicle as a potential injury threat, with the odds stacked heavily against the rider.
    The only way this will be overcome, I believe, is for many more people to understand that riding a bike is something we can all do, that we are all road users, and that riders are not something 'other'. The current cycling boom will help that, but it will certainly take time. Perhaps the soaring cost of petrol and diesel will help.
    And just remember - the same people who drive cars and lorries like idiots still behave like idiots when there're on a bike.

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    1. Le Puncheur,

      I have a definite feeling that far more road "accidents" than we suspect are a result of such deliberate violence. There's certainly such a tendency out there, to judge by how often I get people simply running out into the road to try to knock me off.

      Invisible.

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  3. I know that reaction well, from cycling across Clapham Common every morning. I notice that the council has put up signs asking cyclists to be considerate, no doubt after complaints from other park users. I wonder how many of those complaints came from pedestrians walking on the cycle path...

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    1. Matthew,

      You are clearly a wise and discerning man. You not only choose to live on London's favoured southern side but to cycle every morning through the scenic London borough of Lambeth on your way to earn your daily crust. That's precisely the kind of person I admire.

      The cycling arrangements on Clapham Common bear eloquent testimony to the muddled nature of thinking in London generally about cycling provision. A very smart woman from WS Atkins was asked, a while ago, to come up with a new system of cycle and walking paths across the common. I know (because she told me) that she worked out where people were cycling illegally to find out where people really wanted to cycle and proposed cycle paths to go to those places. Some of them appeared (the one from The Chase to Clapham Common North Side, for example) but lots more got quashed.

      Instead, there's a path across the common that's a vital link in the London Cycle Network but has give way lines every time a footpath crosses it and lots of signs telling one to be "a considerate cyclist" by going slowly.

      The essential point is that rich people living in large houses by the Common and wanting to walk their dogs complain to the council about the beastly cyclist who ran over Fido when Fido was let off the leash and it was all the horrid cyclist's fault for going too fast when poor Fido just wanted to be friendly. The cyclists, meanwhile, are from all over - Balham, Tooting, why there might even be some people from Colliers Wood. So they don't form a pressure group to pester the council the way that Fido's grieving owners do and the council only ever hears bad things about cycling. People keep thinking it's fine to walk along the cycle path oblivious to anything except how marvellous Towser, the puppy that's replaced Fido, looks running after the tennis ball they've lobbed into the middle of the game of Aussie rules football.

      The cyclists meanwhile ponder why, if they're meant to cross a significant green space on their daily commute at walking pace, they ever bothered forking out £700, £800 or however much on a nice bike to get them to work quickly.

      Variants on such conflicts between locals and cyclists happen, I think, pretty much everywhere.

      Or have I got it all wrong?

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    2. In my experience, one is far more likely to encounter violently aggressive drivers on quiet residential streets. Most people would never dare try to run down a cyclist or a pedestrian on a busy thoroughfare! So why do these same people consider it a reasonable reaction to a momentary delay in different circumstances?

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    3. I have noticed this also, quiet residential streets and I am admiring the trees and some car totally loses it's mind. I don't get it.

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  4. I wondered the other day as I was doing 25mph in a 30 zone whether I am more annoying for a driver to over take at this kind of speed or would they be less irritated if I slowed down?!?! Are we more dangerous or in more danger at speed?

    Jez www.followingthechainline.blogspot.com

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    1. Jez,

      Thanks for your comment. I think the message is (as I argued at http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-some-people-get-angry-with-cyclists.html) that motorists are going to be angry with you - and then come up with a reason.

      But you make a very reasonable point about speed. I head round London on my touring bike at cruising speeds of between around 14 and 24mph. The difference in speed with motorists isn't (or shouldn't be) that great, especially where there's a 20mph limit. But they're still desperate to push past me (possibly thinking, as they break the speed limit, about how I, as a cyclist, probably don't follow road rules).

      It even more often occurs to me with reference to pedestrians. One night, cycling down Kennington Road with a fairly laden bike at 24mph, I came across one of those people who step out into the road in front of one on principle because one's a cyclist. I'm not sure he realised I wasn't going that much more slowly than a car and that, by forcing me to swerve, he was putting both of us at a fairly substantial risk.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  5. Trying not be too localist here, but would be interested to know your thoughts about the slalom that is Clapham Common Northside. I often drive along this stretch but never cycle cos the crazy system of traffic islands alternating with built out bits of pavement forces cars to swerve all over the road. Am convinced a bike is going to be taken out this way really soon. the road is the border between Lambeth and Wandsworth so I'm not even sure which borough the road comes under.

