I had a conversation in the playground this week which was depressing, educational, annoying, bewildering and frustrating all at once. I learned a lot about how some drivers think. But I have no idea what to do with what I learned.
I was chatting with another couple of mums about close passes and Operation Close Pass. Incidentally, neither of these women ride bikes, and at least one of them has absolutely no idea why anyone would ever want to get on a bike. They both drive, although I mostly see them walking to and from the school.
Neither had heard of Operation Close Pass or the fact that 1.5 metres is considered to be the ‘safe’ passing distance between a bike and a vehicle. Here are some of their comments which depressed / educated / annoyed / bewildered / frustrated me:
- ‘Well, I would definitely get pulled over, I never give anywhere near 1.5 metres’ (said with a laugh)
- ‘What really annoys me is when I’m behind a cyclist and they pull out to go around a pothole – what if I’m pulling around them just then?’ (I did point out that if you pull around with 1.5 metre passing space, then this would not be a problem – even Edinburgh doesn’t have potholes 1.5 metres wide!).
- ‘They shouldn’t be on bikes in the winter, that’s just dangerous.’ (I did point out that I have ice tyres on my cargo bike in the winter which makes it far safer than my car which does not).
But the comment which really stayed with me was this:
‘I don’t mind cyclists on paths, but on the roads they just annoy me. I don’t know why, they just do.’
I pointed out the gridlock I passed (which I was merrily avoiding on the cycle path) around a series of junctions near me the day before. This gridlock is a daily occurrence and is caused by the sheer number of vehicles at certain times of the day. I pointed out that, while bikes are frequently regarded as a source of delays for drivers, there is never a bike at the front of any of these lines of traffic. This massive daily delay is caused by the sheer number of vehicles on the road. This was the reply:
‘Yeah, but it doesn’t annoy me as much when I get held up by other drivers because I can just shout at them from in my car. It’s only bikes which annoy me’
I was left wondering who these women thought they were talking to. They know that I cycle everywhere and that my life pretty much revolves around bikes. Their words terrified me because it was a blatant admission that the mere sight of a bike on a road causes them anger and aggression, which is then directed at the person on that bike.
The thing is, when they complained about bikes on the road, I don’t think that they were actually talking about me, despite the fact that they know I cycle everywhere. Because they know me. To them I am Diana; mum to Danny and Ellen, a bit of a scruff, usually early for pick up, slightly prone to ranting, slightly odd sense of humour. They see me as a person. But they see strangers on bikes as ‘that bloody cyclist’. Not a person. Not a human. Not a person who they could kill or injure with their annoyance fuelled aggression.
This is a horribly dangerous attitude.
When we spend or lives surrounded by walls of brick, metal or cyberspace, we are disconnected from the people around us. Those ‘other’ people are just not quite real. Therefore driving at them because ‘they just annoy me’ is OK – it will teach them a lesson and serve them right for being annoying.
Or it might just kill them.
I am singling these two women out because the conversation with them was the inspiration for this post. But what really scares me is that they are not alone in their attitudes. I have long suspected that some drivers use their cars to dispense a kind of justice which they feel entitled to. This conversation just confirmed that suspicion.
The other thing which really alarmed me was just how bigoted this attitude is. Yet those who held these views could not hear anything wrong. Take the sentence ‘Cyclists just annoy me, I don’t know why’. Now substitute the word ‘cyclists’ with any of the following – women, Muslims, gays. I do not think many would dispute that this is now a completely unacceptable sentence to be uttered in 2019 (or indeed, any other year). Yet, when the minority targeted is cyclists, the view is nothing to feel ashamed of.
The thing is, ‘cyclists’ are not a minority group. They are not even a group. Some (like me) accept the term ‘cyclist’ with pride – being a cyclist is a part of their identity. Others reject the term completely and view themselves as people who ride bikes, but not cyclists. Why is it that someone who chooses to use a bike to get from A to B is seen as a cyclist and nothing more? Yet someone who chooses to use a car to get from A to B is not seen as a driver and nothing more. Why is it that those who play golf are not considered ‘those bloody golfers’?
It should not matter how people choose to travel, or how they choose to spend their leisure time. We all have families and lives and loves and identities. Nobody should be defined by one thing and condemned for it.
So, how can these attitudes be changed? Nothing I said made a difference to these two women (in fact, one of them has not spoken to me since).
When I ride my bike, I do not think I own the roads or the paths. I do not think I am more entitled that anyone else. I do not think that everyone should be forced to ride a bike (although I do think that those who want to ride bikes should be encouraged and enabled to do so). I do not think cars should be banned. I do not want to annoy anyone and I try to be respectful of other road and path users. Actually, I do not really even want to spend as much time as I do thinking about this (and ranting about it).
I just want to get to where I need to go safely.
Is that too much to ask?