Saturday, 2 June 2012

Cops, pedallers and why they're picking on me

It was as I started pedalling across Southwark Bridge from Lower Thames Street in the City of London that I spotted the police car chasing after me, lights flashing and sirens blaring. I was about, for the first time in my life, to be pulled over by the police.
Southwark Bridge: the only place the police
have ever pulled me over

I hadn't broken any road rules, however, as the cyclophobes might assume. In fact, the policemen were angry that I’d signalled at them to leave me enough space to negotiate safely the junction I’d just passed. A lively discussion ensued as they told me that I – the innocent party – could have caused a crash by waving at them. They had obstructed the junction, I pointed out. There had been nothing to tell them it was a junction, they replied. “Except for the telltale meeting of two roads,” I retorted.

I would have minded the City of London Police's zeal far less, however, had it not contrasted so sharply with the attitude of the police officers I've asked to help me deal with far more serious wrongdoing by motorists. Having been knocked off once in London by a motorist paying no attention, assaulted once by a bus driver and threatened very frighteningly by another motorist, I’ve yet to see anyone lose so much as a single point on his licence as a result of illegal road behaviour around me. It has always been deemed “not in the public interest” to prosecute. Many British cyclists who’ve suffered far more serious incidents have been even worse served.

The emblematic episode for me was a journey home one summer evening along Brixton Road. A series of motorists obstructed the cyclist-only areas along the route, drove too close to me and generally harrassed me – in full view of a British Transport Police car also caught up in the heavy traffic. I eventually concluded it simply couldn't be the job of BTP officers, who police the UK's mainline railways and the London Underground, to deal with illegal driving. But then a cyclist further up the road lost patience with the delays and rode through a set of traffic lights at red. The police car’s flashing lights came on, its siren started and the officers sped up the road after him. The disparity in attitudes was so stark that I briefly contemplated stopping to ask the officers about it - and then, remembering my Southwark Bridge experience, elected to cycle on past.

The question I would have loved to have asked the officers, however, would have been the key one to any discussion of cycling and policing: why do so many police officers worldwide seem to be so alive to the relatively harmless wrongdoing of cyclists and unaware of motorists' far more often deadly misdemeanours? It would have been no less worth asking, I think, because the police officers' faces would probably have looked back at me with blank incomprehension. The injustice, like many worldwide, is, I strongly suspect, mostly a result of subconscious attitudes rather than conscious prejudice.

At least part of the answer lies in the conversation I had with the detective handling the last complaint I made to the Metropolitan Police about a driver’s behaviour – when I reported earlier this year the case of the driver who had threatened me with assault. I complained not only about the driver’s threats but also about his deliberately driving across the path of another cyclist. That incident – which struck me as far more dangerous than his threats to assualt me – must, I’m sure, have been captured on a closed circuit television camera.

New York City traffic. If one of those cars
hits your bike without killing you, the NYPD's message
is simple: fuggeddaboutit.
Yet the detective replied that it would not be “an appropriate use of police resources” to try to track down the footage. I didn't necessarily agree with his decision in my case. But his answer highlighted how, however much one might like to see the police investigate and report to prosecutors every offence they notice, not every red-light jumper will be tracked down, nor will every speeding motorist. Every police force in the world has to make some calculation about where the balance lies between tackling the crimes that most worry its political masters, the concerns of the community it polices and the resources needed to address them. Many of the outcomes are entirely rational. There aren’t many policemen worldwide happy to let murders go unsolved. There are mercifully many who have made their peace with letting litterbugs go unpunished.
The problem is that so few police forces worldwide seem to allocate resources for dealing with crime against cyclists in the way that natural justice for the victims - and the public interest in boosting cycling - would appear to demand. In New York – a city whose affairs are engaging me particularly closely as I’m about to move there – the police department’s policy is not to investigate crashes that look set merely to leave the victims maimed for life, rather than killing them. There are almost no prosecutions in New York for careless driving. Even in London, where the situation is less serious, it remains tempting to conclude many British police forces have dealt with the problem of prosecuting dangerous driving the way that Bunny Colvin, fictional commander of Baltimore’s western district in the TV series The Wire, dealt with drug dealing. They have, to all intents and purposes, legalised it.

The City policemen’s attitude towards me hinted, I think, at the subconscious attitudes involved. They spoke to me on the assumption that I had deliberately endangered myself and others out of ignorance. It took ten minutes of arguing before they realised I had taken the most reasoned, sensible approach I could to negotiating a junction where cyclists’ way across was perpetually blocked by rule-breaking motorists. The starting point seemed to be that I belonged to an out-group, beyond the civilised community they were protecting and too ignorant to handle themselves properly. Most police officers I've encountered seem, by contrast, very alive to the pressures that might make motorists break speed limits, take ‘phone calls while driving or commit other offences. That was certainly the message of the behaviour of the BTP officers I observed. The motorist rule-breaking that they ignored posed some significant threats to others. The cyclist they pursued was riding against the lights across a junction unoccupied by motorists or pedestrians.