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    1. Frances,

      That's funny - I know a Frances who lives and cycles in the Clapham/Brixton area. Oh, I see.

      If you are that Frances, I think we both know someone who had quite a nasty bike accident on Clapham Common North Side. He was hit when a vehicle suddenly decided to turn left without looking out of a queue of traffic. It's not great - but I guess, looking at it from a positive point of view, it's an example of somewhere where one should take the lane - sit well out in the road, so that one doesn't get stuck when the kerb suddenly shoots out. Let the cars wait.

      On the other hand, it's far, far easier to go via the cycle path across the south of the common then through the quiet residential streets of the Between the Commons area, so I generally prefer that (awkward people who block the path notwithstanding).

      I've just checked, incidentally, and at the moment almost as many people are reading the blog in the United States as in the UK. It's even possible that some of the UK readers aren't fully familiar with the joys of south London (though I'd advise them to rectify that soon). So, to those readers, I say this: imagine a public space with bike paths in your area and a parallel busy road, and read this, please, as an intelligent and engaged comment on that situation.

      This probably wasn't any help at all to anyone, was it?

      Invisible.

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    2. Meanwhile, for those who share my sad interest in London's favoured southern boroughs (or even with the metropolis as a whole) I recently blogged about the London history I encounter on my bike here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/02/what-have-romans-ever-done-for-us-well.html

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  6. "If you stay at the side of the road, you won't get hit."

    This is creepily close to man who says that he would not have to beat his wife if his wife would just stop screwing up and irritating him.

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    1. Chafed,

      You're right. But it was also just a straightforward threat of violence, with a motor vehicle, to me, my wife and my children. If he'd made such a threat waving a knife or a gun, the police would have worked hard at finding him. As it was, when I wrote to the police giving his car's licence plate and knowing that the incident had probably been caught on CCTV, they didn't even do me the courtesy of a reply.

      Invisible.

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    2. Do you think the police keep records of the reports you've submitted about this incident and others? A few years ago in California a driver passed some cyclists and immediately braked hard, causing serious injuries. It turned out that the driver had done the same thing four months earlier (and been reported by those cyclists, who escaped injury). Nothing was done after the first incident, but having it on record made it hard for the driver to persuade anyone that the second time was an accident. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

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    3. QMacrocarpa,

      I would love to think that my letter might have been used in such a fashion. I have some hope that those that received a response might get used in such a fashion - if only because, in an incident since I wrote this blogpost, the police assured me that they weren't going to do anything about dangerous driving or a threat of assault against me by a driver because there had been no previous complaints against him. Possibly next time he does it they might consider doing something. But I fear that the letter about the threat at the traffic lights was simply regarded as a nuisance and ignored. The unpalatable truth is that threats against cyclists aren't a priority for most police forces (not least because they're so common).

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  7. I guess I will be a minority voice by suggesting that if a chest-thumping motorist wishes to pass me, I always let them, and wave as they go past. I am not in so big a rush that I want to engage in any kind of race with a motor vehicle, particularly one driven by a chest-thumping road hog. By enforcing and demonstrating the civility that I seek on the road, I feel that I am controlling and winning the encounter, with my wave and yield being an unexpected act that actually has the potential for positive results by throwing the road hog off his game. I see no potential for positive results in a cyclist refusing to give way, or taking the bait and engaging in a speed content with a two ton motor vehicle. I understand the threat perception and response of cyclists, as I feel it myself on most days on the road. The threat-action is owned by the motorist, while the perception and response are owned by me. I always attempt to manage my perception and response in a manner which demonstrates that I find the initial threat itself unacceptable, and that I give it no credence or power to affect me. This seems sound to me on the basis that the implied result of most of these threats, namely that the motorist will willfully kill you with his vehicle, is actually extremely low in likelihood, thus, any perception and response on my part which would elevate these threats to the level of "real" would be an ineffectual and unnecessary overreaction. In the unlikely event that the threat is actually real, the most effective response is probably to disengage anyway, not run, if you think about it.

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    1. John Romeo Alpha,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I don't really disagree with you. I let cars past me where it's safe. The problem was that, in the incident I recount here, there wasn't a safe way for me to get away. I took the first one there was. I block cars coming the other way through narrow spaces trying to pass me or trying to overtake me from behind where there's no space because there's a real risk to me if I let him/her past where there's no space. You are entirely right we need to control our own reactions to these things - act to prevent danger where it's real, be sensible and let people get past where it's safe.

      Invisible.

