Monday 13 February 2012

Why no man is an island - even in his car

One day in 2001, I was standing by an intersection in Pristina, the monument to dingy Yugoslav urban design that serves as Kosovo’s capital. A souped-up saloon car squeezed inside a vehicle stopped by a set of traffic lights. Then, the moment the lights showed amber, the saloon car’s wheels screamed. It accelerated forward, then swung round in front of the other vehicle. The driver wanted to get ahead as the two cars turned left. The overtaking driver could easily have lost control of his vehicle and spun off the road; he could have hit the other driver as he swung round – and he moved himself only one place up a line of traffic that was probably just going to join a traffic jam further on.
A KLA policeman: tellingly, not looking eager
to tackle Kosovo's traffic culture problem

The following year, I was cycling through the centre of Budapest, then my home city, when a car cut suddenly across my path. Shocked and thinking the driver might simply not have seen me, I slapped a side panel of his car. When the window wound down, the stream of words that issued started “a büdös anyád” (your stinking mother). A general tone thus established, the driver went on to suggest that I shouldn’t be on the road - and that he was well within his rights to act like a homicidal maniac.

The incidents in Pristina and Budapest helped to germinate the seed of an idea that was already planted in my mind. I began increasingly to pay close attention to what light the culture of a country’s roads shed on its wider society. It was illuminating precisely because, to people sitting inside cars, using a road often feels like a purely private enterprise. On busy roads, it is in fact one of the most complex social interactions many human beings undertake.

Budapest: beautiful - but one driver was
misinformed about my mother's personal hygiene
It perhaps wasn’t surprising that Kosovo’s road culture was fairly nihilistic. On a previous visit to Kosovo, shortly after the 1999 war, I had found a farm in western Kosovo whose courtyard was scattered with human ashes and bodies left for the dogs. According to local Albanians, it was the aftermath of a massacre by Serb forces. By the time I saw the bad driving just under two years later, most Kosovo Serbs had left either because of revenge attacks or the expectation of them. The callousness towards others and contempt for the rule of law that had marred Kosovo’s recent history carried straight over, it seemed to me, to how people drove.

Hungary was nothing like as damaged a society as Kosovo – despite the horrors of decades of first right-wing dictatorship and then Communism. But I would regularly report on the miserable living conditions of those who lived in dirty hovels on the edges of towns or run-down bits of Budapest – the country’s gypsies. My experience with the angry motorist – and the boorish tendency of drivers of the most powerful cars on the country’s motorways to drive at speeds that seriously endangered older, slower-moving cars – suggested vulnerable road users attracted similar contempt.

But in Hungary, Kosovo and many other long-misgoverned parts of the world, decades of misrule have discredited both the rule of law and any sense of a wider social good. In such societies, it became heroic to defy even good laws because those imposing them were so distrusted. The negative examples nevertheless suggest something about how road users should conduct themselves in healthier societies. Members of a well-ordered society abide not just by its agreed laws but also by the higher principle that they seek, as far as possible, to respect each other’s interests. They pay particular attention to the interests of the most vulnerable, who are least able to stand up for themselves. They restrain their exercise of their own rights to enhance others’ ability to enjoy theirs.

So we shouldn't be constantly worrying, it seems to me, what others might do to us if we break the rules or behave discourteously. We should all be thinking what our behaviour says about ourselves and our society. If we behave rudely or flout the rules, even if it does no direct harm, we tell those that see us that we are uninterested in their wellbeing. Every time we break road rules, we tell those that see us that we despise the rule of law generally. We’re slowly but surely corroding the bonds that ought to bind us together as a society – and as people who share the limited, precious space our society devotes to roads.

Those who regularly follow the developed world’s controversies over the role of cycling will by now think they know what’s coming. This could easily be the point where I start to bemoan the behaviour of some of my fellow cyclists, shaking my head metaphorically over how those that jump red lights, ride on pavements and so forth besmirch the good name of the rest of us.

My point is, I hope, a bit more subtle. To protect vulnerable road users, it's vital to pay most attention to the vehicles that do most harm. Politicians, police forces and journalists in many countries express outrage at cyclists’ alleged general disrespect for the law. But the less conspicuous law-breaking of motor vehicle drivers – the breaking of speed limits, the driving while distracted by a telephone and the contempt for measures meant to keep cyclists safe – kills thousands of people each year in most developed countries. Many motorists would be surprised how often their fellow motorists even ignore red lights - the failing often, in Britain at least, assumed to be particular to cyclists. I have twice narrowly avoided cars that were simply driving too fast to spot stop lights when I was heading across their paths. The depressing reluctance of many police forces to regard such behaviour as serious and criminal surely leaves vulnerable road users who try to stand up for their rights more exposed.