Such attitudes, nevertheless, aren’t immutable, to judge by the history of London's Gay Pride march. When the march was first held in 1969 – at a time when nothing the organisers advocated was illegal – police officers accompanying the parade disgracefully barracked those taking part. A contingent of gay police officers, in uniform, takes part in the march now. Cyclists face far less pervasive discrimination than gay people – but a similarly comprehensive revolution in attitudes is required.

The effects of the current attitudes came home to me only last night as I cycled home. As I rode down a four-lane road, I spotted a white van speeding down the kerbside lane towards me, at high speed, illegally undertaking the vehicle in the offside lane. I swung in towards the kerb and stopped, the van only just missing me. When I saw the vehicle again at the next traffic lights, the driver shouted, “Sorry about that, mate”. When I pointed out that he was driving illegally and dangerously, he retorted that I, riding around a metre from the kerb, was to blame for “riding in the middle of the road”.

The driver involved poses a clear danger to cyclists. A rational system, aimed at reducing road deaths, would seek to discourage such driving. A serious approach to complaints from cyclists would be a step in that direction.

That, however, is utterly at odds with the approach of any police force I’ve encountered. There was no prospect, I realised, that the police would take any action against the driver. I decided against even trying to photograph the offending vehicle for fear of provoking another assault that the police would also ignore.

The driver involved might well one day soon kill a cyclist. An open police approach to tackling driving like his might conceivably have encouraged me to report him and led to his behaviour’s being addressed. For the moment, however, it remains far easier to chase after and catch a handful of slow-moving, vulnerable cyclists than tackle the sheer, overwhelming volume of motor vehicle misbehaviour.


  1. Ignorance and misconception are certainly the challenges. Try asking a roomful of cyclists, drivers, and police the following three questions:

    1. Should cyclists should ride against traffic?
    2. Should cyclists negotiate busy junctions any way they can to be safe and efficient, including running the light or rolling past stop signs, similar to pedestrians?
    3. Do cyclists belong on the road?

    Experienced cyclists will answer these differently from everyone else. I like these apparently obvious, open-ended questions not because I think I know The Truth about them, but because they uncover an essential point: until we reach a common agreement on these questions which is understood by all users of the roads, and enforced by the police, there's not much hope for civil and safe streets for cyclists. My starting point for the discussion following the questions, in my jurisdiction, is that the existing laws should be understood by all and enforced evenhandedly, and that we need to buttress them with strict motorist liability and vulnerable user laws which are also enforced.

    1. John Romeo Alpha,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you that all road users should follow the existing rules (as I argue here: But there is a huge problem of mutual misunderstanding. And, for the moment, many police forces are exacerbating it, rather than alleviating it.

      All the best,


  2. Another great post. Congratulations on such an interesting, in-depth blog. It's exactly the sort of bike blog I was looking for last year, one that goes beyond the surface and the usual arguments to look at cycling from a philosophical/sociological point of view and also reflects on how and why cycling is such an important part of one's identity, way beyond just another mode of transport. When I couldn't find one, I decided to write my own, on a very very small scale. But lo and behold, last month I came across yours!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Our Bicycle Lives. I used to write a lot about transport policy and found myself writing about the philosophy of cycling when riding around. Then I finally started writing them down. Your blog looks nice too. I'm going to try to add it to the list of blogs I like at the side of my front page.

  3. I'm still thinking about this post. One reason is when I expressed milder sentiments at the LAB Blog in March, Comment 29 suggested censorship (actually deletion) of same. Your analogies have, IMO, much validity. But we should be cautious about the danger of the limits of drawing lessons from history.

  4. I'm not sure if you've already discussed this idea somewhere, but I suspect that one reason why some motorists resent cyclists being on the roads is that such cyclists threaten to make driving immoral.

    There's an analogy with smoking here. If smokers only damage their own health, then let them puff away, many say. But in situations where second-hand smoke harms others, smoking should be banned. Of course in a room where everyone is smoking, second-hand smoke isn't a moral concern, since the victims are also the perpetrators. It's only the presence of wimpy non-smokers in the room that creates a moral problem. Think of such a room of happy smokers, puffing away merrily, until some killjoy comes in without a cigarette and starts coughing.

    On the roads, each car driver creates risk for other road users. In most contexts, imposing risks on others is illegal. What makes it ok on the roads is that everyone is doing it to everyone else, so it's fair. Oh wait. Cyclists "consume" motorists' second-hand risk, but don't produce any (substantial) risk themselves. A cyclist is like a non-smoker, coughing in a smoke-filled room. Get them out! Make them wear a respirator (helmet)! (Etc.)

