|A KLA policeman: tellingly, not looking eager
to tackle Kosovo's traffic culture problem
The following year, I was cycling through the centre of
, 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. Budapest
The incidents in Pristina and
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
|Budapest: beautiful - but one driver was
misinformed about my mother's personal hygiene
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. Hungary
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
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. Britain
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.