But there is no point pretending that some cyclists’ behaviour contributes nothing to the malaise. As I argued in a previous blog, cyclists generally harm no-one but themselves if they run red lights, ride on pavements or head the wrong way up a one-way street. Yet motorists or pedestrians seeing such behaviour must surely, to some extent, feel freer to disregard the rules or behave intolerantly themselves. Cyclists have so much potentially to gain from an improvement in road culture that it is surely worth each cyclist’s pondering which way his or her behaviour shifts the delicate balance between tolerance and intolerance on the roads.

It will not solve everything for cyclists to follow the rules. I have previously argued – and still believe – that much anti-cyclist behaviour stems from a simple irritation at cyclists’ choice of an obviously different way of doing things. I have also often been abused for alleged rule breaking when riding (perfectly properly) on on-pavement cycle paths or using one-way streets with a contraflow cycle lane. Some motorists fly into a rage at seeing a cyclist pulling ahead of them into the boxes that are meant to let cyclists leave traffic lights in most British cities ahead of the cars.

But there is a tendency on the part of all road user groups to criticise others for their failure to adhere to the fixed rules of the road – then make up their own minds which rules seriously apply to them. It is a system few people think appropriate with regard to the rules about assault or theft – and one that is no more appropriate about the rules for how people share the roads. Consequently, when I get on board my bike today, I will be looking out for - and trying to obey - traffic lights, one-way street signs and all the other myriad traffic symbols I see about me. It may not directly make my day better. It may not even make me directly safer. But it will reflect my conviction that, because my actions affect a far wider circle of people than myself, I have to respect the only commonly-agreed set of rules that we have.


  1. "Do motorists take their cue to break the rules partly from cyclists?" - In my opinion, no.

    If their were no bikes on the road motorists would still speed, jump red lights, talk/tweet on the mobile, and break the 'lesser' highway code rules such as entering yellow boxes etc.

    In cities especially, driving isn't fun, you are stuck in traffic watching the time tick away and the lights turn red in-front of you.

    Anger towards cyclists is purely out of frustration that they are moving faster and keep over taking you when you have just put your foot down to get past them in the first place.

    When a cyclist breaks 'the code' the motorists use this to justify their feelings.

    Maybe if all cyclists stuck to the rules motorists would find it harder to blame them for the jam they find themselves in. But it wouldn't stop motorists breaking the rules.

  2. VC,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I entirely agree that motorists would still break the rules if there were no cyclists. They would also remain much the most important source of risk on the roads. I wasn't arguing otherwise. I said only that motorists and pedestrians seeing cyclists breaking rules must "to some extent, feel freer to disregard the rules or behave intolerantly themselves". I think everyone has a responsibility to create a culture where we abide by common, agreed rules. Cyclists' rule-breaking is far less dangerous than motorists, so there's less moral obligation on cyclists, I think. But cyclists as a group also have a great deal to gain if people follow rules more.

    All the best,

    Invisible Visible Man.

    1. Interesting to read your comments about Kosovo. I was in Bosnia in 2000, and was struck by how well-mannered the motorists were. True, there were very few cars. Walking through Sarajevo one evening I came to a crossroads with traffic lights but no traffic except for one solitary police car, its blue light flashing, patiently waiting for the green light.

      Bosnia, at that time, seemed very keen on following the rule of law, perhaps in expiation for the horrors of war.

    2. snibgo,

      What a very interesting comment. I've actually spent considerably more time in Bosnia than in Kosovo and, now you come to mention it, I can't think of a hair-raising peacetime roads story. I did have have a very scary bus journey with a bunch of refugees from Tuzla to Split during the closing days of the war. But that was scary because the bus had to go on forest tracks at points to avoid sniper fire, many of the bridges along the Neretva Valley had been blown up and the Bosnian Croat police wanted to harass my fellow passengers.

      I'm going to use this opportunity, however, to join my opinions on two areas - traffic culture and the origins of the Yugoslav wars. I'm going to say the traffic culture in Sarajevo reflects the fundamentally tolerant, liberal ethos of the city, which barbaric Serb then Croat ethnic nationalists set about destroying. I certainly have a vague feeling the driving in Banja Luka was worse than that in Sarajevo.