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    2. I'm with Invisible Man here, and with JRA as well. As we were taught in our LCI, one should NEVER endanger oneself for the perceived convenience of another road user. I pick my route to make passing easier and less stressful for my motoring companions, and pull over on some roads when a queue forms behind me, but I do it out of courtesy and not due to threats. That can be hard when an exceptionally abusive motorist is encountered, but is probably even more important in such cases.

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  8. Hiya Invisible

    Got here via Bikey Face - I don't usually comment on blogs but your experience was similar to one I had this morning, so I felt the need to share!
    I was taking my usual route through residential side streets (nice and downhill in the morning) and was aware of a car behind me, but not close and I kept moving away at junctions. When I turned onto another sidestreet with speed bumps he suddenly accelerated to get past me, then braked sharply as he came to a speed bump. I was still on the inside of him and had to brake as a car was parked on the road. I kept up with him until we reached a main road, despite (or due to?) his hard acceleration and braking and then left him for dead as he entered the rush hour queue and I went down the cycle lane. Still hadn't seen him half a mile later when I turned off.
    I get the impression that when some motorists see someone on a bike they feel as if they need to overtake, as they're in a car so must be able to go faster, and don't actually look at their speedo to see how fast the cyclist is actually going.

    Safe cycling
    Dave

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  9. Dave,

    You speak nothing less than the simple, unvarnished truth.

    Mind you, I had a nice experience on Saturday. I was out cycling with my 10-year-old daughter, who was feeling tired and going slowly. On a narrow street, we had a people carrier behind us and I started assuming he was hassling us out of impatience. I kept telling my daughter to hurry up and was mentally cursing his impatience. We dismounted at the end of the street to cross a busy road by traffic lights. The motorist I was assuming was impatient stopped and politely waved us across in front of him.

    So people can surprise on the upside as well.

    Safe pedalling to you too, Dave.

    Invisible.

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  10. Very true, Invisible. In fact I'd say on average that motorists are usually either safe and occasionally helpful, rather than dangerous. Heresy, perhaps?!

    Cheers
    Dave

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    1. Dave,

      You might be close to being right about being either safe or helpful. The problem is it does tend to be the others, such as the jokers mentioned in this post, who get my attention most regularly.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  11. Still on the subject of speedhumps... I have to confess to having developed an act of passive revenge on impatient drivers: I live on a road with a decent descent and really very tall speed humps. I ride comfortably down the hill at 30mph. The drivers who are only capable of seeing that there is a cyclist to overtake are often surprised when they accelerate hard to overtake and hit the unobserved hump with a very satisfying bang.

    After this they tend to slow down considerably...

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  12. And then there are the 'pinch points' ...
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/carltonreid/5937441086/
    and
    http://aberdeencars.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/aberdeen-cycle-forum-is-on-our-side.html
    ( /!\ Possible sarcasm site ?)

    ... preferably spaced too close together to permit overtaking in-between, as well !

    Educating motorists on 'How to overtake' would be really great. It's not part of the syllabus or test IIRC. Most use the 'Sit 3 feet behind then wheelspin for maximum acceleration' approach. Even on a push-bike I have managed to overtake 3 cars and a lorry in one go, using a 'Stay well back, see a clear stretch of road well ahead, accelerate while still behind the obstacle so you reach sufficient speed before you pass it." This maximises vision, and minimises the time on the wrong side of the road. Only risk is one of the other cars might try to overtake in the same space.

    One other behaviour to beware is the 'road train', where an existing queue behind a slow car pulls out to pass you, then all pull back in when (or where) the lead car pulls back in ... whether the last car has actually passed you or not !

    The oddest I have come across was a lorry with a queue of cars, where the lorry was very reluctant to overtake. There was nothing coming from ahead, so I clearly signalled left (no junction), moved from primary position to secondary, and gently dabbed the brakes to help them pass. The lorry noticed he was getting closer to me, and locked his wheels - screaming tyres, blue smoke, burning rubber !

    I shook my head, and gestured 'go round me' with my right arm. I repeated the left-signal, moved in again and braked slightly. He shot past me, going faster and faster and faster, until he shot through the next village (30 mph limit) at ~50 mph ! Clouds of dust, gravel etc.

    Only thing that might explain it is that I use a tiny mirror on my specs, because I am unable to turn round : he might not have known I could watch him.
    I have wondered if I should have moved right to the wrong side of the road and braked hard to get them safely past ! Has anyone tried that ?

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  13. Just to update you, the link you provided over to a comment on The Cycling Lawyer website blog no longer works. It appears that the entire article sorry-but-is-sorry-always-good-enough.html has been deleted.

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    1. Andrew,

      Thank you. I've changed my text and the link to spare readers broken link frustration.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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