    1. Richard Johns,

      Thank you so much for your comment, which is all the more appreciated for being so thoroughly in the spirit of what I'm trying to do with this blog. I did previously examine the fundamental question of whether someone trying to pursue the traditional philosophical goal of "the good life" should cycle. That included a glancing (but not very full) reference to th idea that one of cycling's virtues was that it largely didn't endanger other people. The post is here - . I like, however, your idea that the issue is assymetric risk-causing. It does capture very well something about what irritates drivers about being around cyclists.


    2. Yes, it's only part of the story. The general human tendency to be suspicious of outsiders who are different is probably more significant.

      BTW I'm a philosopher too! (Mostly philosophy of science, but I am trying to write an ethics paper, a critique of the present safety culture.)

    3. Well, it sounds, Richard Johns, as if your study of philosophy rather trumps the first arts moral philosophy course I took at St Andrews University nearly 25 years ago. I'll need to watch that I don't write anything too manifestly ridiculous on the subject.

      You're quite right that people's suspicion of those who are different is a key issue in what turns people against cyclists. By far the most popular post on this blog (with about four times as many views as the next most popular) continues to be the one where I made that very argument. It's here:

      All the best,


  5. Excellent post.

    There is an elephant in the room that no-one is mentioning. Which is that the majority of policemen are cnuts whether you're a cyclist or not.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Simon - but I'm disinclined to generalisation about pretty much any group. Some of the policemen I've encountered have tried to be nice about things (I think of the one who encouraged me to claim the cost of a new lock from the police after the Met took away my old bike from the area round parliament where you're not allowed to lock your bike but there's nothing to tell you).

      There are undoubtedly problems with police culture (persistent racism springs to mind). But I do think they have a particular neuralgia about cyclists - and that something needs to change.

  6. I believe that the vast majority of people go into law enforcement with the most noble motives.

    However, your experience of negligence of their job and occasional outright hostility towards potential victims is appalling, but common in the cycling blog world.

    Recent findings paint an even darker picture, however:

    I am quite embarrassed and ashamed, but we must bravely confront the truth rather than to cover things up and let the damage continue.

  7. Just found your excellent blog and am slowly working my way through past posts. But I think there is one powerful factor at work which I don't think has been mentioned (although maybe in an earlier post): namely the psychological effect of feeling 'cut-off' from the 'real' world when you sit inside your own, sealed bubble of tin and glass, looking 'out' at everyone else.

    As a momentary aside, it is precisely the intimate contact with the real world that is one of the attractions of cycling for me: hearing the birds, people, music through a window, smelling the grass and the trees, feeling the wind and the rain, actually having to work muscles to make progress, yadayada. (Even more, cycling in the country is remarkable because many birds and animals are not disturbed by a bike like they would be even by a footfall.)

    In contrast, being in a car or van is almost like watching TV through the windows, especially if you are providing your own music, a warm, dry, temperature-controlled environment, wearing clothing inappropriate for the 'real' weather, moving at an unnatural, effortless speed and especially if you have a distracting objective, like getting to work on time. There is a disconnect here that I think is profound. You see people in cars stuck in traffic doing things as if they were invisible: picking noses, squeezing spots, repairing makeup, stuffing their faces, quite apart from the occasional unmentionable activities that you see as you pass by on a bike because you can look down as well as in. :-o They are briefly living in a fantasy that is bounded by the inside of their vehicle.

    All this isolation must, I think, affect the way drivers subconsciously think about the 'outside', when their meaningful world has shrunk to a personal bubble. As a cyclist, or a pedestrian, you're messing with their fantasy.

    All of which reminds me of an old joke that still tickles me. I hope you won't mind indulging me:

    A team goes on safari to trap a lion. They arrive in the African bush and set up the cage before discussing how to catch the beast. One of the team, a mathematician, thinks a bit then makes everyone get inside the cage. "There we are - finished!" he claims exultantly. "What?" "Well", says the mathematician, "what's the essence of capturing a lion? You divide the universe into two parts, one of which contains you and the other part which contains the lion. See? We've done that".

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Anonymous. The very first post on the blog talks a bit about how nice it is to be out feeling the wind on one's hands and so on. I've talked in some of the other posts about how people in cars feel the road is an extension of their private space, while actually it's the forum for some of our most complex social interactions.

      All of which is a long way of saying I agree with you. Being inside a car is an isolating experience and it's a big part of why drivers often seem to feel that the other road users around them aren't real.


  8. One clear detail is in the way a Police Officer opens a conversation with a member of the public. The range from "Excuse me sire but..." through to "Oi you!" can immediately set the manner of the ensuing exchange, and speak volumes of the prejudice of the Officer.

    The recent high profile case of Andrew Miller swearing at a Police Officer would have had to have an initial 'request' made by that Police Officer not to cycle through the gates on the carriageway. We've been treated at great length to the debat on what the reply to that 'request' was but have a surprising silence on the words that initially came from the Police Officer. I'd suspect that "Oi you, use the side gate" would have (justifiably) generated an equally couthy response.


Please feel free to leave civilised comments - positive or negative - here. I'll try to reply too.

Abusive comments will be moderated out and won't appear.