      How does that theory sound to you?

  3. I missed Banja Luka, but spent some time in nearby (largely Bosniak) Bosanska Krupa. Traffic there was worse than Sarajevo or Mostar, but perhaps merely because there was more of it. The coast road up through Croatia was horrendous, with suicidal and murderous traffic.

    My previous visit to the area was Belgrade in 1978, where I found the people very friendly and welcoming, as the Bosnian people were in 2000. I can't draw accurate conclusions from my own experiences, but I hope Sarajevo has retained its "tolerant liberal ethos" that I found, and that the country can find some kind of peace from its present schizophrenic nature.

    1. Well, I share your hope for peace in Bosnia - but I've feared from the start that the Dayton peace agreement is the wrong vehicle to bring it.
      Thanks again for your comments,

  4. "It was illuminating precisely because, to people sitting inside cars, using a road often feels like a purely private enterprise."

    Quite. Recalling also the BMA "ban smoking in cars" press release, last November. The outraged response was generally that the interior of a moving car was a private space.

    Its a shame that the very notion of a motorist's private space wasn't debated or further ruminated on by the media, at the time.

  5. The last time I (cycling) ran a red light, I was virtually forced-to by a following car !

    Approaching traffic-lights that had been green for a long time, with cars waiting in the side-road, I heard a car behind me accelerating towards me. Rather than watching the pretty coloured lights in case they changed, I looked back over my shoulder at the (potentially-) homicidal maniac with a lethal weapon.

    He cut back in behind me and did a sudden stop. As I turned back to face forwards, I saw the lights change from amber to red, just as I shot through. I was accelerating away from the car behind, rather than braking. I slowed to let the car from the side-street pull out in front of me, then continued across the junction to clear it, rather than stopping in the middle where I couldn't see the lights.

    I bet the driver behind said 'bl**dy dangerous cyclist - just ignored the red lights' !

    I have worked out that my safety consists of getting cars safely past me. I'm no racer, and much of Northampton believes you _have_ to drive between 30 and 35 mph. So I never 'filter' between lanes to the advanced stop line - I wouldn't want them to overtake me again, doubling the risk.

    Oddly I get some of the worst reactions when I am behaving at my best ! eg Where there were 3 lanes queueing at lights, I stopped in the centre lane (centred on the left wheels of the car in front). In bottom gear, I can accelerate across a junction much like the average motorist (same power/weight ratio). Even so, since no-one was using the left lane I moved left into it to allow cars to pass unimpeded (for 10 feet until they had to brake to avoid rear-ending the car in front). Perfect, amicable behaviour, not taking unfair advantage of my size and mobility.

    Oddly, the passenger wound down the window and leaned out as they passed, screaming "Pushbike wanker !!"
    I suspect he may have intended to slap me in passing, but my moving left foiled that. Last time I was assaulted like that, I started carrying a metal bar of throwable size for just one route, but you need a good 'exit strategy' to deploy a missile safely.

    One problem is that motorists say cyclists are untrained, but when we follow the training (assertive positioning) they threaten us physically - "Get out of my way or I'll hit you!"
    There's a disconnect there. I worry that "Be assertive, but be prepared to give way ..." ends up training drivers "It's OK to drive at cyclists - they will get out of your way !" So far I've mostly managed to hold my line until the motorists give way, but "playing chicken" can get stressful, to say the least.

  6. PS Advanced Stop Lines for cyclists would only be safer if we also had 'Advanced Go Lights' for cyclists ! I believe that's why they work in NL and DK. Typical of UK only to implement the dangerous half of the solution, not the beneficial part !

    1. Eric,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I've argued before (as in this post - that motorists' anger with cyclists is entirely unrelated to how cyclists behave. If people were angry at bad road behaviour, they'd be far more angry than they are at the behaviour of motor vehicles (since motor vehicles were involved in 99.92 per cent of road fatalities from 2008 to 2010). Anti-cyclist anger is pretty much entirely an artifact of angry people's feelings, rather than anything to do with cyclists.

      As for the advance stop lights, I have to say I'm a little sceptical. The problem, it seems to me, is that they work only if cyclists can get to the head of the queue of traffic. As you point out, since it's currently effectively impossible in many circumstances to reach the advance stop area, I can't see how cyclists would actually be able to start earlier under most circumstances. Without proper enforcement, the lights would quickly come to be disregarded as comprehensively as advance stop lines are at the moment. Motorists would simply go on the cycle signal, rather than waiting.

      You are, finally, entirely right about the problem of riding as training suggests one should. Motorists frequently get very aggressive if one occupies the lane fully, as one's meant to do where overtaking would be dangerous. It's one of many areas in UK cycling policy where there is a need both for police forces to protect cyclists by prosecuting illegal driving and for a proper public information campaign about how to drive round cyclists.

      Neither, unfortunately, is even approaching the horizon,


  7. A cycling advocate I used to know said that all road users (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians) will break traffic laws when three conditions are met:

    1. It's convenient for them to do so.
    2. They don't think it will hurt anyone.
    3. They don't think they're likely to be caught and punished.

    I've read the argument that given that no category of road users has a monopoly on unlawful behavior, the animosity between groups may actually be based on the perception of outgroup status. Unfortunately, that suggests that behaving lawfully may not improve relations much. Still, I think it's worth doing, for a variety of reasons.

    1. QMacrocarpa,

      Thank you for your comment. I think you're quite right that good behaviour doesn't help much. I do my best to follow the rules fastidiously and still get all manner of grief from motorists. Your list of circumstances where people will misbehave also strikes me as very credible.

      The big reason why people should follow the rules, of course, is that people are selfish in their assessments of when they're unlikely to hurt someone else - and insufficiently cautious in their assumptions about what others will do. So people see that it's convenient for them to do something and assume, lazily, that no-one else will emerge unexpectedly or behave in an unexpected fashion. It doesn't work out that way and it's a big reason why people get hurt and killed.

      All the best,


    2. You're more likely to hurt someone in ALL scenarios when driving 1000kg+ of metal. So saying 'all road users' as if 'all' road users are the problem, is a fallacy. I might break minor road rules (whilst being an advanced urban cyclist) but it's nothing to do with being punished, it's only when it's safe to do so for everyone and a cost-benefit WIN. I can calculate that accurately, unlike some. That's why most of the time I err on the side of caution, as driver or cyclist, it's the best policy. I think about the best policy. Not how to get somewhere 5% faster and how I must stress ever forward to jump to my master's bidding. I think THERE lies the real root problem with motorists behaviour - living life too fast and their brains not being able to keep up - certainly not in a civilised manner.
      Didn't someone say that back in the early 20th Century, when low speed limits were de rigeur? Wasn't he laughed at, certainly some decades later when fast driving became the norm?
      More fool the detractors, not him!

  8. I agree that we don't always think through how an action might hurt someone else. Here in St. Louis MO where I bike (and do my best to follow the rules of the road), cyclists roll through stop signs quite frequently. It's so common, in fact, that it's become impossible for a cyclist approaching a stop sign to behave both lawfully and predictably. You pretty much have to choose one or the other. I stop all the time, and I find that drivers already waiting at four-way stops routinely hesitate to take the right of way because they expect me not to stop. That might seem like a small problem, but my husband has experienced a different effect of the "cyclists-don't-stop" assumption: he was rear-ended by another cyclist at a stop sign. I worry about being rear-ended by a driver. I'm sure those rolling through stop signs think that they are not hurting anyone (that's the view of ethicist and New York cyclist Randy Cohen, linked below), but by making law-abiding cyclists less predictable, they increase the risks we experience.

    1. QMacrocarpa,

      First of all, my heart is warmed by the thoughtful nature of your comments. Thank you. I'll try to find time to look up that NYT piece too.

      You're quite right that people almost don't expect cyclists to stop. I realised that in July when I was first cycling in my new home city of New York. I was drawing up to a red light, a woman was crossing with her son, she looked up, saw an approaching cyclist and grabbed her son out of my path, assuming I was going to mow him down. I was indeed going to stop but felt mortified that this was her expectation.

      As for other cyclists' reaction, I regularly find other cyclists swarming round me or pushing to get past at lights. It's frustrating. I once accidentally knocked off another cyclist who swung past me through lights just as the lights changed. She was a cycle courier and good enough to admit it was her fault. A few weeks after that, I got knocked off, fairly painfully, by another cyclist who was running a red light. He pleaded that he hadn't seen me. I pointed out there was a red light to prevent such incidents. So your husband has my full sympathy.

      All the best,



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